With the sheer number of trails available to the people in the Denver metro area, it can sometimes be difficult to choose one. The Forest Lakes Trail with optional extensions to the Needle Eye Tunnel and Rollins Pass from the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel continues to be an excellent option. This hike has rewards very early with beautiful wildflowers and lakes tucked away in an enchanted forest and open views above treeline if you were to continue running or hiking higher up the ridge. With the varied views of wildlife, flowers, streams, forest, lakes, historical sites, and open vistas, this trail is bound to have something for everyone.
The trail begins at the Moffat Tunnel, which is a railroad and water tunnel that penetrates the Continental Divide in the Front Range just west of Boulder. This tunnel was named after the railroad pioneer David Moffat and was opened to railroad traffic in early 1928. Completing the tunnel finally gave Denver access to the western side of the divide to rail traffic, which Cheyenne to the north and Pueblo to the south already thoroughly enjoyed.
The water tunnel transports 1,280 cubic feet of water per second from the western watersheds to the Denver area. Most of the flowing water in the tunnel actually crosses the Continental Divide three separate times, originating first from the Williams Fork collection system under the divide through the Gumlick Tunnel under Jones Pass into the Clear Creek Basin. This water then crosses north across the divide through the Vasquiz Tunnel into the Fraser River Valley and then finally flows through the Moffat Tunnel.
Above the Moffat Tunnel is the old Rollins Pass Road that served as temporary rail access while the Moffat Tunnel was being blasted and constructed. Several tunnels and trestle bridges were required to safely pass over the mountains in the high country. After the Moffat Tunnel was completed, Rollins Pass Road was opened for public access as a gravel road for recreation. Rockfall in the Needle Eye Tunnel in 1979 eventually closed this road, which now can only access Rollins Pass from the west side. The east side can still be climbed by hikers over the tunnel for wonderful views and to see the old trestle bridges and the tunnel.
There is ample parking at the Moffat Tunnel East Portal, where two primitive toilets are provided to visitors. From the start of the trail, you travel west behind the tunnel and toward an intersection that allows you to go straight toward several lakes and Rogers Pass or right toward Forest Lakes and eventually Rollins Pass. Turn right and start the steep climb past the two Forest Lakes; wonderful wildflowers bloom here from late spring through midsummer. Expect to see dozens of Indian paintbrush, along with the occasional patch of yellow sulphurflowers (Eriogonum umbellatum), yellow golden banner (Thermopsis divaricarpa), bluebell bellflowers, and the unique Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerulea). Higher above treeline there exist some more unique flowers such as the purple fringe (Phacelia Sericea).
After passing the two lakes, continue climbing up until you arrive at the road. Turn left and start walking up through the rocks. Cars won’t be able to get much farther, so you shouldn’t have to fight for room on the road with anyone but occasional dirt bikes. Once you round the corner, a huge open view will welcome you above tree line. You can see the entire road from here all the way to the Needle Eye Tunnel from the previously accessible Rollins Pass Road. As you get higher, James Peak to your south will become a more prominent view. At the tunnel, this interesting engineering feat and wide open view can be reward enough, but you can also climb over the earth above the tunnel to access the road on the other side. If you continue along this way you can get a closer look at the railroad trestles that once carried freight across the divide with incredible views of the Kings Lake Basin and South Arapahoe Peak in the background. Continue back the way you came, or if you are feeling strong you can complete any number of extensions and loops from here down towards Rogers Pass or along the High Lonesome Divide.