The old adage “Know before you go” takes on a new, elevated meaning in the Colorado outdoors.
First, before we go camping, we need to know about fire restrictions. These are becoming more widespread amid this mega drought and amid waves of new arrivals. The pandemic marked a time of larger crowds in the mountains – and increasing fears of bonfires, which resulted in larger burns.
With these crowds come new land management strategies. Sure, we still have our secret spots. But these sites have been and are being discovered more and more, putting increasing strain on agencies charged with tending the forest with scarce federal funds.
The result: a shift from scattered to reported. Campgrounds that were once free to enter now require fees and, in some cases, reservations made days or weeks in advance on entertainment.gov.
So it might be time we learn to get along with our camping neighbors, time to appreciate our developed campsites. Here are some to consider:
Amphitheater Campground: Why book a hotel room in Ouray when you can get a spot less than 2 miles from the city’s shops, restaurants and hot springs?
The “Amphitheater” is a natural one formed by a volcanic explosion in the ancient days of the San Juan Mountains. After the opening of the campsite in mid-June, limited parking spaces will be available. Better reserve. $24 for the night.
Crags Campground: This is well known to the people of Colorado Springs. It usually opens in late May and is a first come, first served campsite. Good luck snagging one of the 17 pages, especially on weekends.
The campground is a focal point outside of Divide, an escape from the city, and a starting point for the trail of the same name that leads to the Devil’s Playground Trail, which climbs to the top of Pikes Peak. $20 for the night.
Crested Butte Drainage
Last year, Crested Butte became a prime example of the camping revolution. Throughout the valley, many sites have been cleaned up and others have been formalized and marked for motorists, for example on the Slate River and Washington Gulch roads. A lot has also changed at the Kebler Pass. What has not changed: the breathtaking landscape.
If you drive in, managers recommend having backup plans in case the sites fill up. Or make reservations at several campgrounds such as Lake Irwin on Kebler Pass or Oh Be Joyful on the Slate River.
Davenport Campground: In southern Colorado, closest to Rye and Beulah, the big bonus here is history. It’s fair to say that you’ve camped at what is believed to be the first US Forest Service campground as we’ve come to know it. Davenport was rebuilt as Arthur Carhart originally designed it in 1919 – the blueprint that would later inspire recovery plans across the country.
Accessible by road from Lake Isabel and also by backpacking via the Carhart and Squirrel Creek trails from Pueblo Mountain Park. Walk-up and reservations, $24 for the night.
McInnis Canyons: At 122,300 acres, the sheer size of this national preserve west of Grand Junction allows everyone to spread out. It’s a rugged, arid mosaic of sandstone canyons, arches, and spiers that can get hot in summer. A few summers ago, we at least imagined the coolness of the Colorado River in the view from Knowles Overlook Campground.
As in Crested Butte, the motto here is “designated dispersed”. First come, first served at marked locations off Interstate 70 along the mountain biker-cherished Kokopelli Trail.
Peaceful Valley and Camp Dick Campgrounds These two sister properties are nestled in a glacial valley outside of Allenspark, in a dreamy landscape criss-crossed by Middle Saint Vrain Creek and framed by the Indian Peaks. It is a meeting point for anglers, hikers and mountain bikers, a combination that makes places very popular. Forty-one pitches at Camp Dick, a mix of walk-in and reserved pitches. The same applies to the 17 locations in the Peaceful Valley. Fees start at $25.
Peak One and Pine Cove Campgrounds: These are good for the whole family due to their amenities and proximity to town. They are based on the Frisco Peninsula where you can adventure on hiking trails or on the water at Dillon Reservoir.
Peak One and Pine Cove together make up 136 pitches for tents, trailers and RVs. First come, first served at Pine Cove, reservations start at $22 at Peak One.
Piñon Flats Campground: Just as the sight of North America’s largest dune field is unforgettable, so is an overnight stay at its base. You’ll see why Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has a rare International Dark Sky Classification.
If you’re having trouble booking a spot at the Piñon Flats, the views are also great from campgrounds along the primitive 4WD Medano Pass. Other options include Oasis Campground, just outside the park entrance, and Zapata Falls Campground, 11 miles south.
Campgrounds in Red Feather Lakes
You don’t hear much about Red Feather Lakes in Denver and the southern Front Range, but you do in the northern parts. It’s a quaint community of cabins and bodies of water appreciated for boating and fishing — and campgrounds fill up fast. Visit Dowdy Lake, Bellaire Lake and West Lake campgrounds. Fees start at $24.
Trinidad Lake: In 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife began requiring reservations for camping in all state parks. Luckily, there are some underrated gems that still make reservations fairly available. This includes this lake on the southern border of the state.
On our most recent visit, we settled into South Shore Campground and enjoyed the shimmering reflection of Fishers Peak. Carpios Ridge Campground is another option that sits along hiking trails that explore the park’s intrigues on land.
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