Derek and I rode the Alpine Trail Loop outside of St. Elmo, Colorado about 16 years ago and remembered how cool it was so we decided to ride it again. Our loop was 20.5 miles with 2890′ of climbing reaching a high point of 12320′. We waited for a day when there was zero chance of thunderstorms because the singletrack gets up above treeline for a good portion of the ride.
We started off riding up the old historic railroad grade road up until we got to the Alpine Tunnel Trailhead. This trail takes you right past Sawmill Curve which is was one of the most dangerous sections of track on the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad track. Back in 1905 engine No. 72 “got away” on the curve, derailed, and overturned 14 cars loaded with coal. Continuing on the trail we came to the west portal of the tunnel. Some history:
Begun in January 1880 and completed in July 1881, the Alpine Tunnel became the first to bore through Colorado’s portion of the Continental Divide. This was the highest and most expensive tunnel built up until that time. It is more than two miles above sea level, with its highest point at 11,523.7′. Ultimately, the tunnel cost around $300,000, far exceeding original budget estimates of $120,000 and making it the most expensive narrow-gauge railroad tunnel in the world to date. The east portal of the tunnel has collapsed and the west portal has been covered by landslides.
The eighteen-month construction of the Alpine Tunnel was neither easy nor cheap. More than 10,000 men ultimately labored to complete the tunnel, with a crew of 400 working at any one time. Depending on their jobs, men made anywhere from $3.50-$5.00 a day which was exceptional for the time. Still, the work was so difficult that few lasted longer than a month. Due to crumbling granite in the tunnel, over 400,000 board feet of California redwood was required to support and encase 80% of it. West of the tunnel, workers had to lay track along a section of steep rocky cliffs known as the Palisades.
We turned left onto the Colorado Trail and climbed steeply to a saddle, having to hike through one snow bank. Here we decided to drop all the way down the other side of the mountain to the historic Alpine Tunnel west portal. When is the last time you got to explore an entire historical “town” without anyone else around? We had the place to ourselves since it is so hard to get to! The Alpine Tunnel Station Historic District consists of a sprinkling of buildings including the Telegraph office, boarding house, old engine house, rail track, and the turntable which was operated by hand!
Climbing back up to the saddle was no easy task and back on the Colorado Trail we rode across mountains on singletrack riddled with rocks, across streams, by a lake, and through impressive terrain. It’s just so big up there. Everywhere you look is forest and beauty. The riding is tough at that high altitude but very rewarding. Towards the end of the ride the trail switchbacks down down down through fast rolling trail. The only bummer is that the very last part of the loop is on a dirt road descent. I’d much rather finish on trail, but oh well. This ride was as fun and challenging as we remembered!