This hike is a unique day-trip that can be taken right from the campsite! This trail offers route-finding along a primitive trail marked by cairns. The views of the peaks to the west are dramatic. Cottonwood Pass may also be referred to as Milwaukee Pass, as it comes within a few hundred feet of the summit of Milwaukee Peak.
We parked at the Music Pass Trailhead (high clearance is recommended, but there is always a Subaru up there) and headed toward Upper Sand Creek Lake via the Music Pass Trail to Upper Sand Creek Lake
1. A mile or so before the lake, there is a fork to the right that leads to some decent campsites. This track begins from this fork.
2. There are signs that say "Follow the Cairns". The placement of the cairns is adequate, but they can be difficult to distinguish from the conglomerate outcrops and boulders that dot the drainage.
3. The major "reveal" occurs at a saddle prior to reaching the actual pass and is very dramatic. You could stop here and have had a spectacular hike. We have done this before beginning at Upper Sand Creek, but there is more bushwhacking and side-slope travel along that route.
4. Continue UP to the left (south) toward Milwaukee Peak. The trail is good, but you might not think so from this vantage point. When we took it, there had been a significant hail storm a day or two prior, so it was a bit difficult to follow and there was some post-holing required.
5. We continued just beyond the pass and then headed back the way we came. Our group didn't want to get caught in a hail storm, but we would have been fine to continue into the drainage on the Rio Grande side.
Please read Andy Wellman's excellent description
of this pass, which can be incorporated into a 30-mile loop.
CAUTION: This forest along Sand Creek has been infested by beetles, and trees will be falling for years to come. Be mindful of snags and think about where you place your campsite, especially if it is windy.
You'll have a decent chance of seeing bighorn, and of course, there are always marmots.