6 - 7
FATMAP difficulty grade
Unlike some other mountain passes that serve as mandatory conduits to access small mountain towns, Cottonwood Pass—which reaches a height of 12,126 feet—is refreshingly isolated.
While it is gaining popularity as a method of reaching Crested Butte in the summertime, Cottonwood may just be one of the best sleeper road bike rides in the state of Colorado. From the top of Cottonwood Pass, you’ll enjoy expansive views of the impressive Sawatch mountain range, with numerous peaks climbing to over 14,000 feet.
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness borders the pavement for miles and miles—this may be the closest you can come to riding pavement in a Wilderness.
The isolation of this highway makes for an uncommonly remote road cycling experience, with little opportunity for help or reprovisioning. The route as it is mapped here begins in downtown Buena Vista, climbs to the top of the pass, and descends all the way to a small restaurant and general store in Taylor Park.
This little outpost provides the perfect spot to stop and refuel, and even have lunch, halfway through your ride. That said, most riders will only pedal from the town of Buena Vista to the top of the pass, and then turn around.
Choosing to cross the pass both ways as mapped here is a full-day ride.
If you don’t think you’re up to the challenge of 7,500 feet of climbing, do the smart thing and turn around at the top so you don’t get stranded on the opposite side! Cottonwood Pass is not maintained in the winter, and consequently becomes buried in snow.
While it’s usually open by Memorial Day, check with CDOT for the latest road conditions.
A popular time to bag the pass is right after the snow has melted or been cleared from the road, and right before the gates are opened to motorized traffic.
There’s usually a short 3-day window when the pass is rideable without traffic—take advantage of it!