Approach DescriptionThe Cottonwood Creek Trail is quite good for the initial 3 miles, but after that it can be a challenge to follow. Most people can manage, but you may lose the trail from time to time, so be prepared for some bushwhacking. After coming to a lovely 60' waterfall, you enter a section of this approach that wends its way through large 'boilerplate slabs'. Tougher terrain is amidst your cairned, class 2 route, and this area can be much more difficult when wet.
After 3.5 miles, you intersect a trail, which you may not even notice, heading north for Cottonwood Lake and the Crestones, and here you leave Cottonwood Creek. This is a cairned junction. Incidentally, good camping is located just before the turnoff along the trail. The key to locating this turnoff is to keep your eyes looking north after you clear the boilerplate slabs section. The creek that drains Cottonwood Lake cuts a dramatic path between the southern ramparts of Crestone Peak and Crestolita. Follow the trail as it climbs steeply toward Cottonwood Lake, passing a few other good camping spots.
There's a waterfall near the last likely camping spot, and here you have a choice of routes. Most people will continue on the trail, which takes the low route through a pair of meadows along the way to the Cottonwood Lake basin. Many parties have cursed the willows that choke these meadows, as well as slabs that can prove much trickier than those encountered in Cottonwood Creek.
I prefer the high route, which adds a bit of distance to your approach, but relieves you of the slabs and willows found in the meadows. Near the falls by the last campspots, look left past the edge of the trees for cairns that point the way up and through a talus field. Continue on this cairned route as it sidehills and climbs high above the meadows you've elected to avoid. After sidehilling for a while, you'll make a left turn to climb steeply for about 80' up a grassy gully. Proceed north on gentler terrain through a boulderfield, reaching the Cottonwood Lake basin at its west end. Turn right and pick up the trail that takes you to Cottonwood Lake. If you don't mind camping above treeline, good spots are available on the west side of the lake.