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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue. This version was fact-checked and updated (where possible) with current information for the 2017 edition of 5280 Traveler.
Whether you’re taking off on an epic backpacking trek or looking for a kid-friendly campsite closer to home, these 30 locations are prime territory for setting up under the stars.
For the Backpacker
Blue Lakes Trail
Uncompahgre National Forest
Dangling spruce branches shade the winding dirt path, obstructing my view of Mt. Sneffels, a jagged 14,157-foot peak rising in the distance. It’s a dazzling sight, but right now I’m more concerned with the encroaching darkness. Thanks to a late start, my wife and I are still a mile from our intended campsite, and the sun has already dipped behind the mountaintops. After nearly two hours and three miles of hiking up Blue Lakes Trail’s steady incline with 40-pound packs on our backs, we’re exhausted. But we haven’t seen a single suitable place to make camp early, so our only choice is to keep moving as quickly as possible. I quietly assure myself that our destination, a picturesque alpine lake, is just around the next bend. And then the next.
Half an hour later, we finally arrive at the lowest of the three Blue Lakes tucked deep in Uncompahgre National Forest north of Telluride. We exhale a few deep breaths of relief and hastily select one of the half-dozen unmarked campsites not far from the southwest shore. There are other campers nearby, but it’s a weeknight, so some sites remain vacant. As we set up our tent by the light of our headlamps, a scruffy-looking deer ambles by not 20 feet from us. Mentally and physically drained, we barely acknowledge its existence. Instead, we climb inside, sip some whiskey from our flask, and crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.
Our morning view reminds us why we chose this trail nearly seven hours from Denver: Before us sits a pristine turquoise lake set against a tranquil panorama of green hills and talus-covered peaks. We plan to explore the other two higher-elevation bodies of water today. After a quick breakfast of granola, fruit, and coffee, we return to the trail, carrying a much lighter load of water and snacks. Another mile and 800 feet in elevation later, we pass the second Blue Lake; the third comes into view shortly thereafter. We pause in a green meadow above treeline and gaze down on the valley we’d climbed the previous day, feeling a sense of accomplishment. The trail we’re on continues for another mile and a half toward the top of Mt. Sneffels, but we decide to stop short of the summit because the final ridgeline requires advanced climbing skills.
We traipse back to our campsite and dip our feet in the water. As refreshing as a swim would be, the late summer temps are too cool for us. We turn our attention instead to the surrounding forest and a display of colorful wildflowers. Then we sit with our backs against a log to talk, read, and nap. For dinner, we heat up freeze-dried chicken and mashed potatoes using a single-burner stove next to the shore. Tonight, the impending darkness seems peaceful, and the stress of our tardy arrival the night before is all but forgotten. —Chris Outcalt\
The U.S. Forest Service requires that you camp at least 200 feet from the edge of the lake. That distance is a good rule of thumb for setting up camp near any body of water in the state.
Fires are prohibited in the Blue Lakes area. If you’re in a national forest, check with the U.S. Forest Service as seasonal restrictions or weather-related bans may be in effect.
If you go:
Drive Time From Denver: 7 hours
Getting There: Take I-70 west to U.S. 50 east, which turns into U.S. 550 south. Drive through Ridgway. The road turns into CO 62; 4.6 miles west of town, turn left on CR 7. Follow it for about nine miles to the trailhead.
Winning Campsite: We suggest setting up at Lower Blue Lake because it’s the only lake below treeline and the bluest of the three; from the trailhead, walk to the farthest spot around the lake to your right (it’s not marked, but it’s well-defined because of heavy use).
Nearby Activities: Fishing, swimming, hiking
Reservations Accepted? No
Dogs Allowed? Yes, on leash
Firewood Available? Fires aren’t permitted
Water? Yes, but it must be treated
Backpackers will also like…
MOUNT OF THE HOLY CROSS
Nearest town: Minturn
Eagle County’s only fourteener, Mount of the Holy Cross, can be summited in a day, but the challenging 12-mile round-trip hike—which involves climbing 11,600-foot Half Moon Pass, descending into a valley, and then trekking up to Holy Cross’ summit—is more enjoyable if you split it into two parts. Journey to one of the designated dispersed campsites (don’t forget to fill out a registration form) near the stream at the bottom of the valley and make camp; then make your way up the fourteener the following morning. Reminder: Fires are not allowed anywhere along the trail to the summit. Free
LOST CREEK WILDERNESS LOOP
Nearest town: Bailey
Campers seeking unique scenery should make their ways through this still-sparse forest, which was devastated by the 2002 Hayman Fire. The nearly 30-mile circuit (expect the trek to take four days and three nights) remains relatively level—a nice feature for novice backpackers—and passes several intriguing rock formations, which are common in the Lost Creek Wilderness. Plan extra time to find a good dispersed backcountry campsite; we recommend setting up camp on the Goose Creek Trail segment. Note that campfires are discouraged. Free
Nearest town: Silverthorne
The hike to this alpine lake in the Eagles Nest Wilderness and its dispersed backcountry camping spots (look for places where others have made camp before) begins at the Rock Creek trailhead, the road to which is located about 7.5 miles north of Silverthorne on CO 9. The seven-mile (one way) trail is strenuous, as it gains nearly 2,500 feet in elevation through dense forest. But the payoff—striking views of the Gore Range and a campsite nestled in the trees beside an arrestingly turquoise body of water—is worth the uphill haul. Free
FOUR PASS LOOP
Nearest town: Aspen
You’ll need up to four days to complete this classic 28-mile route that traverses four 12,000-foot mountain passes in the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness. (Bear canisters are required in the area.) Several campsites can be found along the trail—we’re partial to those surrounding Snowmass Lake—but plan to arrive by 4 p.m. so you don’t miss out on a prime spot to sleep for the evening. Fair warning: The route is very popular and often busy in the summer. Free
For the Car Camper
Angel of Shavano Campground
San Isabel National Forest
The three young bighorn sheep are close enough that I can see the ridges in their horns and the blacks of their pupils through the windshield. They’re staring at our blue Mazda, heads tilted. When the dust we kicked up coming to a quick stop on the dirt road settles, I can finally make out the words on the U.S. Forest Service’s signature brown-and-yellow sign: Angel of Shavano Campground.
After the wildlife roadblock finally clears, my boyfriend and I drive through the loop of 20 sites—each of which includes a grated fire pit and a picnic table and sits a quick walk away from a vault toilet—searching for an empty slot. We finally settle on number 18, a flat, L-shaped plot edged by purple wildflowers, park our car in the designated space, and fight the wind while setting up our tent. We pop open a couple of Black Shirt Brewing Co. Red Porters and relax in the crisp mountain air as the sun disappears behind 14,229-foot Mt. Shavano.
We’d opted to car camp here because of the vast recreational opportunities nearby. Everything from white-water rafting and fly-fishing to mountain biking and horseback riding is possible in Browns Canyon’s 21,586 acres of ravines, forests, and rivers, which former President Barack Obama declared a national monument in February 2015. With so much to do just 20 miles from our campsite, we expect the area to be busy the next morning. Our theory is proved correct as we drive by Hecla Junction, a popular public access point on the Arkansas River, and see it crowded with folks trout fishing or readying themselves for a trip down one of the state’s most exciting white-water runs. We decide exploring the less hectic Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area (WSA)—undeveloped federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management—is our best bet for a more quaint (and quiet) tour of the monument’s riches.
The WSA offers nine miles of trails, many of which are not well-maintained; Ruby Mountain trailhead is home base for more clearly defined paths. With an afternoon date planned for the ropes course at Browns Canyon Adventure Park, we opt for a short hike up the steep, mile-long (one way) Turret Trail. What the footpath lacks in distance, it makes up for in scenery. We walk through patches of sagebrush, prickly pear, and Arkansas Canyon stickleaf—a setting replete with the kind of raw beauty only found in the West.
We make our way back to the parking lot with plenty of time for the nine-minute drive to the adventure park located on the west side of the canyon. The aerial ropes course, which opened in 2013, encompasses four courses full of tricky obstacles and unique zip lines (a hanging kayak delivers you from one platform to another). For two and a half hours, we inch down suspended logs and tiptoe across swaying bridges. From these lofty perches, we can see rafters floating down the frothy Arkansas River and the outline of the large mound that is Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.
Back at our campsite that evening, we reflect on just how little of the monument we were able to take in on our first day. Fortunately, we have the rest of the weekend to continue our exploration of its vast expanses. Next on our list: rock climbing. —Mary Clare Fischer
Remember to bring stakes and a mallet: The wind can be intense at this valley-floor campground. Your tent will blow away if you don’t properly secure it.
A Colorado Parks & Wildlife state parks pass ($7 per vehicle per day, or $3 per person if you enter by foot, bike, or on a horse) is required. Buy passes at self-serve booths located at the Ruby Mountain and Hecla Junction campground entrances.
If you go:
Drive Time From Denver: 3 hours
Getting There: Take I-70 west to CO 470 east (exit 260). After about six miles, exit onto U.S. 285 south toward Fairplay; stay on this road for the next 110 miles. Then turn right onto U.S. 50 and follow it for about six miles. Watch for a large yellow house on the right—you’ll turn right onto CR 240 shortly after you pass it. Drive on CR 240 until you reach the campground.
Winning Campsite: Stake out site number one, which has an enormous shaded area and wooden steps leading up to the tent pad.
Nearby Activities: Hiking, zip lining, fishing, horseback riding, white-water rafting
Reservations Accepted? Only at the lone group site
Firewood Available? Yes
Dogs Allowed? Yes, on leash
Water? Hand pump on-site
Info: $20 per night; you must stay at least two nights on weekends and at least three on holiday weekends. Pay by slipping your cash or check and camping form into a slot at the unmanned entrance.
Car Campers will also like…
CROW VALLEY RECREATION AREA FAMILY CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Briggsdale
Located about 30 minutes from Pawnee National Grassland, Crow Valley offers a lot more than just a place to sleep in your tent or RV (though there are no electrical hookups or water connections), including an education site complete with a museum and an amphitheater, a baseball field, and a volleyball court. Take a drive to the striking Pawnee Buttes, towering sedimentary rock formations within thea grassland, for prime bird-watching opportunities (after June 30). $13 to $18 per night
ARAPAHO BAY CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Granby
Reservations are a good idea for Arapaho Bay’s 84 tent, RV, and trailer sites, which are located on the edge of Lake Granby and offer easy access to fishing and boating (rent a boat at any of the three marinas), plus hiking and wildlife viewing (osprey frequent the area). Our favorite spot to set up camp is in the Roaring Fork Loop, which offers the largest number of sites on the shore. Check out sites 72 through 78. $21 per night plus a fee—starting at $5, depending on the length of your stay—for use of the recreation area
Nearest town: Idaho Springs
The crew that wants to stray (slightly) off the beaten path can take a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to the shores of this alpine lake (anytime between July 15 and October 15), which is located a little over 10 miles from the Fall River Road exit on I-70. You’ll drive right up 2.3-mile one-way-in, one-way-out Steuart Road to find dispersed camping and plenty of fishing opportunities; brook, brown, and lake trout abound here. Park next to the lake, but pitch your tent in the flat, tree-shaded areas farther from shore. Free
PEARL LAKE STATE PARK
Nearest town: Clark
No need to sleep on the ground here. Forty minutes north of Steamboat, you can cozy into a real bed at one of the park’s two yurts—they have electricity and heat!—which each sleep up to six people (bedding is not provided). Cooking isn’t allowed inside, so pack your own camping cookware to use over the fire. The adjacent 167-acre reservoir provides the perfect summer trifecta of wakeless boating, cutthroat trout fishing, and wildlife viewing. $80 per night
SAND GULCH CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Cañon City
Seven well-known climbing sections—the Gallery, Sand Gulch, the Bank, the Dark Side, Cactus Cliff and Spiney Ridge, and the Gym crags—are located near these 29 sunny tent-camping sites in the Shelf Road Recreation Area. Leave your car in the nearby parking lot and set up camp at sites nine or 10 on the west side. A marked trail that starts between the campsites offers easy access to the Gallery, a set of rocky cliffs featuring several moderate routes. Bonus: vault toilets. $7 per night
Take Note: Reservations May Be Required
Set a reminder to ensure you get the campsite you desire
In Colorado, reservations for primo spots disappear faster than tickets to the Great American Beer Festival. Many of the options within our 250-plus federally operated campgrounds, as well as sites in the 42 state parks, allow early booking—as in, six months in advance. So bookmark Recreation.gov and Colorado State Parks Reserve America to snag the spot you want now.
For the Camper With Kids
Pike National Forest
I am finishing the last bite of my fire-warmed chicken enchilada when the deluge begins. Heavy droplets hit the surface of Wellington Lake. My husband, Heath, and I usher our daughters, ages four and eight, into the tent before shoving what we can into the car and scurrying under the rain fly ourselves. I sigh loudly, hoping this storm isn’t setting the tone for the rest of our weekend. As the rain pounds our tent, I close my eyes and dream of waking up to a different scene.
Somehow, 10 years had passed since I’d last zipped into a sleeping bag under the stars. My children had trudged into the wilderness with Heath the previous couple of summers and were, despite their ages, seasoned campers. I was the one who was out of practice and, admittedly, a little nervous (was I still cut out for roughing it?).
The day had begun perfectly. Our 90-minute drive was easy, the Colorado sun shining on a beautiful June afternoon. Cell service evaporated as we drove away from Bailey, and I could feel the shackles of a hectic week loosening. As we pulled into site number 25, the girls clamored to get out of the car: We were right on the western bank of the 180-acre lake. The kids quickly occupied themselves by watching water bugs skim in and out of the cattails. They shrieked with glee at the fish feeding on the surface (the lake is stocked with trout) as Heath and I unpacked and set up the tent in the shade of tall pines. We started a fire and readied ourselves for dinner. Not long after, the thunderclouds blew in.
In the morning, I peek warily outside: The sky is clear and the air is warm. Heath and I slip out of the tent in time to see the sunrise paint the lake crimson. We manage to get a fire started in the soggy pit and take in the sounds of the world waking up—birds chirping, squirrels quarreling, tents zipping open. Despite having neighbors on either side (there are 74 sites ranging from small and secluded to large group and RV areas), I feel tucked away. When the girls emerge, they begin running along the muddy road and reveling in a freedom they rarely enjoy in our Denver neighborhood.
After a hearty breakfast, we discuss our options: We could fish, swim, or go mountain biking. But we opt to go in search of Buffalo Creek Falls instead. The gentle quarter-mile path (the trailhead for which is found along the road running through the campsites) winds through pines and aspens and provides plenty of distractions, from wildflowers to a cavelike rock. The sound of cascading water reaches us before we actually see the gusher. The girls scramble down the last hill and yell back to us excitedly. At the bottom we watch water roaring down a rock shelf. To the left of the falls, a steep path shoots up from the valley floor. We follow it.
Just as the girls begin to complain, we reach the top, where a rocky platform allows us to take in the entirety of the glistening lake. I take a few deep breaths. A feeling of contentedness suddenly washes over me, one I realize I’ve missed in the intervening years since my last wilderness excursion. I recognize, happily, that I’ve regained my camping legs. —Amanda M. Faison
The road from Bailey to Wellington Lake is only partially paved and can get rutted. It’s not recommended for vehicles without good shocks.
Mosquitoes come out at dusk here—bring bug spray!
If you go:
Drive Time From Denver: 90 minutes
Getting There: From Denver, take U.S. 285 south toward Fairplay. When you reach Bailey, about an hour into the drive, turn left onto Colorado Road 68. Drive for 11 miles until you see the lake on your right. Check in at the office and then proceed to your designated spot.
Winning Campsite: Number 25 sits right on the shoreline (meaning the kids can fish or splash around while you make dinner or tend to the fire), and the bathrooms are close but not too close.
Nearby Activities: Hiking, fishing, mountain biking, swimming, and no-wake, electric- powered boating
Reservations Accepted? Yes
Dogs Allowed? Yes
Firewood Available? Yes, for purchase (outside wood prohibited)
Water? Yes, but it must be treated
Info: $20 to $85 per night plus a daily $5 vehicle pass. 303-838-5496
Campers with Kids will also like…
KENOSHA PASS CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Jefferson
Obsessed with the Colorado Trail? Just below the summit of Kenosha Pass sit 30 car-accessible sites, mere steps from the iconic path. Thick aspen groves and stands of lodgepole pines provide privacy; there are picnic tables, fire rings, drinking water, and vault toilets. You need only hike a mile or so southwest beyond the campsite to discover sweeping views of the South Park basin. Along the way, kids will love spotting the lean-tos that have sprouted up along the footpath. $18 (plus a $9 online reservation fee), Recreation.gov
Nearest town: Leadville
This bundle of 59 campsites (with vault toilets, fire rings, and firewood for purchase) sits above Twin Lakes and is situated on the southeast flank of Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain at 14,433 feet, making it an ideal launching pad for an early morning start. For kids (experienced young ones can hike the fourteener, but it is about six miles to the summit), the dirt road connecting the campsites is great for mountain biking. $19, Recreation.gov
COLLEGIATE PEAKS CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Buena Vista
Choose between the mountainous area’s creekside and forested options, all reachable by car. Whichever you choose, you’ll have plenty of room to roam because the 56 sites (for tents and RVs) are nicely spaced. The quietest spots are near Middle Cottonwood Creek, which drowns out the sound of cars chugging up Cottonwood Pass. Children will love boulder-hopping and playing in the shallow waters of the creek. $20, Recreation.gov
PINEWOOD RESERVOIR CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Loveland
Summer is a busy time of year at this 100-acre reservoir, but visit on a weekday or in the early spring, late fall, or winter (pack extra-warm clothes!), and you’ll have your pick of spots to pitch your tent and the run of the surrounding 504 acres of wilderness. Swimming is prohibited, so entertain your little ones with fishing instead. $15 to $25
Nearest town: Leadville
Plan your camping trip around a new moon for some of the best stargazing in the state. Baby Doe Campground is the most popular (make reservations early), but Belle of Colorado offers tent-only camping on a first-come, first-served basis. When night falls and the stars come out, there are no lights and no humming RVs to interfere with the picture show in the sky above. If you happen to hit a full moon, take advantage of the light by taking the kids on a nighttime canoe trip. $20
For the Sightseer
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Small waves smack the side of the boat as we pick up speed. I relish the rush of wind in my hair, the heat of the afternoon sun, and the misty spray of water coming over the bow. If I close my eyes against the view of soaring cliffs—and ignore the cool high-elevation air—I can pretend I’m on a catamaran in the Caribbean. Instead, I blink my eyes open and take in glistening Blue Mesa Reservoir from our rented pontoon. It’s late summer, and my husband and I hadn’t found the time or budget for a sorely needed beach vacation. So we settled on a long weekend trip to a sight we’d always wanted to visit—the largest body of water in Colorado, located about 10 miles southwest of Gunnison—and let our imaginations fill in the gaps.
Earlier that day, we’d awoken in our tent, which went up easily on the dirt and low grass underneath the large cottonwoods at Dry Gulch campground, about a quarter of a mile north of the reservoir. (As rookie campers, we had been elated to find a picnic table and a fire pit with a cooking grate next to our drive-in, first-come, first-served campsite when we arrived.) We slowly shook off the fog of a good night’s sleep and debated our plans for the day. We’d called Elk Creek Marina, one of two on the reservoir, too late to reserve a boat for the morning, when the water is calmer, so we opted to kick off our trip with a moderate hike along Dillon Pinnacles Trail’s four-mile out-and-back (the trailhead is located about three miles west of Dry Gulch). Our reward was sweeping views of both the eerie-looking namesake volcanic formation and Blue Mesa’s 96 miles of shoreline. Our excitement at actually getting onto the water made the hike out seem quick. We drove straight to Elk Creek Marina to pick up our pontoon ($209 to $229 for a half day) and set out to explore the reservoir’s tall, craggy walls and meandering inlets.
Four hours later, we dock the boat. On the advice of a park ranger we’d chatted up at the Elk Creek Visitor Center the previous day, we gather driftwood at a nearby picnic area for free rather than purchasing firewood at the marina. Back at our tent, we warm up in front of the fire with a couple of glasses of boxed wine and dig into a camping-meal classic: hobo bundles. We had filled tinfoil pouches with pre-cooked pork and rice, oil, and raw veggies at home. Now we simply toss the packets into the embers, turning them every so often with grill tongs until the insides are warm and tender.
Satiated, a happy exhaustion similar to the one that comes from a day spent running around on the sand falls over us. Our hair is tangled from the whipping gusts on the boat, and we discover we have the same wind-burnt cheeks left by a stiff ocean breeze. This may not have been the beach vacation we’d been dreaming of, but it turns out we didn’t need to go far from home to find what we were looking for: sun, water, and time away from the city together. —Jessica LaRusso
Many Colorado campgrounds close for the winter. Some larger, more developed areas, such as 160-site Elk Creek campground at Blue Mesa, stay open year-round.
At most first-come, first-served campgrounds like this one, you’ll need to pay the per-night fee with exact cash or a check. Look for a receptacle with paperwork to fill out and envelopes near the entrance; often, there will be a receipt for you to post at your site to show you’ve paid.
Although you don’t need a special license to skipper a motorized vessel, you will want a DD: The same limits on driving cars under the influence apply to operating boats in Colorado.
If you go:
Drive Time From Denver: 4.5 hours
Getting There: Take U.S. 285 south about 120 miles; then go west on U.S. 50. You’ll hit the beginnings of the reservoir after another 70-some miles. Dry Gulch campground will be on your right (U.S. 50 skirts the shoreline to the north of Blue Mesa) in another 12 or so miles, past the marina and visitors center at Elk Creek.
Winning Campsite: Site number seven in Dry Gulch is big enough for two tents, ringed with trees for privacy, and conveniently located near—but not too close to—the campground’s single vault toilet.
Nearby Activities: Hiking, boating, kayaking, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding
Reservations Accepted? Yes, for some sites in the three largest campgrounds (Elk Creek, Lake Fork, and Stevens Creek) as well as two group sites
Dogs Allowed? Yes, on leash
Firewood Available? Yes
Info: $16 per nonelectric site and $22 per electric site, per night.
Sightseers will also like…
Nearest town: Durango
The $95.23 you’ll pay for a round-trip ticket (plus $10 each way for your backpack) on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is well worth the lift into the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness. Serious backpackers should start from Durango in the morning, hop off at the Needleton stop, hike a steep handful of miles on the Needle Creek Trail, and set up camp among the bucolic basin’s plentiful mountain goats and sheep. Spend a few days enjoying the scenery and summiting the three nearby fourteeners: Sunlight and Windom peaks and Mt. Eolus. Hike back to the tracks to wave down the afternoon train to Durango (upon departure, you’ll confirm your pickup date with the staff). Free
ECHO PARK CAMPGROUND
Nearest town: Dinosaur
Located inside Dinosaur National Monument about seven hours from Denver, Echo Park Campground’s 22 campsites offer plenty for the whole family: the scenic confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, permitted off-trail exploration, petroglyph-dotted cliff faces, and some of the country’s darkest skies for stargazing. Drive another hour and a half across the Utah border to check out close to 1,500 dino fossils in Carnegie Quarry. $6 to $15 per night during peak season
Nearest town: Chimney Rock
History buffs should take their pick from the 26 non- reservable RV and tent sites in this San Juan National Forest campground, which features tables and grills, vault toilets, and potable water. On your way there, you’ll have stunning views of the sacred twin pinnacles that gave Chimney Rock, a national monument featuring archaeological ruins, its name. Drive four miles south on CO 151 to explore—via guided tours or on your own—the monument’s ceremonial and residential Ancestral Puebloan sites. $18 per night
WITHERS CANYON TRAILHEAD
Nearest town: La Junta
Take the road less traveled by exploring the strikingly different topography on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. In Comanche National Grassland, claim one of four BYOW (bring your own water) drive-up tent or RV sites at this juniper-dotted trailhead, from which you can embark on a 10.5-mile round-trip hike through Picket Wire Canyon. Your primary destination is the largest dinosaur track site in North America. Tip: Visit in the spring or fall to avoid the midsummer heat. Free
WHITE RIVER NATIONAL FOREST
Nearest town: Rifle
Hey, sport climbers: More than 250 routes—and some of the country’s best for grades 5.12 and up—await about four hours west of Denver in Rifle Mountain Park’s extremely popular canyon. Bypass the park’s 33 nonreservable primitive sites (and the bro-tastic après-climbing scene) on CO 217, which becomes Forest Road 832 when it enters White River National Forest. About a mile beyond them, you’ll see Spruce Picnic Area on your left; park on the road’s shoulder nearby and hike into the woods for dispersed, secluded camping that’s still close to the picnic site’s vault toilet. Free, rifleco.org
Rules for Camping in Colorado
Rule No. 1: You Can Eat Well in The Wilderness
It’s easy to slip what you need for this tasty snack in your pack.
Recipe from Pie Bird owner Jamie Burke
- 1 round of Brie
- 1 small sprig fresh rosemary, roughly chopped and several sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and roughly chopped
- 2 apples and fresh veggies of your choice, pre-sliced
- 1 baguette, pre-sliced
- 1 small jar of fig jam
Place the Brie on a sheet of heavy-duty tinfoil. Poke a few holes in the top of the cheese and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Wrap cheese in foil so that it’s fully covered on all sides. Place it in the fire pit, close enough to the flames that it will heat through but not directly in the fire. Rotate every couple of minutes with tongs. Let it warm for 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Serve right away with apples, veggies, bread, and fig jam.
Batched Old Fashioned
Recipe from Chad Michael George, president of the Colorado Bartenders’ Guild and co-owner of the Way Back
(Makes 10 cocktails)
- 20 ounces Rittenhouse Rye whiskey
- 2½–3 ounces Demerara simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water ratio)
- Angostura bitters (roughly 1½ to 2 ounces)
Combine whiskey and simple syrup over ice and stir for 20 seconds. Pour into a flexible wine pouch for transport. Divide into cups and add 6 dashes of bitters to each. Drink.
Batched Vieux Carré
Recipe from Chad Michael George
(Makes 8 cocktails)
- 8 ounces Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac
- 8 ounces Wild Turkey Rye 81 whiskey
- 8 ounces Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
- 1 ounce Bénédictine
- Angostura bitters
- Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 lemon
Pour first four ingredients into a flexible wine pouch for transport. Before serving, drop in 16 dashes of both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. Add ice. Give it a good stir, divide into cup and top with a fresh lemon twist.
- ¼ cup canola or coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup popcorn kernels
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
Place oil, salt, and a few kernels of corn in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Place the pot over very hot coals. Once the first kernel pops, add the remaining popping corn and the sugar. Cover again. Shake the pot back and forth occasionally to prevent burning. Once the popping slows, remove the pot from heat. Keep the lid on until popping has completely stopped. Pour popcorn into a large bowl and enjoy.
Rule No. 2: You Don’t Always Need a Tent
Check out these three alternative accommodations.
Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout Tower
Just an eight-mile drive south of Idaho Springs, the Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout Tower offers a mountaintop view that extends from Longs Peak to Pikes Peak. In the summer, visitors huff it up a steep one-mile road to reach the granite communication tower, which is topped by a cozy living space. The single room plus a loft sleeps four; contains a coffeemaker, refrigerator, and electric stove (but no water); and features a wraparound outdoor catwalk. $80 per night plus a $9 reservation fee
Colorado Teardrops Trailers
If observing nature from the cozy confines of a camper is your thing, we’ve got a home on wheels for you. Boulder-based Colorado Teardrops’ aluminum trailers feature memory foam, queen-size mattresses, a galley for cooking on the back, and an LED-lit interior. They’re also fully insulated and are light enough to be towed by your Subaru. $90 per night
Warbonnet Outdoors’ Blackbird XLC Hammock
If you want to snooze above the ground instead of on it, string up a Warbonnet Outdoors Blackbird XLC hammock. These floating beds are sewn in Evergreen and Denver, include built-in bug netting, and can be customized with double-layer fabric for more heft. The breathable top cover retains heat, making your little nest 15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. $195 to $385
Rule No. 3: Know How to Start a Fire
Staying warm is important, but making s’mores is critical. U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Regional Office spokesperson Lawrence Lujan explains how to get a campfire burning safely.—Karah Kemmerly
1. Before your trip, check the current fire restrictions and regulations in the area at coemergency.com or by contacting the local sheriff’s office, the U.S. Forest Service, or the National Park Service. Contact the campground to see if digging a fire pit is permitted. Then, make sure to pack fire-building supplies, including fire-starter sticks, a shovel, and matches, plus water for putting it out.
2. If there’s a fire ring where you’re camping, use it (and skip to step 3). If not, build your own fire pit. Head downwind at least 15 feet from your tent to an area without dry grass and leaves or low-hanging tree limbs—or clear a 10-foot area of vegetation. Then dig a one-foot-deep pit and encircle it with rocks.
3. Fill your pit with small twigs and dry grass or leaves, then ignite your campfire with a match or lighter. Gradually add small sticks and larger wood in a crisscross pattern over the kindling, but keep the fire a manageable size.
4. Before you head to bed, extinguish the fire. (Never leave a campfire unattended.) If possible, allow the wood to burn down until it’s all ash. Drown the pit completely by pouring water over it until the hissing stops, adding dirt, and stirring. Repeat this process until the site is totally cold.
Rule No. 4: Big Groups Require More Advanced Planning
Sites suitable for large crews book up months in advance. Where should you try to claim space? Here, three of our favorite spots.
Mueller State Park, near Colorado Springs
If you missed your window for reserving one of the 11 RV-only sites in Pisgah Point, a designated group campground, consider trying to secure adjacent campsites in one of Mueller’s six other camping areas. Typical sites hold six people each—and with 121 options, you could hit the jackpot, especially if your dates are flexible. Call 719-687-2366 to book a group site; visit Colorado Parks and Wildlife or call 1-800-678-2267 for all other camping inquiries
Saddlehorn Campground, Colorado National Monument
Communing with western Colorado’s red-rock landscape is magical—and this is the spot to do it. Saddlehorn is the only established campground in the national monument, and although it only has 80 sites, each one allows seven people, three tents, and two vehicles. Sites in B Loop are reservable ($20 camping fee per night, plus entry to the monument) up to six months in advance for visits from March through October. Call 1-877-444-6777 or visit Recreation.gov
Bassam Guard Station, near Buena Vista
Some of the most frequently overlooked camping opportunities for large groups are U.S. Forest Service cabins. Colorado lays claim to more than 20 of these rustic accommodations. Bassam Guard Station ($50 per night plus a $9 reservation fee), located southeast of Buena Vista in an aspen-lined meadow, is a historic cabin that sleeps two. But an additional six people are allowed to doze in tents or a camper in the guard station’s “front yard.” Visit Recreation.gov to make a reservation
Piñon Flats Campground, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Loop 3 of this dunes-adjacent campground has three reservable, tents-only group sites. Able to accommodate anywhere from 15 to 40 people ($65 to $80 per night), these coveted spots fill up quickly, especially during May and June, when Medano Creek turns the area into Colorado’s best beach. After that, your best bet is to wait until September to avoid the desertlike heat. For reservations, visit recreation.gov.
Glacier Basin Group Sites, Rocky Mountain National Park
Yes, the pine beetles obliterated most of the shade at this campground, but its 13 tent-only group options—small sites accommodate up to 15 people; medium up to 25; and large up to 40—make it alluring for big parties who don’t want to travel too far from Denver. Plus, the $4 per person per night price (plus entry fee to the park) is far cheaper than a night out in RiNo. For reservations, visit recreation.gov or reserveamerica.com.
Pawnee Campground, Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Nestled into the base of the Continental Divide, this 55-site campground sits in a mature spruce-fir forest. Short hikes deliver you to some lovely lakes. All of the campsites ($19 per night plus recreation area fees) accommodate eight people; units 12 and 32 allow 15 people each ($38 per night plus recreation area fees). The larger spots go fast, but they are reservable from early July through Labor Day. Reservations can be made up to 160 days in advance, but must be made at least four days before arrival. For reservations, visit recreation.gov.
Rule No. 5: You’re Going to Forget Something
…and other camping fails, as told (anonymously) by 5280 staffers.
On our first family camping trip to Golden Gate Canyon State Park with our boys, ages four and two, my wife and I focused so much on making sure we had all the gear they needed that we forgot pants (for me) and a jacket (for her). Of course, that was nothing compared to my youngest son’s echo-off-the-canyon-walls screaming at 11 p.m.—followed by him waking up every two hours after that until 5 a.m. Talk about “roughing it.”
I never expect to get a great night of sleep while camping, but my wilderness insomnia reached new levels when the group of kids in the campsite next to us decided to sing “99 Bottles of Beer” all night. Thank goodness for campfire coffee.
My friend brought her dad’s brand-new pop-up canopy on a trip without telling him. As luck would have it, a massive thunderstorm blew through the area and cracked the poles in half. All of our food ended up soaked and she had to confess to her dad that she’d broken his new toy.
On a family camping trip when we were younger, my dad decided to pack the raw chicken in the same cooler as the juice and soda. Unbeknownst to us, the chicken juice leaked out of the package, and everyone got food poisoning—except for him. He was only drinking beer, which was in another cooler! Instead of canoeing the final day of camping (which, as little kids, we were so excited about), we ended up cutting the trip short and finding the closest doctor.
My husband and I were camping near the Forest lakes in the James Peak Wilderness during the summer. It had been a gorgeous day, but an afternoon hailstorm came in and pounded the area. What we hadn’t noticed when we set up our tent was that it was at the bottom of this little sluicelike hill. Well, that little sluice sent a wave of hail and meltwater right into our tent. Everything was soaked: our sleeping bags, our clothes, our food. We had to pack up and go home.
My husband and I got on the road late for a quick weekend trip, so it was dark by the time we got close to our campsite. We stopped to buy wood at a gas station on our way, threw it in the back of the car, and started driving. All the sudden we were attacked by moths that must have been hiding out in the wood bundles. It was horrible: We were driving and trying to shoo them out the windows. And then we got to the campsite and had to set it up in the dark. We definitely learned our lesson about getting to our campsite before the sun sets.
The pungent odor of skunk wafted in the air as a black-and-white rascal strolled by our campsite one summer. The smell faded, but the fear of being sprayed did not. As night fell, my friend, Jon, and I climbed into our tent. It was still hot, so, with trepidation, we left it unzipped. I quickly dozed off, only to be startled awake by Jon, who was poking me and whispering, ‘The skunk’s back.’ In the darkness, not 30 feet from us, a pair of beady eyes reflected in the moonlight. “He’s looking at us!” Jon insisted. I squinted harder, but the eyes didn’t move. Exhausted, I flopped over and told Jon I was sure he’d go away soon. For the remainder of the night, I woke to Jon hissing at the skunk, poking me, and muttering, “He’s staring right at me!” As the rays broke through the pines in the morning, I crawled out into the fresh air and immediately doubled over in laughter. There, sitting on a log at approximately skunk height, sat one pair of Oakley sunglasses.
Counting the Stars
Back to Top
A statistical look at camping in the Centennial State. —Sarah Cahalan
35.6 % of Coloradans tent-camped in 2013
Colorado residents spent 14,158,319 Days camping in tents in 2013
90% of Coloradans participate in outdoor recreation annually
34.5 billion Dollars spent in outdoor recreation contributes to Colorado’s economy annually
43 % of Coloradans list tent camping as their first choice of accommodation on overnight outdoor recreation trips
4,229 Campsites in Colorado’s state parks
2.1 million Overnight camping visitors in the U.S. Forest Service’s 14 Centennial State properties (which cover 14.4 million acres of land) between 2008 and 2012
535,773 Overnight camping visits to National Park Service sites in Colorado in 2015
Sources: Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, National Park Service
Pack It In
A satisfying wilderness experience starts with basic shelter, but why stop there? Here, a hierarchy of “meeds” for camping bliss. —Kelly Bastone
- Sleeping Bag
- Plastic five-gallon water jug or hydration pack
- Chaco sandals or hiking boots and wool socks
- Toilet paper, trowel, and hand sanitizer
- Butane lighter (and matches just in case)
- First-aid kit
- Quick-dry clothing
- Multitool knife
- Nonperishable food
You’ll Need a Few of These:
- Ultralight cookset
- Utensil set
- Waterproof, breathable rain jacket
- Midweight puffy jacket
- Broad-brimmed sun hat
- Folding camp chair
- Campfire grill grate
- Sleeping pad
Extras From Which to Pick and Chose
- Espresso maker (we’re partial to the AeroPress)
- Collapsible kitchen table and organizer
- Freestanding sunshade
- Battery-powered lantern (like Kelty’s LumaSpot Rhythm with a built-in speaker)
- Fishing rod and tackle
- Waterproof 7×35 binoculars
- Barware, like insulated stainless steel pints, wine goblets, and tumblers
- Cooler light (to discern your porter from your IPA)
- Wonder Wicket Light lighted croquet—or any other easy-to-pack lawn game
- Air bed
- Solar-heated camp shower