Bikepacking the Needle’s Eye

“This is what I would call type-two fun” Craig said as we crawled up Rollins Pass, a gray dust-and-water paste forming between our chain links, causing a rhythmic creak with each pedal stroke. We had just departed the Moffat Tunnel on a three-day bikepacking trip in the middle of an afternoon shower that threatened a damp first night on the trail.

A few days prior, I’d met up for beers with Craig – a good friend and backcountry enthusiast – to hammer out the specifics of the bikepacking trip we’d been floating for months. The plan was simple: ride from Rollinsville, Colorado up and over the collapsed Needle’s Eye tunnel to Corona Pass and descend into Winter Park. We would camp halfway up Rollins Pass on Friday, finish the climb and descend singletrack into Winter Park the next morning, then retrace our tracks on Sunday. What minimal planning we did included a who-takes-what inventory, as well as pinpointing a few general locations for water stops and possible campsites. The unknowns made the anticipation greater. With building anticipation, we strapped our bikes to the roof and snaked our way up Highway 119 to Rollinsville.

Day One: Up Rollins Pass

As we cinched our drybags to the bikes and set out, a steady sprinkle was busy turning the rough 4×4 road into a puddle-dodging exercise. Craig snugged down the custom framebag he’d assembled to house a water bladder to his Kona Process while I loaded a few final essentials into a Revelate Designs frame and seatbags. We rolled away from the car grinning like idiots at the rain that was beginning to soak through our bags – and at how little we cared.

The first nine miles were a slow uphill grind, an occasional lone truck appearing behind us and disappearing into the fog around the next switchback with the clunk of a gearbox in distress. We reached the turnoff for Jenny Creek with relative ease, but our plan to ride up the Jenny Creek Trail to the first mountain lake was interrupted by unforgiving grades and loose boulders that made for contentious riding. Backtracking to a forest road we’d passed previously, we set up camp for the night in a small space off the trail just before the sun dropped below the trees.

Craig pushes his bike up Jenny Creek trail

Night one is always a challenge – a combination of fatigue, excitement and a questionably-level footprint made for a night of interrupted sleep. We awoke to blue skies and quickly broke camp while we waited for the Trangia to finish boiling a liter of water. The GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip Coffee Maker – which produces a decent cup if you’re willing to lug the grounds along – was a lifesaver after a night of less-than-optimal sleep. Around 8 AM, we backtracked to Rollins Pass to complete the climb up to the continental divide.Craig enjoying Rollins Pass

Day Two: Corona Descent & Winter Park Singletrack

The temperature dropped with each vertical foot as a cold mist formed up the road ahead of us. Craig and I threw on our jackets, pausing only briefly to refuel and make a few adjustments. We watched fog roll perpendicular to the road, descending into Jenny Lake before dissipating. The blue skies we’d enjoyed that morning had gradually devolved into a warning of what lurked behind the 11,600-foot summit.

We soon reached the Needle’s Eye tunnel, which was closed in 1990 after the 121-year-old structure was deemed unsafe following a collapse-related injury. A hike-a-bike traverse over the top was punctuated by a pucker-inducing climb down the back side to meet back up with Corona pass.

Watching the weather change on Rollins Pass

Beyond the tunnel were two dilapidated wood rail trestles, suspended in the mist over hundred-foot drops, with weather obscuring what would otherwise be a harrowing view down the side of the mountain. We turned the last corner around the second trestle and were greeted by high-speed winds and cold rain. Our frigid descent down the top length of Corona Pass was unremarkable, the highlight being a short stop to warm our hands and add an additional layer. In these conditions, the Surly Longsleeve Wool Zip Jersey was a lifesaver as we picked our way down the back side of the mountain.

It’s a pause button for everyday life, a suspension and replacement of reality with something more pure.

The cold, wet descent was quickly forgotten when we dipped below 10,000 feet. The rain finally stopped, and we reached our singletrack detour at Broken Thumb Trail. The trails were in prime condition having just soaked up the morning’s rain, the lush green surroundings a welcome sight compared to the barren stretches of forest road we’d just finished climbing. The combination of the Surly’s 3″ tires and loaded pack put the bike on rails through the corners, but a touch of mechanical brakes was a quick reminder I was carrying more than 20 lbs of gear and needed a few extra feet to make some of the turns.

A few unintentional detours later, Craig and I emerged from the woods of Winter Park to a festival playing downtown. The sounds of The Bloodhound Gang’s “Bad Touch” shattered the illusion of solitude we’d created for ourselves over the past two days. We spent a few hours refueling, filling up on hot coffee and drying our soggy gear in the scattered afternoon sun. As dusk neared, we crawled up Vasquez road back into Arapahoe National Forest to find a campsite just off the road near a creek. We had just unpacked the first of our gear when the crack of thunder signaled another torrent of rain that promptly soaked everything we’d just attempted to dry. We spent the remainder of the evening laughing, searching for trees to hang our wet clothes and drinking a few tall boys we’d stashed on the way out of town.

Day Three: A Return to Real Life

We slept like rocks on the second night and awakened to a cloudless blue sky. While breaking camp, we debated our chances – after two straight days of rain, would mother nature finally cut us a break? We left our site around 7:45, eager to beat whatever storm may or may not give our gear another thorough soaking. A quick stop at Caffe Giocondo, two Americanos and cinnamon roll later, we set out to climb back up Corona Pass.

The weather held all the way to the top of Corona Pass, and we were finally treated to the views of the Continental Divide that we’d expected while planning this trip. Only a few clouds moved across an otherwise bluebird sky as we rode back up the pass, stopping occasionally to refuel and adjust the bags and straps that had removed generous portions of paint from our frames over the past two days. We reached the trestles by 11:45 AM, and spent plenty of time documenting the moment now that the fog had lifted.

 

The descent back to Rollinsville was relatively painless, but we were both shelled from the last few days and there was celebration at the first glimpse of the Moffat Tunnel. We’d only been traveling for three days, but the prospect of returning to real life the following day already felt foreign. Long days in the saddle and sleepless nights in the woods shifts your perspective of time, place and purpose in a way that can’t fully be explained. It’s a pause button for everyday life, a suspension and replacement of reality with something more pure. Each trip is a reminder that bikepacking is not about the gear, route or even the destination, but the liberation that comes from slowing down and spending time with friends in a setting that reminds you there’s always something out there to be explored.

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  1. Pingback: How to pack for bikepacking – Garret Schmidt | Bicycles & Adventure

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