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This summer, camping near Crested Butte will get a bit more orderly. A project to transition 20,000 acres of the highly trafficked drainages that thread into the mountain town from dispersed to designated-only campsites is currently underway. New locations in the Slate River and Washington Gulch areas were recently unveiled.
“We’re turning as many sustainable dispersed sites into designated sites as possible,” says Matt McCombs, district ranger for Gunnison National Forest. “The sites being removed are those that are too close to water and on steep slopes, which have erosion problems, in addition to sites that were created in the 2020 COVID summer—when our visitation was an order of magnitude higher than anyone had ever seen—in undisturbed meadows that weren’t historically dispersed camp sites.”
Until now, the dispersed camping policy in the drainages surrounding Crested Butte allowed adventurers to set up their overnight pad where they saw fit—as long as those grounds adhered to certain stipulations and Leave No Trace principles. Generally, dispersed camping is supposed to occur on previously disturbed, flat ground to mitigate environmental impact. Gunnison National Forest also typically allows vehicles to travel up to 300 feet from the centerline of roads in order to disperse camp. Some spaces, though, have more complex regulations, including only allowing vehicles to roll 30 feet from the road’s edge to set up a tent. Dispersed campsites also need to be at least 100 feet away from waterways.
But those rules haven’t always been followed. Many people make illicit roadways. Human and dog feces have also steadily raised the level of E. coli bacteria in the Slate River, according to research for the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition.
Last summer, the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC)—a trail and stewardship crew that is part of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association—collected 910 pounds of trash, including countless human-made toilets and human waste across 342 campsites, decommissioned 105 illegitimate fire rings, and blocked off 31 unauthorized driving routes in and around the sites near the mountain town. The crew also hosted their second annual cleanup of Lake Irwin, during which they found forgotten treasures like snowmobile parts, solo cups, and a decomposing fiberglass boat.
The surge in backcountry users obviously exacerbated the deterioration of natural resources and increased social conflicts, like people trespassing on private lands. But Gunnison County had already been working on a solution.
To hone management needs, the Board of County Commissioners launched the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee (STOR), in 2017. The organization features representatives from the United States Forest Service (USFS), National Parks Service, and Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, elected officials, and community organizations such as the Crested Butte Land Trust and Gunnison Stockgrowers’ Association.
STOR immediately supported the idea of adding designated camping. “One of the most pressing issues the STOR committee wanted to address was the unregulated camping in high-use areas and to have more intensive management brought to arrest intolerable impacts,” says McCombs, who sits on the committee.
The Gunnison Ranger District first began designing a new camping strategy a decade ago, in part because of increased visitation. But STOR finally gave them the backing to implement something. “STOR’s vision, encouragement, and financial support put the plan in play just in time for the COVID-related explosion in forest visitation, which I don’t see letting up any time soon,” says McCombs.
The project’s financial support comes from a Great Outdoors Colorado grant, as well as contributions from the Gunnison County Stewardship Fund, Gunnison County, and USFS. And the CBCC will provide boots on the ground to help make the changes. The new established sites will be placed in long-time dispersed spots. Illegal, unsustainable sites—such as those on steep slopes, fragile soils, and adjacent to waterways—will be decommissioned.
The area around Slate River is now home to 43 designated sites, and another 48 have been created in the Washington Gulch region. Recreationists can only camp at those locations, which are marked by a wooden post with a number and camp symbol. They are also first-come, first-served with a 14-day maximum stay over. Two vehicles are permitted per site and fires are allowed in the provided metal fire ring. Site saving isn’t allowed, nor can property be left unattended for more than 24 hours. Campers will need to pack out their trash, as well as human and pet waste. Thorough signage will be installed at each corridor’s entrance, and there will be bathrooms in select locations, such as up Brush Creek.
Right now, the Gunnison Ranger District’s primary mission is to educate the public and make sure people adhere to the new guidelines. Seven forest-protection officers and law-enforcement officers, a six-person team of field rangers, the Gunnison County STOR Corps (GCSC), and CBCC teams will be on the ground to help monitor the areas. If needed, additional rangers will be temporarily staffed to co-manage high-traffic periods.
This summer, designated campsites will continue to be created in the area. By September 2021, campers can expect to find numbered locations west of Crested Butte up Kebler Pass, around Lake Irwin and Splains Gulch, and east of town in Brush Creek. Locations north of town, up Gothic Road and near the Upper East River, as well as sites around Cement Creek south of Crested Butte will be transitioned by spring 2022. (Dispersed camping will not be allowed in the Gothic Road area from June 15 to August 15 this summer due to scientific research.)
In total, the pending designated campsites will cover 20,000 acres of the Gunnison National Forest, meaning more than 1 million acres will still be available for dispersed camping. There are also countless campgrounds sprinkled throughout the area with amenities like toilets, showers, RV hookups, water, and picnic tables.
The new designated spots, however, will hopefully help preserve the beauty of the area for generations to come.
If you go: Check the CBCC website for more detailed instructions about locations and other guidelines.