Cottonwood Pass Summit - Buena Vista & Salida, Colorado Visitor Guide

Cottonwood Pass Summit

Published with permission from the guide book: The Local’s Adventure Guide to Singletrack & Tarmac – Mountain Bike Trails and Road Rides in the Upper Arkansas River Valley by Nathan Ward.

  • Featuring 36 Mountain Bike Trails and 18 Road Rides in and around Buena Vista & Salida, Colorado – beginner to expert, town to summit, smooth tarmac to extreme singletrack.
  • Maps and Elevation Profiles for each ride, including altitude gain and loss.
  • Local Advice on riding areas and seasons, where to sleep, where to soak, where to find the best pizza, the best coffee and the best bars in Buena Vista & Salida, Colorado.

NOTE: the west side of Cottonwood Pass is closed for paving until the Summer of 2019. However, you can still ride the east side of the pass as described below.

Cottonwood Pass Summit goes from Buena Vista to the top of Cottonwood Pass – another classic big mountain pass that climbs to the top of the Sawatch Range. The east side of the pass, the Buena Vista side, is paved and the west side of the pass is still dirt until 2019. It’s a stiff climb with grades of 10%, but worth it when you climb above tree line just below the summit and top out on the Continental Divide. There are beautiful views the whole way, including the jagged ridgeline of La Plata Peak (14,336 ft.), the 5th highest peak in Colorado. The ride back to BV is fast and fun.

Options: For a shorter option, turn around at the Denny Creek Trailhead (mile 12.0), a 24 mile round trip that avoids the steepest climbing on the pass.

Trailhead Access: Park in downtown Buena Vista. The ride starts at the corner of US 24 and CR 306/Main Street.

Location: Buena Vista
Distance: 38.6 Miles – Out and Back
Riding Time: 4.5 Hours or More
Riding Surface: Good Pavement
Shoulder: Narrow
Traffic: Light – heavier on weekends and during hunting seaso
Aerobic Level: Difficult
Elevation in Feet: Low 7,973; High 12,134; Climbs/Descends 4,161

Notes: Ride up the pass early in the spring before it opens to vehicles. You may hit snow before the summit, but you’ll have it all to yourself. There are no facilities on Cottonwood Pass besides pit toilets in the campgrounds.

Cottonwood Pass Summit Mileage Log

0.0            Ride west on CR 306/W. Main St. Follow this road all the way out of town. The first 5 miles are fairly flat.

5.4            At the bottom of this small descent, pass Cottonwood Hot Springs on your right. This is a great place for a soak after your ride. The road starts to climb after this, but rolls up and down a bit to get you going.

7.9            Pass Rainbow Lake Resort on your left. In the fall, the golden aspen around the lake are absolutely stunning.

12.0            Denny Creek Trailhead. This is a good turnaround spot if you want a shorter ride. After Denny Creek, the pass gets steep with a 10% uphill section that will get those legs burning.

14.8            The first switchback.

18.1            You are above tree line now – suck in that thin mountain air! You are almost there now and can see the summit just one big switchback above you.

19.3            The top at 12,134 feet! You are on top of the Continental Divide, the spine of America. Enjoy the huge scenery all around you – Ice Mountain and the 3 Apostles to the north, Taylor Park to the west and the sawtooth Ellingwood Ridge of La Plata peak to the southeast. The ride down is as fast as you want – just don’t forget the switchbacks!


We want you to have a safe and enjoyable trip into Colorado’s backcountry. Be prepared it could be a long walk out. Be sure to read this list of equipment you should bring on your ride along with tips to make your biking trip more enjoyable.


The Colorado backcountry is popular – bikers, hikers, motorcycle riders, hunters and equestrians use the trail system in the Arkansas Valley, and everyone wants a private piece of heaven. Even if you don’t agree with everyone’s motives or methods of travel, please treat them in a courteous manner.


If you require search and rescue services, it can be costly. Buy a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card to protect yourself. Funds from the CORSAR program go into the Colorado Search and Rescue (SAR) Fund. If a CORSAR card holder becomes lost or injured in the backcountry, the Colorado SAR Fund pays eligible search and rescue expenses.



Bicycle riding is a physically strenuous activity with many risks and dangers. Hazards, natural or man made, whether noted in this book or not, can be encountered at any time under any situation. As a cyclist, we assume you know your personal abilities and limitations. This book represents nothing more than a guide to the trails and roads and is not meant to replace your common sense, your ability to navigate in the wilderness or in traffic, or your ability to ride a bicycle safely.

In addition, the mileages and routes listed in this text are only suggestions. There may be variances and you may get lost. We recommend everyone uses a GPS and topographical map to navigate. Most routes in this text are located on public land, but some trails pass through or adjacent to private land. Respect the land owner’s rights and obey all signs regarding trail use. The same goes for wilderness areas which prohibit mountain bike riding. Neither the author, nor the publisher, nor anyone else mentioned in this book are responsible or liable in any way for any accident, injury or any action brought against anyone traveling any route listed in this book. All cyclists and their companions assume responsibility for themselves. Ride at your own risk.

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111 E Main St
Buena Vista, CO 81211

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406 W Rainbow Blvd.
Salida, CO 81201

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