I found Cottonwood Lake by looking an aerial photo on Google maps while trying to find interesting places to visit along a route my husband and I were going to drive for a day trip. We drove on up the washboard dirt road, walked around the lake a little, then drove further on and scoped out the campgrounds. We decided that we would have to come back and camp at this place.
The first time we went was a Wednesday afternoon right after Labor Day and there were only a few people out fishing. Those who were floating in the middle of the lake had to come in because a thunderstorm started rolling in over the mountains, but it was really amazing to listen to the thunder echoing all around. Even with the few people who were there, we felt like we had found a hidden gem, our own secluded sanctuary.
A week later we went to camp. My husband's work schedule gives him a "weekend" of Tuesday and Wednesday, so we camped Tuesday night the second week in September. Again, very few people. We decided not to stay in the campground and instead found one of the MANY dispersed camping sites, and we highly recommend it. If you keep driving past the campground, you will begin to see places where others have obviously driven a little ways off the road and map camps, usually most visible by the fire pits. There are several places that are large enough for RVs, particularly this one large group site that looks like it could hold probably a dozen. There are also numerous smaller group sites, where there are multiple fire pits within close proximity to each other. One place we almost settled on had three fire pits and looked like it could hold at least half a dozen tents with a couple of cars. It was right by the creek, even.
The place we finally decided on also had several separate places nearby so that we could imagine a couple of scout troops using the location. We pulled very far back and found a place where someone had leveled it off and laid down hay. Since it was raining and the forecast was for continued rain and lows in the 40s, we decided this would be a really nice spot.
It was very peaceful at night, with the pitter patter of the rain on the tent and the distant white noise of the creek. It did get cold, a lot colder than people not used to the mountains might be used to for September, so keep that in mind for this location if camping. We went back into town the next day for lunch and remarked on how much "warmer" the temperature was - 59F, at noon, in September.
The lake is absolutely gorgeous and it is close enough to Buena Vista to go into town if needed. It is also very close to the Mt. Yale trailheads. We had planned to hike Mt. Yale, but the clouds were just too low for us.
I've heard that Cottonwood Lake can be very crowded in the tourist season (Memorial Day to Labor Day), but after Labor Day, at least in the middle of the week, it is apparently much calmer and easier to find a secluded campsite or fishing spot.
There were also some trails around the area which we wanted to explore but didn't have time for. I would like to try them out some time, but we spent most of our day at the Chaffee County Shooting Range (another place that I'd like to keep a secret!).
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