The (Dirt) Road To Cottonwood Pass


There’s nothing quite like driving over the Continental Divide, and when you’re taking a road trip around Colorado, you’ll likely have the thrill of cresting several of these high passes.  Taking a dirt road to the Divide adds an extra thrill, and a real sense of accomplishment.

Cottonwood Pass, north of Gunnison, Colorado, gives you the opportunity to kick up dust as you climb to heights above 12-thousand feet.  The western approach to the pass isn’t paved, and it’s only open for a few months out of the year, when the snow melts.

The dirt road to Cottonwood Pass (County Road 209) begins near Taylor Park Reservoir.  The lake looks somewhat puny when you look back on it, from near the top.

It’s about 14 miles from the reservoir to Cottonwood Pass.  For the first few miles, the road is relatively straight, but the final few dramatic miles look more like spaghetti, carelessly dropped on the ground.


The good news is, even though curves like these…

… and these will slow you down, you’ll likely find the road in good condition.  In most places, you’ll be able to zip along at 40 miles an hour.

Photographers: most of the great views on the drive up to the pass are back towards the west, so you might want to consider making this drive in the morning, when the mountains are better lit.  During my late afternoon drive up to the pass, cloudy skies meant poor lighting in every direction.

Cottonwood Pass is at 12,126 feet (3,696 meters), and marks the dividing line between the San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests.

If I had visited just a few weeks earlier, Cottonwood Pass would probably have been blocked by snow.  As of June 7, 2010, there was still a sizeable snowdrift along the ridge.

I climbed into the snow, just a little, to capture this view of the eastern side of Cottonwood Pass.  I didn’t go far, though, since there obviously wasn’t much holding the snow in place, and I didn’t want to be a part of the last avalanche of the season.

You might notice that on the east side of the pass, the road is paved.  I’m not sure why it made sense to someone to stop paving the road at the pass.  I mean, who would want to drive up, then turn around and go back the same way?  Oh wait, that’s exactly what I did.  Never mind.

Had I continued over the paved portion of the road, I would have ended up in Buena Vista, which would have been a good place to stop for the night.  It also would have allowed me to visit the ghost town of St. Elmo before returning to US 50 for my drive east across the state.  But, I already had reservations in Gunnison, so I headed back down the dirt side of Cottonwood Pass towards Taylor Park Reservoir.  Fortunately, I had just enough daylight to see one more attraction before quitting for the night: Tincup Ghost Town.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive to Cottonwood Pass, then back down, and out to Tincup Ghost Town:

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