Cottonwood Pass

Cottonwood Pass is located in central Colorado, where it traverses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 12,126 feet. This pass heads west from HWY 24 in Buena Vista, following County Road 306 over the divide into Taylor Park and Almont, CO. This roadway becomes County Road 209 just over the summit of the pass, as you travel west from Chafee County to Gunnison County. This is the next route over the divide to the south of Independence Pass.

Notable stops along this mountain pass include Cottonwood Hot Springs and Cottonwood Lake Campground.

Cottonwood Pass Continental Divide sign during the summer at top of the pass

Seasonal Info

Cottonwood Pass closes for the winter season each year.

Cottonwood Pass Stats

Map of the Continental Divide in Colorado showing Hoosier Pass, Fremont Pass, Tennessee Pass, Independence Pass, Cottonwood Pass
aerial view of Cottonwood Pass in Colorado during summer season
An aerial view of Cottonwood Pass
Cottonwood Pass highway over the Continental Divide wide photo
Western side of Cottonwood Pass, seen from Cottonwood Pass Peak before the west side was paved
Cottonwood Pass over the Continental Divide in Colorado in spring season while snow is melting

Alternate Routes – Independence Pass is located to the north of Cottonwood Pass, but that route will be closed during the winter season. The next route over the Continental Divide to the south is HWY 50, which crosses the divide over Monarch Pass. That route should be open during the winter unless it is closed for weather.

hairpin turn near top of Cottonwood Pass over the Continental Divide in Colorado
Winding curves and hairpin turns near the summit
tight hairpin turn on Cottonwood Pass in Colorado during spring season
Springtime on Cottonwood Pass with the snow melting

Recreation on Cottonwood Pass

The top of Cottonwood Pass is located above 12k feet. This is in the high alpine tundra zone and above treeline. You can expect the weather at the top of the pass to be colder and windier than lower elevations, so be sure to come prepared.





Cottonwood Pass FAQ

The distance from Buena Vista to Almont is about 50 miles. The steepest part of the pass over the mountains is much shorter, and its distance will depend on who you ask.

This pass was named by Dave Wood, an early settler who crossed over the pass before the wagon road was built.1

This pass is 100% paved now. It had been a dirt road for most of its life, but paving of the final section of Cottonwood Pass was finished in 2019.

Expect 35 mph most of the way. You’ll need to slow down for the switchbacks near the top.

Hiking: The Cottonwood Pass Trailhead is located near the summit parking area. This is above treeline and there are several hiking trails that you’ll see heading off along the Continental Divide. Hiking trails that overlap through this area while sharing the same path include the South Texas Trail, Colorado Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.

Camping on Cottonwood Pass: Campgrounds in the area along Cottonwood Pass include: Hughes Meadow Campground, Collegiate Peaks Campground on the eastern side, the Lottis Creek Campground and Lakeview Gunnison Campground on the western side.

Snowmobiling: Look for the Denny Creek Trailhead. This is a good spot to park a trailer and start your ride. The trailhead is located on the eastern side of the pass, just below a set of closing gates which are used to close the highway above for the winter. A groomed trail for snowmobiles begins from this parking area.

Snowshoeing and XC Skiing: You can use the same groomed trails as the snowmobilers, so the Denny Creek Trailhead is a good place to start. Good routes for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing on Cottonwood Pass include: Cottonwood Lake to Poplar Gulch, Denny Creek to Hartenstein Lake, and Cottonwood Pass to the Ptarmigan Lake Road.

Fishing: Cottonwood Creek runs alongside of Cottonwood Pass, and this can be a good place for trout fishing. Cottonwood Lake is a short drive down Co Rd. 344, which branches off from the pass. If you prefer to hike and fish, aim for Ptarmigan Lake via the Ptarmigan Lake Trailhead. Rainbow Lake is a private lake located alongside of the pass, and the Rainbow Lake Lodge is open to guests who want to enjoy the property. On the western side of the pass, Taylor Reservoir is known to be a good spot for fishing.

Horseback Riding: Horses are allowed on this section of the Coloardo Trail, and there are several local outfitters that will take you on an equestrian adventure here.

Mountain Biking: Mountain bikes are also allowed on this section of the Colorado Trail. This singletrack trail consists of CO Trail Segments 12 + 13. You can meet up with the Colorado Trail at the Avalanche Trailhead or the South Cottonwood Trailhead.

Directions from Denver

It is easy to vary from this route if you want to get off of I-70 at a different exit. The fastest route from Denver exits I-70 at Copper Mountain before heading south over Fremont Pass, towards Leadville.

Did You Know?

There are three Cottonwood Passes in Colorado. In addition to this pass in Chaffee–Gunnison counties, there is another Cottonwood Pass in Grand County, and a third in Eagle County. The Cottonwood Pass in Eagle County can serve as a detour for Glenwood Canyon in emergencies.

Cottonwood Pass hairpin curve in Colorado during the spring season
Another look at the hairpin curve on the eastern side near the summit
Cottonwood Pass on the Continental Divide in Colorado during summer season

Above & below: County Road 306 winding down from the top of Cottonwood Pass on the eastern side, going towards Buena Vista. Jones Mountain can be seen in the photo above just beyond the roadway.

Roadway near the top of Cottonwood Pass over the Continental Divide

Cottonwood Pass History

The Old Cottonwood Pass

Trails over the pass were already in place before the wagon road was built. Planning for the first wagon road over Cottonwood Pass began in 1875.2

On Sept. 11, 1876, The Gunnison, Cebolla, and Lake City Toll Road Company was formed in order to continue building the pass towards the west.3 The road was finished in 1877.1

As railroads made their way deeper into the mountains, these wagon roads were not needed for transporting gold and silver out of the mountains anymore. Cottonwood Pass and other mountain passes like it would soon fall into disrepair, and would not be used by the masses again for many years.

The New Cottonwood Pass

In the 1950s, construction crews began rebuilding the old wagon road through this area. On September 13th, 1959, the grand opening was held for the newly graded iteration of Cottonwood Pass. The roadway was still not yet paved at this point. Upon opening, it was the second highest road in the state.4

In 1991, paving was completed on the eastern side of the pass all the way to the summit.5 Paving of the western side would not take place for more than 25 years. A project to widen, grade, and pave the western side of the pass began in 2017. In 2019, paving of the western side of the pass was completed.6

Cottonwood Pass Events:

Check out the events below that are held each year at Cottonwood Pass. The Cottonwood Classic is a fundraiser for the Gunnison Nordic Club.

Do you know of an event that should be added to this list? Contact us!

References & Credits

1. Vandenbusche, Duane. “Cottonwood Pass: Yesterday and Today.” The Crested Butte News, The Crested Butte News, 16 June 2022, 

2. Colorado Springs Gazette, September 18, 1875, p. 2. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. Colorado State Library.

3. Silver World, September 23, 1876, p 2. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. Colorado State Library.

4. The Aspen Times (weekly), September 10, 1959, p. 9. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. Colorado State Library.

5. The Vail Trail, Volume 26, Number 1, November 1, 1991, p. 41. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. Colorado State Library.

6. Nettles, K. (2022) Cottonwood Pass scheduled to fully open this weekend, The Crested Butte News. Available at: (Accessed: 03 January 2024).