3 - 4
FATMAP difficulty grade
Buena Vista, Colorado is surrounded by a wide variety of gravel rides, and the ride to Cottonwood Lake is a perfect sampler of what's available.
This 20-mile out-and-back ride to Cottonwood Lake starts at the main stoplight in Buena Vista and ends at a quintessential mountain lake. The route gains about 1,700 feet from town to lake, with more elevation gain, miles, and alpine scenery available to those who want to keep on pedaling about 8 miles past the lake and 2,000 feet higher on increasingly-rough road to the beautiful Mineral Basin! For a ride that any gravel biker would relish, start at the stoplight at the intersection of Highway 24 and CR306 (Cottonwood Pass).
Even if Buena Vista is busy, parking should still be available at the nearby river park.
Riding the paved CR306 is the perfect way to warm up the climbing muscles as it ascends steadily, but gradually, westward.
Be prepared for the typical west wind on this stretch.
At about 5 miles, start looking for the intersection with CR343 on the left.
This is the start of the dirt roads comprising the remainder of the ride.
CR343 is a beautiful stretch of mountain dirt that is usually in pristine condition and generally devoid of washboards.
The notable part of this segment is a half-mile climb that will test any rider's legs and lungs.
Mountain gearing is highly recommended! CR343 ends at CR344, where the route heads left as it ascends quite nicely to Cottonwood Lake.
The views become as breathtaking as the exertion; riding at 9,000 feet can be a challenge, especially for flatlanders.
CR344 is a more heavily trafficked road, so expect more washboards! As the road climbs steadily upward, be sure to lift your head to take in the views of the surrounding mountains.
When the lovely sounds of South Cottonwood Creek to your right become audible, stop and enjoy the sights and sounds.
Even when the creek is still frozen and covered with snow, burbling water can be heard if you pay attention. Just as it seems as if the lake will never appear, the road levels out a bit and a little bridge takes you to beautiful Cottonwood Lake.
On a warm, sunny summer day, there will be numerous fisherman along the shore and in kayaks, as well as folks out on colorful SUPs, all enjoying the serene mountain setting.
Even in the spring, when the lake is still frozen, the views are gorgeous. At about 10 miles, the lake is a wonderful place to stop for a relaxing snack, perhaps even cooling off by wading in the chilly water before turning around and heading back to town.
If 10 miles isn't enough, just keep on pedaling upward; there's another 8 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation available. Wherever your descent begins, stay on CR344 all the way back to CR306, then enjoy a long zippy return on the paved CR306.