This climb is excerpted from 100 Hikes in Colorado, by Scott S. Warren, published by The Mountaineers, Seattle. ©1995 by Scott S. Warren. All rights reserved.
For all their ruggedness, the Sawatch Mountains were far from impervious to man's endeavors during the nineteenth century. A good example of this is the old railroad grade that crosses the Continental Divide by way of the 2,161-foot-long Hagerman Tunnel. Representing the labor of hundreds of immigrant laborers, this tunnel was the highest railroad tunnel in the world at the time of its completion in 1887.
This hike starts on Hagerman Pass Road, which is near Turquoise Lake. From downtown Leadville drive a few blocks west for 7.5 miles, to the Colorado Mountain College. Follow this road west for 7.5 miles, past Turquoise Lake, to a rough but passable gravel road that bears left. This is Hagerman Pass Road (Forest Road 105); follow it 4.8 miles to the trailhead. Parking is available on the right and the trail takes off on the left.
At the trailhead be sure to read the interpretive sign, which describes the Colorado Midland Railroad and its successful attempt to cross the Continental Divide. Begun in the early 1880s, this was the first standard gauge railroad to traverse the Colorado Rockies. With only 350 miles of track, however, the venture never made money. The trail to the tunnel follows the old railroad grade for part of the way. At the start this means hiking through a lengthy cut in the bedrock. Old ties are strewn about, some still in place and others discarded to the side. A little over a mile from the start the grade reaches the first of two ravines that were once crossed by lengthy trestles. The Hagerman Trestle is no longer standing, but it is possible to visualize the 1,100-foot-long, 84-foot-high structures if it were still in place.
Where the trestle originally began the main trail drops down to continue along the railroad route. Instead of following the trail, take a sharp right onto an old road that provides a shortcut to the next curve above. In 0.25 mile this shortcut trail crosses the railroad grade and then reaches the old townsite of Douglass City. Once a camp for the mostly Italian workers who built the railroad and tunnel, Douglass City was as lively a community as any in the Rockies. Of course, it had its share of saloonseight in alland a dance hall, plus a post office. Today all that remains are some fallen-down log structures and scattered debris. From Douglass City climb directly to the railroad route above. In this next 0.5 mile you pass Opal Lake before reaching the final stretch of railroad, this approaches the tunnel entrance.
Like the trailhead and the Douglass City townsite, Hagerman Tunnel is accompanied by an interpretive sign which explains the excavation's engineering and historical significance. Completed in 1887, the 2,161-foot-long Hagerman Tunnel was actually in service for only a few years. In 1891 it was replaced by the much longer Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel, whose entrance you drove past on the way to the trailhead. Interestingly, the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel was converted to auto traffic in 1922 and did not close until 1943. Vehicles now cross the Divide by way of Hagerman Pass, which is located a few miles beyond the trailhead. The Hagerman Tunnel entrance is partially blocked by rockslides, but it is still possible to enter. It is not advisable to do so, though, do to safety concerns. Looking in from the outside you can see that snow and ice linger year-round in the tunnel's cool darkness.
So as not to miss other features of this hike, be sure to follow the railroad grade back down instead of taking the shortcut trail through Douglass City. Along the way the trail passes not only beautiful Hagerman Lake, but also the sites of thirteen different snowsheds. These structures fell down long ago, and very little evidence of their existence remains. Farther on, the trail passes the site of a second trestle that, like the Hagerman Trestle, has disappeared over the years. Within the next mile the railroad grade meets the shortcut trail below Douglass City. Turn left and follow it down to the start of the Hagerman Trestle. At this point turn left again to return to the trailhead.
Water is available along this hike, but must be treated before consuming. Lightning can be a problem, although this hike does not cross exposed terrain.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott S. Warren has been exploring Colorado for over 20 years, both on his own and in his earlier work for the U.S. Forest Service. An avid photographer, he holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from Utah State University. His images have appeared in Audubon, Outside, Sierra, Travel & Leisure, and various National Geographic publications.