Cottonwood Trail

Round Trip Distance: 8.5 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 10,104 - 10,886 feet
Cellphone: 0-2 bars
Time: 4 hrs.
Trailhead: Crag Crest West
Fee: none

The Cottonwood Trail is on top of the Grand Mesa in the Grand Mesa National Forest. The trail connects the Crag Crest and the Lake of the Woods trails. The Cottonwood Trail generally offers a lot of peace and solitude for the hiker and it is a nice option for someone wanting to do a little backpacking. There are camping areas around the Cottonwood Lakes and I've heard you can catch some nice fish there.

I started out at the Crag Crest West Trailhead. I hiked a half mile to the junction of the Lower Loop and took the left fork towards Crag Crest. It is one mile from the Lower Loop fork to the beginning of the Cottonwood Trail. The elevation is just over 10,800 feet at that point which is a little more than 350 feet higher than the trailhead where I started.

The next half mile of trail only varied about 70 feet elevation wise. I came to one slough that was about 100 feet across and still pretty wet. I opted to go around it on the west side rather than get my shoes all wet.

The trail started losing elevation pretty fast on the north side of the crest. The switchback in the picture above is where the Crag Crest snowmobile trail cuts through to the right. At that point you can see through the trees to the big boulder field on the north side of Crag Crest. From this point on there are orange diamonds on the trees that mark the trail for snowmobiles. In case you are wondering, orange diamonds and markers are for snowmobiles and blue are for cross-country skiing.

The next mile of trail drops off about another 400 feet. As I was hiking along I could here the muffled roar of a stream that was cascading down the mountain. It began paralleling the trail and just before the Lake of the Woods junction I had to cross it. There were pretty good places to the left and right sides of the trail where I could cross without getting wet. I tried one out going one way and the other coming back.

After crossing the stream I continued hiking for about another 100 yards and came to another slough where the Cottonwood Trail meets the Lake of the Woods trail. I hiked up the Lake of the Woods Trail almost a quarter mile to get around this water hazard. It was pretty easy going so I didn't mind much.

The last half mile that I hiked brought me to the junction of the Bull Basin and Lake of the Woods Trail. Technically the Cottonwood Trail ended when it joined with the Lake of the Woods Trail but I wasn't going to turn around before I got to the first lake.

You can see the upper ridge on the Crag Crest trail in the picture behind Cottonwood Lake Number 1. There were several groups of people that had driven in from the other direction. This is where I turned around and started heading back. It was 11:45 so it had taken me 2 hours to hike up to this point.

I wanted to point out another fork in the trail that might be a little confusing. There is a snowmobile trail that forks off to the right and a yellow diamond on the trail that reads faintly; 'Crag Crest 1/4'. The yellow sign is referring to where the Crag Crest snowmobile trail forks off from the Cottonwood Trail.

It didn't seem to take all that long before I was back to the Crag Crest Trail. While I was on the Cottonwood Trail I hadn't seen any bear tracks but I frequently saw deer, elk and moose tracks. At one point I heard something crashing through the trees but I wasn't able to see what it was.

There are a whole lot fewer mosquitoes on the south side of the mesa compared to the north side. I think most of the south side has already dried out quite a bit. I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants, as much as I hate to this time of the year, and I had sprayed a good layer of Off on my head and hands. It seemed to work pretty good.

One aspect of the Cottonwood Trail that some people might not enjoy is that you start out gaining over 400 feet of elevation and then you descend about 800 feet before turning around and ascending the 800 feet to get back to the ridge. I've climbed several 14ners where I ascended over 6,000 feet so it's not that big a deal to me but it is something to be aware of.
I went only went through about 100 ounces of water and 20 ounces of Gatorade on this 4 hour hike. The temperature was probably somewhere in the 70's when I finished. The Cottonwood Trail is a good place to get a little different look at the Grand Mesa and it's okay enough if you're looking for somewhere different to go. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.