Colorado, Colorado Destinations

Colorado Destinations: Cottonwood Pass & Buena Vista

Memorial Day weekend in Colorado is a total crapshoot, weather wise. Some years it’s cold and rainy. Some years it’s warm and sunny. Some years it snows. And some years it does all of these things and then some… which, to be honest, is kind of what happened this year. But I digress.

Despite the frustratingly variable weather, I’m not one to pass up the opportunity to spend a four-day weekend out in nature. Last year, we spent Memorial weekend in Dinosaur National Monument, a wonderful trip which included a one-day whitewater rafting excursion. Inspired by last year, I once again booked us a Memorial weekend rafting trip, this year on the Arkansas River. I’ll talk all about our day on the river in an upcoming post, but this post and the next are going to be about the other pieces of our trip.

Our home base for the weekend was BV Overlook Campground, located about 5 minutes east of the town of Buena Vista. (And because Colorado apparently has to anglicize everything, Buena is pronounced byoo-nuh, not bway-nuh. It annoys me to no end, but I’ll spare you the longer version of this particular rant.)

Anyway. BV Overlook was a pretty good place to stay. They have some of the cleanest campground bathrooms I’ve seen, free showers with decent water pressure and relatively stable temperatures, and many other amenities including a pool table, board games, laundry, free coffee and tea in the morning, and a Saturday evening ice cream social. They also actually enforce the posted quiet hours, a fact we learned when we had to call the after-hours phone number to report the group of campers who were still hooting and hollering at 11:30pm, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the rest of the campground was silent and most of us were attempting to sleep. The owner immediately came out to tell them to shut up, which we (and I imagine most everyone else) really appreciated.

Our site at BV Overlook Campground, with Mount Princeton in the background

Buena Vista is only a couple hours from Denver, so we arrived relatively early on Friday with plenty of time to start exploring the area. First up was Cottonwood Pass, a 12,000+ foot (3655+ m) paved highway over the Continental Divide that was plowed and open just in time for the long weekend. The road is curvy and a little narrow and steep, but relatively tame as compared to some of the mountain passes here in Colorado. There are periodic pullouts to stop and enjoy the view and a parking area at the summit. The Continental Divide Trail crosses the road here. There was still a lot of snow in places, but we did manage to follow the trail about 0.2 miles (0.3 km) up to a high point adjacent to the road, from which the views were panoramic.

Headed up Cottonwood Pass
There was quite a lot of snow along the road…
Cottonwood Pass summit
Cottonwood Pass handstand

We then drove about 1 mile (1.6 km) down the west side of the pass to the picnic area. It was a little too windy to eat lunch outside, so we ate in the car while enjoying the view.

Cottonwood Pass picnic area

We opted not to go any further west (that’s a whole future trip of its own, there’s so much to see and do on the west side) and instead headed back down the east side.

Nothing like driving around a curve to see a moose in the middle of your lane…

Once we were back in the Arkansas River Valley, we detoured onto Cottonwood Lake Road to visit – you guessed it – Cottonwood Lake. From the short amount of time we spent here, it was very clear that this area is mainly used by fishermen.

Cottonwood Lake Road
I love the bright green of brand new leaves on aspen trees
Cottonwood Lake

Back in Buena Vista, we spent the remainder of the day exploring the town. It’s relatively small, home to about 3,000 people. The Arkansas River Valley was the original homeland of the Ute people, who were displaced by the influx of white settlers in the mid-to-late 1800s. As with most towns in the Colorado Mountains, Buena Vista was built around mining and the railroad. At one point, three different railroads served the town en route to and from Denver and various mining claims. Later, the Colorado Midland Railroad grade was turned into a highway. Today it’s no longer the main thoroughfare, but you can still drive the dirt road through the four original railway tunnels. Elsewhere in town, the grade is now a bike path along the Arkansas River.

Mount Princeton as seen from the Midland Grade
Midland Grade tunnels

In fact, much of the area along the Arkansas River is maintained for recreation. Buena Vista in particular, and the Arkansas River in general, is a popular place to partake in many water-based sports. During our walk along the riverside path, we saw rafters, kayakers, whitewater paddleboarders, and swimmers.

Arkansas River

We also checked out the depot and caboose on display at McPhelemy Park. Tours of both are offered during business hours, and we intended to come back when they were open but couldn’t manage to squeeze it in. We were still able to read the outdoor signs and enjoy the park, though.

McPhelemy Park
Denver South Park & Pacific depot and caboose

In the evening, we took a stroll through the downtown area. It’s only a few blocks long, quaint and with a little bit of an old west vibe.

“Buena vista” means “good view” in Spanish… it’s not an inaccurate name
Downtown Buena Vista

Of course, no visit to a town in Colorado is complete without sampling the local beer. I ordered a flight and Pat a pint at Eddyline Brewery and we enjoyed our beers in their outdoor seating area.

Pint: raspberry wheat
Flight, L-R: black ale, amber ale, raspberry wheat, and lemonade shandy

And this is where I will leave off for today. Stay tuned for next week, when I will recap our visit to one of the most intact ghost towns in the US!

38 thoughts on “Colorado Destinations: Cottonwood Pass & Buena Vista”

    1. Yes, snow remains in the mountains in some places during July and maybe even August. It’s not unusual to be hiking and see patches of snow. It’s a strange but cool contrast to see snow when it’s sunny and you’re wearing shorts.

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  1. This sounds and looks like a nice get-away, Diana. We love curvy Cottonwood Pass (including the hot springs along the way) and the town of Buena Vista (I could join you on your rant about the name’s pronunciation 😊) where we have walked along the river and dined at Eddyline a few times. I look forward to your future posts about your Memorial Day weekend.

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    1. So glad I’m not the only one bothered by the pronunciation! We haven’t ever stopped at the hot spring but I’ve heard it’s nice… I’ll add that to my list of things to do when we return to the area!

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  2. What timing! I was literally in BV (again) 8 days ago! We did a day trip from Breckenridge to go the Buena’s Trailhead mountain gear store and pick up our patches for Quandary. It’s a neat little town, and by coincidence, we drove the “scenic route” to Leadville, meaning that dirt road through the rock tunnels! Haven’t been that way in years. It also went by some rocks where we did some guided rock climbing a few years ago. That place has it all as far as outdoor recreation is concerned. As for Cottonwood Pass, the husband has cycled up it a couple of times (I’m partial to soaking in the hot springs at the bottom when he does this), but the only time we drove it was ,many years ago when the west side was still unpaved. We actually considered driving it over to Crested Butte eight days ago, but decided against it due to time.

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    1. I can’t imagine cycling the pass, that sounds really challenging. I bet it’s beautiful, though! I didn’t realize that dirt road went all the way to Leadville. We’ll have to drive it when we return to the area… lots of 14ers to climb there, so we will definitely be back.

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      1. Oops. I wrote my reply in a confusing way. That road only goes north a ways. Eventually it runs out and connects to highway 24, and you take that the rest of the way to Leadville. It’s still gorgeous, though. I think some of those Collegiate Peak 14ers are pretty tough, so I’ll look forward to hearing your stories about them.

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  3. So, we were both along the Arkansas River within the past year or so. We crossed at Ozark Arkansas during our September trip to Eureka Arkansas. It sure looks different in Arkansas as it is very wide slow moving, and the huge valley of the river separates the Ouachita Mountains from the Ozarks. We saw several tow boats in that area much like what we saw when we lived near the Ohio. I knew it was a long river but didn’t realize that it started in Colorado>

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    1. Oh wow, that is a long river! I imagine the terrain in Colorado prevents it from being too wide… although I’ve seen it out on the plains of Eastern CO and it’s a little wider there.

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  4. It looks like such a beautiful area and a great way to celebrate memorial weekend. I’m glad you rounded off the day with some beers!
    Feel your sympathy on the byoo-nuh too! I’ve never heard of anyone pronounce it like that!

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  5. Coming from temperate California, it amazes me that Colorado is susceptible to varying types of weather– rain, sunshine, snow– all in one weekend! Any case, your Memorial Day weekend spent at Cottonwood Pass looks to be a sublime one, and it’s incredible to drive from one-part snow to one-part verdant forest within miles of each other!

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    1. Yeah, we have it all here. There’s a running joke here that if you don’t like the weather in the mountains, just wait 15 minutes because it will be different. I never go anywhere without an extra layer and a rain coat because you just never know.

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    1. The snow is partly so deep because snow plows pushed it aside when they cleared the road. But yes, I always get amused when the snow is deeper than I am tall!

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  6. We had a great time in and around Buena Vista last summer. My Colorado son told me I was double-mispronouncing the name of the town! As a Spanish speaker, I naturally said Bway-nuh Veesta and not the very silly Byoo-nuh Vissta! Hoping to get back this summer to drive over the pass. Looking forward to reading about your rafting experience.

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    1. I hope you make it back! Cottonwood Pass was such a pretty drive, and when there’s not so much snow there is even more to see and do there.

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  7. Your pictures are so stunning! I just can’t get enough of those mountains. I am from the mountains of Utah and your pictures made me a little homesick. What a lovely area to get to explore for a few days. Can’t wait to read on the ghost town coming up 🙂

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  8. Looks like a great place to spend Memorial Day weekend Diana and the area seems to cater well to outdoor pursuits. The town looks nice. I like any town with a brew pub. I am with you on the need to Anglicize names in other languages. It blew mw away to hear my old Scottish boss mispronounce Beauchamp (Bow-shom) as Beach-um. Thanks for sharing. Allan

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    1. Yes, I wish we could just pronounce things how they’re meant to be pronounced in their native language. I feel stupid every time I have to purposely mispronounce Spanish words here in Colorado.

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      1. Kind of the same as I was after taking Japanese lessons in 1985. For instance, Nikon is not Ny-kon, it is Nee-kon. The vowels in Japanese very smartly only have one sound ah-ee-oo-eh-oh (A-!-U-E-O). Have a great day. Allan

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  9. Nice – I like your camping spot (and view over the mountain). Talking of views – wow, gorgeous views from the summit of Cottonwood Pass! And tasting the local beer … of course, that would be mandatory 🍺. Great pictures!

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