Cottonwood Pass Summary
People tend to avoid this pass, particularly the west side. It’s their loss if they do. Using the words incredible, gem, spectacular, etc. don’t even start to describe the pass. The pass tops out over 12,000 feet, has the third highest paved road in the state, has an incredible tree lined climb on the east side with a 10% grades section. It has switchbacks, scenery, and very little traffic. It’s a great shortcut between Buena Vista and Crested Butte and is a great alternative to Monarch Pass a few miles to the south.
One reason people skip this route is because the west side in not paved. It’s hardpack dirt. But, and this is a big but, the quality of the road surface has been outstanding every time I have ridden it. Yes, early season, just after the snow melt, it could be a little soft, and late season, you may have a small amount of washboard effect, but June through August, you really can’t beat it. My last trip over this pass, June 2009, was even in the rain and the road was still in great shape (despite the fact that the bike got a little dirty). Oh, and by the way, on this last trip I didn’t listen to my own advice and did not have full finger gloves with me. I was totally warm and dry in the rain except for my hands and my wet frozen hands made the descent in the cold rain/sleet miserable. When I suggest bringing cold weather gear, particularly on these high passes, not only should you heed the warning, but so should I. I was trying to minimize weight and was very foolish not to bring gloves.
Personally, I love riding this pass from Crested Butte or Gunnison to Buena Vista. Climbing the west side on the dirt and then screaming down the paved east side in the real ticket. From Almont you’ll a ride of roughly 37 miles to get to the summit. Much of this ride is on nicely maintained paved roads that trend upwards at a 1% to 2.5% grade. You’ll gain about 1000 feet in 20 miles of tree lined beauty. In fact, the trees are quite heavy here so it will be shaded.
At the Taylor Park Reservoir, you are 13.5 miles from the top (and this is where the profile above starts). After a few miles of riding some small rollers on the east side of the lake, you will make a right turn toward the pass and will start your trek up the dirt road to the pass. As you climb, the grades will get steeper and you will go through a series of switchbacks, 14 or them plus many wider curves. If you read books on this pass, they may indicate the grades on this side top out in the 7% range. No, based in experience, many of the curves hit grades in the 8% range, but the length is short. You’ll find most of the climbs in the 5% to 7% range with fewer and fewer flat spots as you get closer to the top. The views on the west side are spectacular and you’ll want to make a number of stops to just take in what’s around you.
The east side of the pass in breathtaking in a number or ways. First, it’s steep. If you like the challenge of a good leg burning climb, you’ve found it. Roughly halfway up, you’ll come across a wall. The grade is 10% and it’s about half to three quarters of a mile long. This is a great point for speed on the downhill, but on the climb, it will take your breath away. The east side also has tight switchbacks, eight, to contend with. These, however, are a bit more spread out than on the west side (which at points has them stacked over each other) Overall, the east side is steeper and has a lot more climbing than the west, hence the reason for the difficult rating.
Given that the pass is over 12,000, it’s likely you will find snow at the summit year round. But more than that, this is a pass where the weather will change rapidly and any attempt to ride the pass should be done with due care. Have a lot of water with you and have foul weather gear. The ride is rather remote and you won’t see too many other people if you need help.
From Buena Vista, just about any direction you go, you’ll end up with a great ride.
From Buena Vista to the north, you can head to Leadville and take Fremont Pass to Copper Mt or Tennessee Pass to Minturn and Vail. You can also turn west at Twin Lakes and take Independence Pass to Aspen and Glenwood Springs.
East of Buena Vista, you can head to Colorado Springs vial Trout Creek Pass.
South of Buena Vista you can head to Salida and on to Poncha Pass or head to Gunnison via Monarch Pass.
All of these can be one day trips and all have great scenery and good climbs and descents.
Traffic will be heaviest east and south, but early morning weekday rides tend to mitigate that.
Bottom line, Buena Vista is a great place to base yourself for any number if great rides, not to mention it’s a hub for river rafting for a nice break.