The trailhead for Cottonwood can be reached either by shuttling about 7 miles up county road 175 out of Salida. Look for a small, unpaved parking area on the right (south) side of the road and run through it to the trailhead - just across the small, dried-up river bed.
Cottonwood starts with a fairly gradual climb through a shady pine forest. This will be a welcomed bit of respite from from the full sun exposure on the road if you're running during the summer. This trail got a major facelift in the summer of 2014 and now follows a very different path to start. Expect smooth, nicely bench-cut trail that contours across a rather exposed topography. There are a few minor rocky sections to navigate on this first section of singletrack, but for the most part it is all smooth. Some of the best views of the Collegiate Range can be seen from this portion of the trail.
Eventually, you'll come to a junction with Forest Road 173. Follow this dirt road down the drainage and ignore a doubletrack that splits quickly off to the right. Next, you'll have a short but punchy climb up FR 173 to the top of a ridge. Once the road levels off and then begins to descend, keep your eyes peeled for the singletrack to begin again off of the left side of the road. This is the only bit of tricky route-finding. If you've descended for more than about 45 seconds, you've most likely gone too far. I suggest consulting the Trail Run Project mobile app
at this junction.
Now that you've gotten yourself back onto singletrack, there are loose rocks and some steeper grades on a narrow trail. This portion of Cottonwood has a completely different, much more primitive feel to it than the initial segment. You'll descend the ridge line, and find yourself shot out onto the dry riverbed of Cottonwood Gulch.
The trail rolls up and down both banks of the gulch as well as straight lining the riverbed at times. It can get pretty rugged in this area. At the junction with Uncle Nazty keep left to stay on Cottonwood Trail. This trail has its terminus at an intersection with Backbone
, which you can take to reenter the main trail network.