Cottonwood Peak Overview
Located within Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Cottonwood Peak towers over the San Luis and Wet Mountain valleys to the west and east. At 13,588 feet, Cottonwood ranks as the 195th highest peak in the state, barely making the cut as a Bicentennial, one of Colorado's highest 200 summits. The summit provides a unique view of southern Colorado, and the slopes below host a wide variety of flora and fauna.
Cottonwood Peak viewed from the summit of Rito Alto Peak. September 6, 2004. Photo by RyanS
Following the crest of the Sangre de Cristo range south from Hayden Pass, Cottonwood Peak is the first peak to rise over 13,000 feet, lending it a healthy degree of prominence when viewed from the San Luis Valley, more than five thousand vertical feet below. The northern Sangres are part of a fault-block range, composed of 250 million year-old Permian/Pennsylvanian rock which was uplifted about 27 million years ago. There is a fault which runs along the western base of the range, giving rise to the many hot springs found in the area.
The upper portion of Cottonwood Peak's west ridge, March 2007.
Due to its position in south-central Colorado, Cottonwood Peak enjoys relative isolation, being far from any major population centers. It is at least a four hour drive from Denver to either trailhead. The peak itself lies within a wilderness area, meaning the only way to get there is by walkin' (or horseback, if you are so inclined).
As with many Sangre de Cristo summits, there are two sides from which to climb Cottonwood Peak--the Wet Mountain Valley or the San Luis Valley. To access the east side of Cottonwood, use the Cloverdale Basin trailhead. Take Highway 69 approximately 12 miles north of Westcliffe, then turn west on C.R. 198. See the North Ridge
route for detailed directions from this road.
Alternately, one can climb Cottonwood Peak from the San Luis Valley to the west. Use the Hot Springs Canyon/Garner Creek trailhead. Follow US 285 south from Villa Grove about four miles (or about 15 miles north of Saguache) to the 285/17 intersection, where you will also find C.R. GG heading east. See the West Ridge
route for further directions.
Looking south from Cottonwood Peak at sunset, March 2007.
Lake Creek Campground is the closest campground to the Cloverdale Basin trailhead. Alvarado Campground isn't far away either. However, there are many nice camping sites along the trails. Many people just go up to the beautiful lakes on the mountain just to go camping. Being a wilderness area, remote camping opportunities are plentiful. Camp at least 300 feet away from water and use existing fire pits.
If camping is not your style, there are many inns/motels around the town of Westcliffe. If you are climbing Cottonwood from the west, you might consider spending a night at Joyful Journey
or Valley View
Spring snow camping on Cottonwood's west ridge.
Cottonwood Peak is located in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Preservation Area
, designated in 1993. No permit is needed, but normal wilderness regulations apply. No camping or fires within 300 feet of water. Bury your waste. And please, go gently on the land.
Expect typical Colorado mountain weather--that is, expect the unexpected. The weather can change quickly. The Sangre de Cristos tend to receive a little less snow than the San Juans, but it can still last well into July and August. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in summer. Get below timberline before these daily storms arrive.
If you are among the privileged few to visit Cottonwood Peak in winter, check the CAIC
for avalanche conditions. They sometimes
, but not always, have current information for the Sangre de Cristos. Spring tends to arrive earlier in the Sangres than in other parts of the state, so start thinking about wet-slides earlier than you might in parts further north.
Spring snow in the Sangres, looking south from Cottonwood. The ridge tops are well scoured, but north facing aspects are windloaded.
Umbral shadow cast by Cottonwood Peak at sunset, March 2007.