Vail author’s book: Hot springs and hunting grounds |

Vail author’s book: Hot springs and hunting grounds

Rick Spitzer
Daily Correspondent
Special to the Daily/Rick Spitzer

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles based on Rick Spitzer’s book, “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which we’ll be serializing in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.

Many millions of drivers and their passengers cross the mountain passes of Colorado every year and enjoy the spectacular scenery, but most are unaware of the many bits of history tied to them. The easiest route from one point to another over a mountain range often takes advantage of a pass, and many of Colorado’s mountain passes have been used by humans for centuries-some even longer. The routes over them helped shape Colorado into what it is today. A pass is defined as a low point in a mountain range that separates two watersheds. Other terms used to designate a pass are gap, ridge, and divide.

“Colorado Mountain Passes: The State’s Most Accessible High-Country Roadways” offers the reader a matchless scenic view of the state and a unique historic perspective. This and future installments will provide a unique understanding of Colorado’s passes, and will hopefully serve as a valuable resource for those traveling them. Many of the photos presented in “Colorado Mountain Passes” are distinctive because they are true panoramas of the scenes. The panoramas take in more than the eye can see, with some offering a full 360-degree view.

Origin of pass name: The lanceleaf cottonwood is a type of poplar tree found in the river valleys throughout Colorado.

Elevation: 12,126 feet

Nearby cities: Gunnison/Buena Vista

Point of interest: Taylor Park Reservoir

County: Chaffee Forest Route 209, County Road 340

GPS: 38°49’40″N, 106°24’33″W

Topo map: Tincup

Getting there: From Buena Vista, head west on County Road 306 for 21 miles. From Gunnison, travel north on CO 135 for 11 miles to Almont. Turn east on County Road 742 for 20 miles to reach Taylor Park Reservoir. Turn east on County Road 209 and continue 18 miles.

Cottonwood Pass, located about 21 miles west of the town of Buena Vista, is one of three passes named “Cottonwood” accessible by car in Colorado. The other two are near the towns of Gypsum and Fraser, respectively. A good look at the area around the summit of this 12,126-foot pass will convince you that this has been a natural route for many travelers through the ages. The remnants of many old trails and wagon roads crisscross the summit.

The Ute created a trail over this pass while traveling between the hot springs on its east side and their hunting grounds on its west side. In 1859, prospectors who panned for gold in Taylor Park, located west of the pass, undoubtedly used their route. With the discovery of silver in Taylor Park in later years, wagon roads crossed the pass to provide access to the mines there. After mining traffic in Taylor Park died out, people still used the pass to reach Aspen, but when railroads reached the town via a different route in 1887, use of Cottonwood Pass died out. Some reports say the last stagecoach crossed it in 1911.

Tourism brought travelers back into the Cottonwood Pass area in 1959. It was around this time that the U.S. Forest Service, along with Gunnison and Chaffee counties, built the current road over the pass. Chaffee County paved the east side in 1990, but the west side remains a well-graded dirt road.

Taylor Park Reservoir now fills much of Taylor Park. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation built the dam creating the reservoir in 1935 to 1937. Interestingly, Taylor Park and Taylor River are named after a Jim Taylor of Glenwood Springs, one of the first prospectors to discover gold in the area, while the Taylor Dam and Taylor Park Reservoir are named after Congressman Edward Taylor, who was instrumental in the reservoir development.

The Colorado Geological Survey lists 93 hot springs and geothermal wells across the state. Some communities even heat private, public and town structures with geothermal heat. Most of the springs emit a distinct sulfur-like odor because of the water’s high concentration of hydrogen sulfide. Many of these springs have provided a stable quantity of water, chemistry, and temperature for hundreds of years. The Ute and other Native Americans enjoyed the mineral-rich mud or water’s curative powers for many ailments, just as we do today. There is documentation of tribal battles over rights to hot springs.

In the late 1850s, many visitors ” some of them famous ” came to Colorado specifically to enjoy the hot springs, but during the mid-20th century, interest in mineral baths faded. This interest has revived, however, in the last few years, encouraging a number of Colorado sites to improve their facilities to attract new visitors. Campgrounds, hotels, and large swimming pools are often found at the sites. The world’s largest hot springs pool is in Glenwood Springs.

Some of the best known developed Colorado sites include hot springs in the towns of Salida, Buena Vista, Moffat, Mount Princeton, Nathrop, Durango, Glenwood Springs, Hot Sulphur Springs, Idaho Springs, Ouray, Pagosa Springs, Steamboat Springs, and Telluride. Humans have enjoyed these hot springs for thousands of years.

Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95.

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