A short history of Cottonwood Pass

Article by Ed Quillen

Cottonwood Pass – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

As the scars of old routes above timberline clearly demonstrate, 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass has been in use for many years. Doubtless it was employed for centuries as an Indian trail, since the Utes enjoyed the hot springs on the east side and the hunting on the west side long before white settlement.

Despite the romantic image of the solitary prospector with his gold pan carried by his go-anywhere burro, mining is an industry which requires a heavy-duty transportation system.

Thus, when gold was first panned in Taylor Park in 1859, the strike didn’t amount to much, because the route wasn’t even a pack trail then, and the Utes were not accommodating.

By 1879, however, prospectors were scouring the Rockies for silver in order to find the next Leadville. By then, the Arkansas Valley boasted an extensive system of wagon roads, with railroads due to arrive any day, and the Utes could no longer exert effective opposition to an invasion.

So when silver veins were found in Taylor Park that year, entrepreneurs quickly developed wagon roads to connect the basin with the rails of the outside world.

One was Cottonwood Pass with its railhead at Buena Vista, but Cottonwood had competitors — roads over Tincup and Williams Passes which reached the railhead at St. Elmo. And in 1882, a new road over Cumberland Pass reached the rails at Quartz on the west side of the Alpine Tunnel.

Even though the other roads offered shorter routes (about 15 miles, as opposed to 32 miles over Cottonwood), distance wasn’t everything. The other roads were much steeper, and when a freighter had to use extra mules and horses to get a load over Tincup or Cumberland Pass, Cottonwood represented a savings in both money and time.

In 1881, the rails reached Almont, just 30 miles downhill from Tincup. But the primitive wagon road through the Taylor Canyon (still a maintenance headache) was so narrow and slide- prone that Cottonwood remained in use.

Because one route to Aspen went over Cottonwood to Taylor Park, then over Taylor Pass to Aspen, Cottonwood Pass got more traffic after Aspen boomed in 1880. The Crested Butte railhead, however, also served Aspen via Pearl Pass, and Independence Pass came into Aspen from Balltown.

When the rails got to Aspen in 1887, Cottonwood Pass waned — especially after several schemes to lay rails over Cottonwood Pass died as the veins began to pinch out in Taylor Park.

Finally, the last stagecoach crossed over Cottonwood in 1911, and the route was left to marmots and hikers.

But when surplus Jeeps became available after World War II, a few adventurers joined the marmots. And in the last few decades, Colorado’s growing tourism industry has resurrected the pass.

The current road generally follows one of the old wagon routes, and results from work by the Forest Service and both Gunnison and Chaffee counties 35 years ago. It formally opened in September, 1959.

Serious talk of paving began in 1981, when the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Forest Service announced that money was available. Tourism was part of the rationale; another was a shorter way to haul Western Slope timber to Front Range markets.

Paving of the Chaffee County side began in 1987 and was completed in 1990. But now, Gunnison County, although initially supportive, more or less opposes paving its side.

— Ed Quillen