Gunnison just says no to paving Cottonwood

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Gunnison just says no to paving Cottonwood

Often you see signs that tell you when you’re entering an area, like “A Park for All Seasons” at the portals of Park County or “Saguache: North Gateway to the San Luis Valley” at the town limits.

But the only sign we recall that tells you that you’re leaving a place is 12,126 feet above sea level when you’re westbound at the apex of Cottonwood Pass. There you are informed that you are “Leaving Chaffee County.”

The pavement also ends there, with seven miles of dusty washboard between the summit and the Taylor Park Reservoir Road. Chaffee County wants to make it clear that the unpaved stretch ahead is NOT in its boundaries.

And the sign may stay up for a long time — late last year, Gunnison County got the Forest Service to agree not to continue trying to pave Cottonwood Pass.

From what we read, there was almost no support on the Western Slope for paving the road, while there was considerable opposition to spending millions.

While we figure that it’s Gunnison County’s decision to make, we were dismayed by some of the propaganda in opposition to the paving. One piece called the passage from Arkansas to Gunnison drainage on an unpaved road “a unique experience that should be preserved …”

Unique, that is, if you ignore Marshall, Old Monarch, Williams, Altman, and Tin Cup passes.

We suspect that the real reason for Gunnison opposition is commercial. Thousands of people visit Taylor Park every summer, the majority from the Front Range, and the paved route takes them through Gunnison, where they buy gasoline, fishing tackle, etc.

If Cottonwood were paved, these motorists would likely make that money-spending stop in Buena Vista, saving about 80 miles and nearly two hours of driving.

So in economic terms, Gunnison had good reasons to want to maintain its status as the main portal to Taylor Park. And what’s wrong with making an economic argument, rather than dragging in environment and æsthetics? It’s not as though Cottonwood Pass, which dates back to an 1879 toll road, is pristine wilderness, or the only unpaved Divide crossing in the area.