As one of the few easily accessible routes through the Sawatch Range of Colorado, Cottonwood Pass is a great introduction to the beauty and adventure that awaits you. For two local Coloradoans - and adventurers like ourselves - we were surprised to hear about a scenic pass that would take us through the backwoods near Buena Vista (a town we have explored many times) to almost our new doorstep in Crested Butte.
So of course we seized the first chance we got to conquer the high mountain pass.
Historically, Cottonwood Pass has been in use since Native American times. Then came the miners and prospectors, who would use the trail to head deeper into the mountains in hopes of hitting it rich. Eventually, Robert Hughes improved the "road" and opened it as a toll road, where freight wagons and stagecoaches could use it to cross over the high mountains and head towards the town of Aspen. For a while, this was a happening area for people looking to head further into the backcountry. Soon enough small towns, like Harvard City, and rest stops, like Osborne’s Half-Way House*, started popping up along the road. *Mr. Osborne had a daughter who fell in love with a freighter named Joe Turnbull. But Osborne did not approve of Turnbull and after an argument, Turnbull shot and killed him before escaping over the pass. He was never caught.
For years the road was boggy and rough and often the only forms of transportation that could get across were horses, burros, and jeeps. In fact, in the 1940s and 50s, the road was a somewhat “popular” jeep road for people looking for a high mountain adventure. Including, Gib Gregg, the editor of the local paper, who would take trips over the pass in his trusty jeep Dusty - one of the first jeeps from WWII.
Cottonwood Pass wouldn’t be fully paved until just a couple years ago (the east side was paved up to the pass in the 1990s). After three years of work - widening the road and fully paving it - the pass opened in 2019 and became the second-highest paved pass in the country. Though even before that the pass was already well-ranked: it is still the highest paved road over the Continental Divide.
Today there are lots of beautiful and fun things to explore along the almost 58-mile route. Including, ghost towns, stunning mountain lakes, and hiking and biking trails.
Here are some of the best stops to check-out while driving the stunning road:
The start of the pass is in the scenic mountain town of Buena Vista. This is a great spot to fill up on gas, caffeine, and food. While the town is not very big, it does have its fair share of things to check out. Including, making a stop at Eddyline Restaurant and Brewery for some tasty beer and food, grabbing a cup of coffee at The Buena Vista Roastery Café, taking a short walk along the Arkansas River, and - if the weather and timing is right - heading out to the two hot springs on the outskirts of town: Cottonwood Hot Springs and Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort.
Once you get your fill of Buena Vista, head west out of town on Main Street, which eventually turns into County Road 306. You will drive through an open, sagebrush landscape for a bit before eventually reaching thick pine forest. Once you hit that boundary you will see the Cottonwood Hot Springs on your right and a couple rental cabins on the left. Just over a mile past that you will see the turn for County Road 344 and a sign for Cottonwood Lake.
Cottonwood Lake is a true hidden gem in Colorado. Though there is an established campground close to its western shore, there are also lots of backcountry camping areas (aka free spots) just a bit further down the road. This is an awesome spot to spend a nice summer or fall day, hiking around the area (the Colorado Trail is a couple miles away), fishing in the clear water, and even as a base for one of the many 14-ers you can climb nearby.
Once back on County Road 306, keep heading west - deeper into the mountains. You will pass a couple more trailheads along the way, including Avalanche Trailhead, which is a prime spot to hop on the Colorado Trail. Or a little bit further up, either pull off and explore the Denny Creek Trail or the Ptarmigan Lake Trail. Both are awesome ways to explore deeper in the Collegiate Range Mountains.
After taking a couple dozen turns you will eventually head into the tundra and leave the pine trees behind (tree line sits between 11,000 and 12,000 feet in Colorado). This is when you know you are getting close to the pass.
Soon enough you will top out and see a medium-sized parking lot on your left. This parking lot will give you some fantastic views of the surrounding peaks, including the ones you recently drove under and the ones you are about to explore. In the fall, there might even be some early season snow up here (or even some that didn’t melt from last season). If you have the time, and the gumption, we suggest hiking up to the viewpoint. The dirt trail* is roughly .7 miles long and will give you an even better vista of the surrounding peaks. *the trail is also a way onto the Continental Divide Trail, which crosses the state along the, you guessed it, Continental Divide.
Once over Cottonwood Pass, the road will become County Road 209 - this is because at the pass, not only does the water start running in different directions, but you also enter Gunnison County (before you were in Chafee).
Head down 209, taking more sharp switchbacks and turns before entering the forest once again. Now you have entered the Gunnison National Forest, meaning it is fair game (within reason) for free camping, ATV-ing, and mountain biking (all along already established dirt roads and trails of course). Soon enough you will start seeing dirt doubletracks splitting off the main highway and heading into the forest. If you have any inkling for exploring, this is the place to do it. And in our opinion, there is no better way to do that than on a mountain bike.
While there might not be a lot of singletrack in the area (if looking for that, keep heading west towards Crested Butte), there are PLENTY of awesome forest roads. Some of which lead to historic mining towns-turned ghost towns, like Abbeyville, unnamed mountain lakes, and through thick pine and aspen forests (which is superb come late September-early October).
Another can’t-miss-spot is Tin Cup, a small mountain town high up on one of the many dirt roads. While the heyday of the town, like many old mining towns in the state, has long since passed, this place has held on through the years and today is still a summer residence for various families.
The history of Tin Cup is quite extraordinary. It all started in October 1859, when prospector Jim Taylor panned some gold from nearby Willow Creek and carried it back to camp in a tin cup. He then proceed to name the valley “Tin Cup Gulch.” Years later a town was incorporated in the area, though it was named Virginia City. But, because there were already two other Virginia City’s (one in Montana and a more famous one in Nevada), they eventually changed the name to Tin Cup.
"And like many mining towns, Tin Cup was not a necessarily “nice” place to live: within two years two marshals were shot to death."
The town started to dry up once mining stopped being so lucrative, and by 1918 the post office closed its doors and the town held its last elections. Today, you can reach the town by Forest Road 765, which you intersect at Taylor Park Trading Post, right off County Road 209. While there aren’t many residents left in Tin Cup (and most of those residents are there solely in the summer) it is worth checking out for the multitude of historic buildings and maybe even stopping in for a snack at Frenchy’s Cafe on the Pond, a cute little restaurant in town.
Taylor Park Trading Post is a great spot to spend the night or to take a quick pit-stop at on your way to and from the pass. If you do plan to spend the night (and why not with amazing views like they have) there are cabins to rent and an RV parking area with hookups. They also have a café and trading post (general store) where you can get some food. Finally, you can even rent ATVs from them - perfect for exploring the nearby dirt roads.
Besides exploring the land by bike or ATV, you can also bring out your paddleboards or kayaks and adventure around Taylor Park Reservoir - a 2,000 square foot man-made lake. If you don’t have your own water vehicle, you can rent boats at the Taylor Park Marina, a full service spot with boat rentals, fishing equipment, camping supplies, a bait shop, liquor store and restaurant.
Once you pass the reservoir you enter Taylor Canyon, where you will follow Taylor River the whole way down to the tiny town of Almont. This part of the road has hiking trails, camping options and access to various forest roads - including Road 744, which will eventually lead you to Spring Creek Reservoir (and beyond). This is a good spot to find free camping (just make sure you are actually in the national forest).
The turn off for Road 744 is in the first half of Almont. Here you will find the four-season resort, Harmel’s River Ranch, a dude-ranch style resort with cabins, fishing and horseback riding. Farther down the highway you will get to the second half of Almont, and the second four-season resort (today the town is really just made up of two resorts, a post-office and a few residents).
The second part of Almont is also where you will reach the main highway (Hwy 135) and have the option to turn left towards the town of Gunnison or right towards the town of Crested Butte, and the adjoining ski resort.
While conquering Cottonwood Pass is a great adventure during the summer season, it really shows its true beauty come fall. The Taylor Canyon section in particular is covered in aspens - meaning a nice haze of golden colors along a bubbling mountain creek (is there anything more Coloradoan than that?!?).
The only thing you have to keep in mind is the pass does close in the winter (or when the snow gets to be too high). So make sure to check the conditions and status before heading out.
Exploring this area of Colorado promises lots of adventures, and in many different forms. You can explore mountain lakes, hike along some of the prettiest (and longest) trails in the state, mountain bike through dense aspen and pine forests, and take a step back in time at various ghost towns (here are a few others you can explore). No matter what you decide to do, this beautiful mountain area is sure to impress - and there is no better way to take it all in than adventuring up to Cottonwood Pass.
Need to Know
Total Length: 57.8 miles from Buena Vista to Highway 135
Best Time to Explore: Open for the summer, but best in late September
Food Options: Get food in Buena Vista or wait until you get to either Gunnison or Crested Butte (though there is a café at Taylor Park Reservoir if you are starving).
Lodging: Camping! There are tons of great ~free camping options in the Gunnison National Forest. But if you want something more cozy (and probably warmer) check out the Taylor Park Trading Post cabins or one of the resorts in Almont.