Proposal for Rollins Pass reopening brings questions of safety, preservation

The log cribbing placed more than 150 years ago by John Quincy Adams Rollins to "help reduce the grade between the hills" is visible in this 2020 photograph. This could be part of the route proposed by off-roading groups to connect both sides of Rollins Pass.
Courtesy Kate and B. Travis Wright

Grand County commissioners want the US Forest Service to take a closer look at Boulder Wagon Road.

Following a proposal from a group of off-road enthusiasts asking the Boulder Ranger District to contemplate reopening Rollins Pass all the way through for motorized vehicles, commissioners have signed on to a letter supporting the effort — but also asking hard questions and correcting the record on a few of the points made.

On April 4, a letter representing the Colorado Offroad Trail Defenders, Mile Hi Jeep Club and Rollins Pass Restoration Association asked US Forest Service officials to reopen Forest Service Road 501.1, also known as Boulder Wagon Road, to public motorized travel between the Corona Pass Summit and Yankee Doodle Lake. This would bypass the Needle Eye Tunnel, which has been closed since 1990.

While county commissioners are in favor of reopening the pass to motorized use, Rollins Pass — also known as Corona Pass — carries a complex history with diverging views from a number of stakeholders.

A group of off-roaders are asking the US Forest Service to reopen the existing Boulder Wagon Road, outlined here in red, for public motorized use on Rollins Pass.
Provided to Grand County Commissioners

Commissioner Rich Cimino reached out to B. Travis Wright, a local Rollins Pass expert and president of the Grand County Historical Association, to get his input.

Wright came back with a three-page letter correcting some historical inaccuracies in the proposal and emphasizing a position for safety and preservation as reopening is considered.

According to the commissioners’ letter, the Grand County Historical Association decided to not issue a letter of support for this idea “as their board felt the historical significance of this proposal was being overlooked and because the area in question was located in Boulder County, not Grand County.”

Noting some inaccuracies from the off-roaders about the specifics routes and disagreeing with some of the claims made by the proposal, the commissioners’ letter agreed that the Forest Service will ultimately have to determine which pathway is best.

“… The Forest Service should consult archaeologists, area experts, as well as the (Colorado State Historic Preservation Office) for the preferred route,” the letter said.

The off-roaders’ proposal also suggests opening the trail to all vehicles to make the area eligible for Colorado Parks and Wildlife Off Highway Vehicle grants.

“… Such a proposed designation for all vehicles at this time seems to present more questions than answers, particularly since the grade in this area is steeper than many of San Francisco’s steep and paved streets,” the letter countered.

Additionally, the commissioners’ letter points out that reopening the pass would likely be more complex than the off-roaders’ proposal suggested. Beyond the paperwork and environmental analysis, the area will likely be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act.

The commissioners’ letter recommends partnering with local preservation commissions in Boulder and Gilpin counties, as the proposed route is located in Boulder County and will require access through Gilpin County, if it is to be re-established.

To conclude, the letter highlights a number of questions for the US Forest Service and others to consider. Specifically, the letter asks what service level the road will require, safety requirements related to the pipeline that crosses through the proposed route and safety issues with the steep grade.

The letter also calls for environmental analysis and historic preservation of the character-defining features of Rollins Pass and Old Wagon Road, as outlined by the National Register of Historic Places.

“As a county with 416 square miles of wilderness, we have witnessed that lack of a motorized access trail through accessible forest lands often leads to misuse and ad hoc trail creation,” the letter concludes. “… What can be done to both ensure safe motorized access while safeguarding history?”

The letter ends with commissioners’s hopes to visit the site later this year and support to seek additional information about the potential reopening of Boulder Wagon Road.

The commissioners unanimously approved signing the letter, though some language may be added to acknowledge Wright’s contributions to the letter.

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