Camping in Colorado, by Road or Ramble

Do you Road or Ramble? Does your vision of wilderness camping heaven require a car trunk filled to the brim with a panoply of home comforts?  Or should your outdoor heaven be lean and mean, with your only creature comforts those carried by sturdy boots and sturdy back?  You’re in luck, twice over – because camping in Colorado provides a dazzling array of sites, reached by rolling road or rugged trail, with every modern convenience or just the joys provided by Mother Nature…

Camping Colorado 1
Colorado boasts a vast array of camp sites waiting to help you experience the wonders of the State’s parks and wilderness areas.  With such a range of camping locations, it’s relatively easy to find a secluded spot to shrug off the city blues and become one with nature.  Set up camp and slow your mental clock, as your 9 to 5 and your daily commute give way to the rhythms of dawn and sunset, and the winding patterns of trail, track and natural contour…

There are thousands of campsites in Colorado’s state park and public land systems and hundreds more private sites. You simply need to find the part of the state you want to visit, choose a site with the amenities you need and make a reservation.

Camping Colorado 242 parks across the state are maintained by Colorado State Parks. The system boasts more than 4,000 campsites.  Facilities at many parks include restrooms, full electrical and shower facilities, and some even have laundries and playgrounds. There are also Yurts and cabins available for rent, offering comfortable, year-round alternatives to traditional camping.

Camping Colorado 3The U.S. Forest Service manages 14 million acres of land in the state’s eleven National Forests and two National Grasslands, while the Bureau of Land Management oversees an additional 8 million acres. Both agencies have campsites that range from developed areas with restrooms, fire rings, water and other facilities to remoter areas, with few or no amenities, that may be reached only by backpacking or mountain biking. Make your reservation at recreation.gov.

Backpacking Campsites

 Browns Lake, San Isabel National Forest

Browns Lake

 Driving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapSan Isabel National Forest

The Browns Creek trail offers the backpacker a beautiful range of scenery with varied views and vegetation. The trail follows the stream, and small waterfalls can be found along the way. The lower section of the trail begins in a Ponderosa pine environment and gradually moves into spruce/fir forest. At higher elevations the trail travels through pristine meadows that culminate at Brown’s Lake.

Directions:  From Highway 285, between Poncha Springs and Buena Vista, take County Road 270 west for about 1.5 miles to a 4-way intersection. From the yield sign, continue traveling west. The road continues as Forest Road 272. Stay on FR 272 for about 2 miles. A sign at the cattle guard marks the entrance onto Nation Forest lands. Continue traveling west from the boundary sign for 2 miles. At the intersection, turn left and travel south for 1.5 miles to the trailhead.

Area Amenities: Accessible, Toilets, Parking
Fees: No fee required.
Permit Info: Groups of 75 or more persons, must contact the Salida Ranger District and apply for a 'Group Use' permit.
Usage: Medium-Heavy
Best Season: May-October
Busiest Season: July
Restrictions: Motorcycles are not permitted on this trail!
Closest Towns: Nathrop or Buena Vista, Colorado
Water: No potable water available
Restroom: Yes
Operated By: Salida Ranger District

Blue Lakes, Mount Sneffels Wilderness

Blue Lakes

Driving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapBlue Lakes

If you come upon an alpine playground of meadows bedecked with wildflowers above an astonishingly blue lake, chances are a lot of other people have beaten you to it. But this spot lies tucked away in one of Colorado’s most remote mountain ranges, five miles west of Ouray. From this spot above the lowest of the three Blue Lakes, at over 11,000 feet, you gaze out on a ring of 13-thousanders and the spectacular 14,150-foot Mt. Sneffels. (In case of severe weather, there are protected campsites in the trees beside the lake.)

From the Blue Lake trailhead at the end of FR 851 (Dallas Creek Road), hike 3.3 miles and 1,600 feet to the lowest lake, which has good trout fishing, then climb the slope just above the lake to find this site. Spend two nights, and on your middle day visit the higher lakes and 12,980-foot Blue Lakes Pass for views of endless rows of spires and fields of wildflowers (best mid-July to mid-August). To climb Sneffels, descend the east side of the pass for .5 mile to a cairn marking the start of the South Slope route (class 2). It ascends a wide, rocky couloir to a 13,500-foot saddle between Sneffels and 13,694-foot Kismet Peak, and then continues west up another steep couloir to a final summit scramble.

Restrictions: Wilderness restrictions apply.
Camp sites in the Blue Lakes are limited in number.
Campfires are prohibited in the Blue Lakes area.
No camping within 100 feet of water and designated trails in the Blue Lakes area.
Closest Towns: Telluride, Colorado; Ridgway, Colorado; Ouray, Colorado
Water: Treat all non-potable water before consuming.
Restroom: Blue Lakes Trailhead
Operated By: Forest Service
Information Center: Norwood & Ouray Ranger Districts, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest

 

 Lakes of the Clouds, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

Lakes of the Clouds Driving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive Map Sangre de Christo

The majority of valleys in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains have high alpine lakes, and the Lakes of the Clouds are among the more scenic, with lots of room to spread out and feel a sense of personal space, and plenty of terrain to explore.

Getting there: From Westcliffe, take Hermit Road west to where it ends at Sampson Ridge Road, nearly 6 miles, to County Road 172. Turn left and continue to the trailhead. The last 1.5 miles require a high-clearance vehicle. It’s a 90-minute drive from Colorado Springs.

Hiking: Turn right on the Rainbow Trail a short distance from the trailhead and then left on the Swift Creek Trail. Reach the lakes 4 miles and 2,200 feet of climbing later.

For the campsites with the best combination of shade and views, go right at the lower lake, left across the creek just below the middle lake and camp near the shores of the upper lake.

 

 Refrigerator Gulch, Lost Creek Wilderness, Pike National Forest

 Refrigerator Gulch  Driving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapRefrigerator Gulch

The closest wilderness region to Colorado Springs is a haven for backpackers, with a great range of multi-day loop options. Try to accommodate an overnight stay in this valley in your loop. It has room for plenty of tents, amazing rock formations no matter which way you turn, and you’ll understand why they call it ‘Lost Creek’ because the stream appears as if by magic from the subterranean deep.

Getting there: There are many ways to reach this site, but the quickest is from the Goose Creek Trail. From Woodland Park, head north on Colorado Highway 67 to Deckers and turn left on Deckers Road, or County Road 126. After 3 miles, turn left on County Road 211, a gravel road with a sign for the Goose Creek Campground. Follow signs 11 miles up, and go 3.5 miles past the campground. Park at Goose Creek Trailhead parking area. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Colorado Springs.

Hiking: Head mostly uphill for 6 miles and turn left on the McCurdy Park Trail. Zig-zag up and down valleys for about 2 more miles to reach Refrigerator Gulch. If it’s very hot, avoid the large open campsite, cross the creek and find the spot with some shade.

 Upper Slate Lake, Eagles Nest Wilderness

Upper Slate Lake Driving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapUpper Slate Lake

Upper Slate is a true Colorado gem, a serene, secluded lake at nearly 11,000 feet. Words fail to do justice to the beauty of the setting – you need to experience it for yourself. The Gores have so many 13-thousander peaks, many are just named with letters. At 13,230 feet, the imposing and jagged Peak Q dominates the skyline, a breathtaking sight for those willing to work hard to reach the lake. You’re in Summit County but you feel a long way from the ski resorts, boutiques and posh condos of the hoi polloi.

Getting there: From Silverthorne, drive north on Colorado Highway 9 for 7.7 miles and turn left on Rock Creek Road. After 1.2 miles, turn left on Summit County Road 1350 at a sign marked “Rock Creek.” The road is rough but passable for passenger cars. Reach the trailhead after 1.7 miles. It’s a 2.5-hour drive from Colorado Springs.

Hiking: Follow the Rock Creek Trail for a short distance and turn right on the Gore Range Trail. You’ll wind up and down the Boulder Creek drainage, then up another ridge and down a long, steep stretch. Try not to think about how your legs will feel reclimbing it on the way out. Turn left on the Slate Creek Trail. Unless you got an early start, you might want to start looking for campsites as you wind through a great, open meadow. Otherwise, continue steeply up past Slate Lake, which is pretty but not quite as nice as its upper neighbor. One mile and 1,000 feet of climbing later, you’ll reach Upper Slate Lake. The entire trip is 9.3 miles and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, so spend a couple of nights in paradise.

Avoid the first obvious campsite and walk clockwise around the lake for the best spots. Take a day hike to the stunning waterfall on the west side of the lake.

Driving Campsites

 The Crags – Colorado State Forest

View of the Crags, north of Thunder PassDriving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapState Forest

Colorado State Forest is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbor, Rocky Mountain National Park. Yet, the scenery here is almost equally stunning, and the wildlife nearly as abundant. What you won’t find in the forest are the fumes of the motoring masses. The Crags Campground nestles among rocky peaks at the southern end of the forest. A gnarly access road and small spaces make this best for tents and small trailers — and keep the crowds at bay. All the sites except No. 6 can be reserved, but you probably won’t need a reservation except on busy weekends. Call ahead to be safe.

What to Do: Climbing at Nokhu Crags and hiking the surrounding chain of 12,000-foot peaks are standout options, with several routes accessible from the campsite. Cast a line in the bordering American Lakes for the abundant trout.

CONTACT: 970-723-8366; http://parks.state.co.us/parks/stateforest

 

 Mueller State Park Campground

Mueller State Park Camp GroundDriving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapMueller State Park

Mueller State Park is a popular destination, and once you set foot here, you’ll immediately see why. The park’s five thousand acres of aspen and conifer forests are home to black bear, elk, deer, coyotes, fox and hundreds of bird species. Pikes Peak spreads before you to the east, and a long stretch of the Continental Divide spans the west. For walk-in tent sites, head up Revenuer’s Ridge to Prospectors Ridge. A dozen sites are walk-in only, and spaced about 100 yards apart for privacy. Turkey Meadow sites are also a short walk in and provide the best views of Pikes Peak.

What to Do: Access more than 85 miles of biking and hiking trails directly from the campground. Four Mile Creek provides stream fishing for trout. The south end of Mueller has the Four Mile Day Use Area where you can set off down the popular hike up to Dome Rock. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep. Have the family along? Sign up for a ranger-led nature program.

CONTACT: 719-687-2366; http://parks.state.co.us/parks/mueller/

 Cold Springs Campground – Routt National Forest

Cold Springs CampgroundDriving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapRoutt National Forest

Here, solitude is pretty much guaranteed. Much farther off the beaten path than most car-camping spots, this is the most highly situated camp ground along FR 900. It sits at the eastern edge of Stillwater Reservoir and only offers five sites and no RV access. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early to grab your spot. The view is a knife-edge ridgeline of eleven thousand foot peaks, and there’s a waterfall and small pond on-site. The trailhead to the Flat Tops Wilderness is nearby, as are several other trails leading to the small lakes atop the mesa. Steamboat Springs is reachable by car if you want to break up your wilderness experience with mountain town life or a dip in the springs.

What to Do: Hike. Stillwater Trailhead lies just beyond the campground and offers access to the Flat Tops. Smith Lake Trailhead leaves from the campground and is an easy stroll to Smith Lake—great for an after-dinner walk or hike with small children. You can also fish on the reservoir.

CONTACT: Routt National Forest, 970-638-4516

Saddlehorn Campground – Colorado National Monument

Saddlehorn CampgroundDriving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapSaddlehorn Campground

Until recently, the canyon country southwest of Grand Junction was largely overlooked by outdoor explorers who gravitated towards Moab. But trekkers are now turning on to Fruita’s trails and the forests and rock sculptures of the Colorado National Monument. Saddlehorn Campground is a perfect departure point for exploring the monument, and the campground is a destination in and of itself. Loop B has a few sites that are especially secluded. For the best weather and least amount of insects, visit here from early September to November. All sites are first-come, first-served.

What to Do: Some of the monument’s best day hikes are accessible from the campground. The Window Rock Trail is a nice short loop with views. Canyon Rim Trail travels on the edge of Wedding Canyon for more views. For a longer hike, take off down the Monument Canyon Trail for 6-8 miles and tour the natural rock sculptures. Or try the Ottos Trail, which drops down toward the Pipe Organ and overlooks the depths of Monument Canyon. Drive or road bike the 23 miles from one end of the park to the other—numerous overlooks provide wide vistas over the canyon.

CONTACT: nps.gov/colm/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm

 

 North Rim Campground – Black Canyon, Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon, Gunnison National ParkDriving Directions [Google Maps] Click for Interactive MapNorth Rim Campground

If you think Black Canyon looks good in the photos, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There are many places to access the gorge and gasp at the Canyon’s precipitous drama, but the north rim offers the most solitude. The campground is arguably the most scenic in the area, set on the rim’s edge in an ancient piñon-juniper forest. Instead of looking up at snowy mountains—the quintessential Colorado view—you will be looking down into the nearly 2,000-foot-deep canyon. Campsites are on the small side, which discourages trailers and RVs. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early on busy summer weekends.

What to Do: Hike along the rim or down into the gorge itself, where the fly fishing is unparalleled. At the end of the campground loop, set foot onto the Chasm View Nature Trail for amazing gorge views. The North Vista Trail leaves from the ranger station nearby and goes along the North Rim of the Gunnison to a high point on a nearby ridge. Climbing the “Black” is a unique adventure too (but not for the inexperienced).

CONTACT: 970-641-2337; nps.gov/blca

 

 Camping Colorado Dos and Don’ts

Backpacking Gear Checklist (Summer Trip)

•    3-season tent
•    Backpack
•    Sleeping bag rated to 20-25F (minimum)
•    Sleeping mat
•    Camp stove & stove gas
•    Fire-making materials (lighter, matches, tinder in waterproof container)
•    Hiking boots
•    Trekking pole or poles
•    Hat
•    Sunscreen, lip balm, & sunglasses
•    Insect repellent spray
•    Topographical map for the area you will be walking in
•    Compass or GPS
•    Food & energy snacks
•    Emergency survival kit
•    Water canteen or bladder
•    Water purification system or water filter
•    Rain jacket & pants (or rain poncho)
•    Light insulated jacket
•    Warm under-layer of clothing
•    Knife
•    Camera
•    Cooking utensils & containers
•    Cell phone (turned off to preserve battery)
•    Bear spray (if in bear country)
Before you Go Checklist

•  Topographic map specific to your destination area
•  Let someone know where you are going. Include specifics like: the trailhead you will   park your car at, and your expected return date and time.
•  Check the latest weather report for your destination. Use the NOAA’s point forecast feature for a more accurate weather report.
Camping in Bear Country

Most camp sites west of 1-25 are in bear country. Bears who learn that people = food routinely visit camp sites and picnic areas in search of an easy meal. If you want to avoid problems for yourself and the bears, ensure there’s nothing to attract bears to your camp.

•  Stash Your Trash. Use bear-proof containers when available. If they’re full, double bag trash and lock it in your trunk or RV. Never leave trash outside.
•  Store Attractants Safely. Store food, beverages and toiletries in air tight containers and lock in your trunk. Many bears have discovered that coolers, bags and boxes are full of food; never leave them in your tent or anywhere a bear could see, smell or reach.
•  Keep a Clean Camp. Bears are attracted to odors of all kinds and will investigate anything interesting in hopes of finding food.
•  Keep a Clean Tent. Don’t bring anything with an odor into your tent— including all foods, drinks, scented toiletries, toothpaste, sunscreen, candles, and insect repellent. Don’t sleep in the clothes you cooked in; store them with your food.
•  Lock RVs and Vehicles. Close windows and lock your vehicle and RV when you leave your camp site and at night before you go to sleep.
Campground Bears

If a bear comes into your camp, try to chase it away. Yell, toss small stones in the direction of (not directly at) the bear, bang pots and pans, or blow your car horn, air horn, or whistle. Make sure the bear has an escape route.

Backcountry Bear Tips

When you are backpacking or camping in a remote area, set up a bear-safe camp to protect your food and avoid attracting bears. If there are signs a bear has visited the area recently, leave and choose another camp site.
Bear spray is a highly concentrated, highly irritating pepper spray proven to be more effective than firearms at deterring bears, but it’s no substitute for taking all the proper precautions to prevent problems in bear country.
Useful Websites

•    National Weather Service Forecast Offices Boulder, Grand Junction, Pueblo (always check the latest weather forecast before departure)
•    CAIC – Colorado Avalanche Information Center
•    Colorado.com Travel Maps & Vacation Information
•    USGS.gov’s Topographic Maps (Free Downloads)
•    MyTopo.com Topo map service

 

Andrew Murray 2015

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