Cottonwood Pass scheduled to fully open this weekend

Trailhead parking restoration may be necessary for Timberline

By Katherine Nettles

After nearly two and a half years of being closed, Cottonwood Pass Road is scheduled to be open for the remainder of the season starting this weekend.

The west side of Colorado’s second highest mountain pass is set to lift current travel restrictions by Thursday or Friday, after being closed since the widening, realignment and paving project began in the spring of 2017.

The roadway has been open for a few weeks to limited vehicle traffic. Cyclists, pedestrians, towed vehicles, trailers, boats, OHVs, campers and vehicles over 36 feet in length and/or over 8.5 feet in width have been prohibited. Those restrictions were lifted temporarily for the Labor Day weekend, but reinstated afterward.

The Federal Highway Administration, in cooperation with Gunnison County, the U.S. Forest Service and Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, has managed the widening, realignment, and paving of the west—or Gunnison County— side of the road.

According to Gunnison County Public Works director Marlene Crosby, who gave an update to the county commissioners on September 3, the trailer restrictions went back into effect this week because workers still need to fog-seal and paint the roadway. The Colorado Department of Transportation hopes to have that done by September 5 or September 6. Crosby said the hope is that they finish Thursday, in advance of a classic car ride this weekend which will include support vehicles pulling trailers and has been on the books for months.

Open in winter? Not likely.

Based on what he’s heard from a few optimistic locals and on some rumors, commissioner Roland Mason asked if there has been any conversation with Crested Butte Mountain Resort and the county about keeping the newly paved roadway maintained all winter.

Crosby explained the budget and time needed and the danger to road workers and drivers on the mountain pass during winter months would be significant.

“The wind blows; it is so cold. It would be hazardous to your employees because of the lack of communication up there. I personally do not see Cottonwood ever being plowed. Sometimes we plow up and can barely find our way back down. The wind is just brutal,” Crosby explained.

“And then you’re putting folks out there, too,” chimed in county manager Matthew Birnie.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck said one nice thing about the improvements could be a more predictable and measureable time frame for opening the pass each spring.

Trailhead troubles with the new pavement

Local rancher and landowner Brad Phelps addressed the commissioners regarding changes to a Timberline Trail parking area off Cottonwood Pass. He recently took the road and was frustrated to see that the former parking area would no longer fit horse trailers as it formerly had.

“The last time we worked on Cottonwood, they made a good, looped parking lot on the southeast side. That doesn’t work for me, because it’s too tight for using a horse trailer—and it’s always full. But between where the east side comes in and the west side goes off into Texas Creek, there’s always been a hole, 250 yards above … What I am so frustrated about, as I said, for 45 years I’ve been able to back up a soft truck up into that bank or park two or three horse trailers there.”

Phelps said that has been an important area for work and recreation, but, “It appears to me now that your road is so elevated that I can no longer access that hole,” adding that a horse trailer cannot park within about three miles of the Timberline trail under the current conditions.

“I don’t think we are adding anything here. We’re subtracting. I could park there for 45 years and now I can’t,” he said.

Phelps said he discussed this interest in maintaining the historical parking access there at two separate planning meetings for Cottonwood Pass improvements.

“I don’t think I’m out of line asking to be able to park a horse trailer close. I don’t want to ride a horse three miles up a paved highway with no shoulders.”

Riding a horse up Texas Creek to access the trail is not helpful as an alternative, he said, because a rider has to stop regularly for motorized traffic. “You have to ride off in the willows every half mile and let nine side-by-sides go… It’s stop and go traffic for a saddle horse,” he said.

Phelps said he also feels the lower loop circle isn’t adequate for parking and certainly not for horse trailers.

Houck responded that the county is willing to look at this.

“We look at county roads not just in the essence of are they paved and where do they go, but who is using them, how are they being used,” Houck said.

Crosby thinks the county can address this once it gets access to Cottonwood Pass again. “We don’t have access to do anything right now. But I feel certain that, when we have access—and it might be spring—but we can work on creating a parking spot once the road is turned back to the county.”

Crosby acknowledged that this would still mean Phelps and others would miss moose season this October.

“I understand the feds have the road. Not a problem there…” said Phelps.

Crosby also acknowledged that the county did have to minimize Forest Service amenities there due to affordability.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for horse-backers to use those trails,” concluded Phelps. Crosby asked how many other people park there.

Phelps estimated that in addition to regular horseback riding, a lot of people horseback ride in there during archery season. “And cowboys need it July, August, September every year. Every year.”

“I think we are looking at it holistically in terms of trailheads all over the place. And we’re not even on there yet, so it might be a little premature to say we can accomplish it yet. Let’s give them a chance to finish it up, and we can take a look at it and see what we can do,” said commissioner John Messner.

Regarding the lower loop parking area that is often full, Crosby said public land managers have discussed that the lot is appropriate for the number of people the Timberline trail can accommodate. “Do we want more people on that trail?” she asked.

“We have heard that for you, it’s that specific area,” said Houck. “But the bigger issue is this commitment… It’s not just the road itself, it’s what it accesses.” The commissioners agreed that these questions of connectivity and access are all related to their overall efforts and those of the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation committee.

“We are addressing all of this as quickly as we can, as much as funding allows,” said Messner.

There will be an official ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the road improvements on September 19.

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