An Expert Guide to Camping in ColoradoPublished on 08/17/2020 · 10 min readThere's no shortage of places to camp in Colorado. Camping expert Donny O'Neill breaks down the main three camping options and offers some suggestions for where to go!
Photo by Donny O'Neill
When you think of camping in the western United States, Colorado undoubtedly comes up as one of the first places in your mind. And for good reason. The Centennial State is one of the most naturally beautiful regions in the country, and the camping options are limitless and wide ranging in all corners of the state. No matter your preference, you can find a quality camping spot anywhere from the rugged high peaks, foothills, high-desert, prairies, mountain valleys, or arid red rock desert. It’s tough to find a state with more diverse camping options, and it's even tougher to find a better time to camp than during the Colorado summer. In general, it's safe to plan the first week of camping for mid-June, when the snow has vanished from most areas and there's a good bet for warm nights.
In Colorado, there are three main camping options at your disposal: campsites, car camping, and dispersed camping.
Campgrounds and RV Parks
Established campgrounds or RV parks are great for taking the headache out of finding a proper patch of land to pitch a tent, and providing amenities that make the camping experience a little more like home. Operators of these campgrounds range from privately-held camping providers like KOA to local RV park companies to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
If you’re seeking a camping experience that has nearly all the amenities as staying in a hotel would, looking at established camping providers is your best bet. Private campgrounds are plentiful in Colorado. These properties generally require a fee, and offer tent sites, RV hookups, cabins, and yurts.
Lone Duck Campground, near Colorado Springs, is a popular option for Front Rangers. The Cripple Creek KOA, located just west of Colorado Springs, offers RV sites, camping cabins (if sleeping outside isn’t your jam), deluxe tent sites (found closer to the campgrounds central amenities), as well as wilderness tent sites located in the area’s beautiful aspen groves. The Cripple Creek KOA also offers propane and firewood for purchase, has an on-site dog park, as well as a central pavilion for gathering (great for if weather rolls in). There’s also free wifi on-site, for those who’d like to stay connected in the wilderness.
Those looking for a campground experience as close to “off-the-grid” as possible should look at one of Colorado’s 41 State Parks. The State Parks are found in locations all over Colorado, from the Eastern Plains to the upper reaches of the Colorado Rockies.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages over 4,000 (!) campsites in the state. Camping at all Colorado State Parks now requires a reservation, so make sure to visit the CPW website to reserve your spot. If you’re into an amenity-rich experience, Cheyenne Mountain State Park, located near Colorado Springs, is open year-round, is a full hookup RV park (51 sites available), has 10 basic tent sites, and coin-operated showers and laundry. Sylvan Lake State Park has similar amenities, but in more of a wilderness setting. It boasts a total of 44 campsites, all of which accommodate tents, trailers, and RVs. Each site also has a picnic table. Services also include both coin-operated showers and flush toilets during the summer (vault toilets are there to be used year-round).
All camping at Pearl Lake, near Steamboat, on the other hand, takes place at non-electric sites. You’ll have to bring everything you’ll need for this park, and there are no showers here. Flush toilets are available, however. There are two yurts available at this campground, for those who do want a little bit more posh of an experience. If you're looking for a rustic experience with a roof under your head, some state parks have deluxe cabins on-site - State Forest State Park, for example.
Many State Parks offer more than just camping. Steamboat Lake Park, near Pearl Lake, has a boat ramp for those looking to get out on the water. For those in a pinch, there are plenty of State Parks found close to the Front Range Urban Corridor. Mueller State Park, in Teller County, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Lake Pueblo State Park, and Lory State Park are all popular destinations close to the cities of Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins.
Aside from the State Park system, there are plenty of other campground options for you to explore. Perhaps one of the best (although, admittedly, popular), is in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are five campgrounds within the park. Three of which, the Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, and Moraine Park campgrounds, all require a reservation, which are generally filled well in advance. There are two first-come, first-served campgrounds, the Longs Peak and Timber Creek campgrounds, that you can take a chance on, as well, but you’ll likely have the best luck heading there midweek. Fees range from $30 to $50 at all campgrounds. There are also visitor centers in the park that can provide more information. Colorado's National Monuments (see: Dinosaur) also offer similar camping opportunities.
Backcountry Car Camping
A trusted medium-clearance vehicle can bring you to some of the most breathtaking camping spots in the state, via the endless array of U.S. Forest Service roads that criss-cross Colorado. Federal lands are our lands, after all. And National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land are generally the only places to find free campsites these days. Driving to an adequate car camping spot away from campgrounds is a form of dispersed camping, and is permitted in the National Forest as long as you follow the appropriate guidelines. Make sure to drive on existing roads (not over meadows or open fields) to access your camp spot without damaging natural resources. You must be outside of the one-mile perimeter of an established campground. Your site needs to be at least 100 feet from a stream and 150 feet away from the roadway.
Before heading out, make sure you have all of your supplies with you (don't forget the toilet paper) as it's often a decent trek from the nearest town. When picking out your spot along the road, keep an eye out of cleared patches with established fire rings that have been used before. Relying on established campsites rather than making new ones can minimize the impact on the environment you’re camping on. Try to set up your tent on bare soil (assuming you're tent camping, and not sleeping in your vehicle), when possible, keep 100 feet from any nearby water source, and avoid digging trenches or leveling out your area with shovels; it’s best to pick a spot with good drainage already established.
Now, when it comes to actually setting out to find the best backcountry car camping spot, relying on the vast network of Forest Service roads is a safe bet, and provides some pretty easy access. Maps, including motor vehicle use maps, are available on the Forest Service website.
Once you have a general area of National Forest picked out, and a reference to the service road network within them, you can drive deep into the forest, keeping your eyes out for the best available spots. Oftentimes, you’ll find an established pull-out site with a fire ring as frequently as every quarter mile, or so. For reference, Forest Service Road 211 winds west out of the town of Deckers before colliding with the Lost Creek Wilderness boundary. Over 14 miles of bumpy road (most vehicles will handle this, no problem), there are dozens of pre-established pull-offs with fire rings, nearby nature trails, and space for vehicles to camp at. This area of Colorado is filled with incredible rock formations of Pikes Peak Granite, and offers a truly spectacular way to connect with nature. There are often views of Pikes Peak's majestic backside from many of the pull-offs in this area, too.
Without having to pay any campground fees (and free parking!) or develop a proper backpacking gear quiver, backcountry car camping is often the best value when setting out to sleep beneath the stars in Colorado.
Pro tip: Try and find these spots during the workweek, rather than summer weekends. By the time you’ve set out on a Friday evening and gotten to your zone, many of the best spots will have been claimed by other eager campers.
Backcountry Dispersed Camping / Backpacking
If you really want to experience the solitude of the Colorado wilderness, heading out on a backpacking trek is a sure bet to do so. You’ll truly be on your own in this situation, so make sure you have the proper equipment and an understanding of wilderness regulations before you set out. Make sure you’re in good shape, begin your days early (if you’re hiking from spot to spot), remember that cell phone coverage is generally unavailable (investing in a GPS device can help bring peace of mind in this regard), have a proper first aid kit with you, and consider purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card (CORSAR) for emergency situations.
Similar rules apply when backpacking as do with dispersed camping off of a service road. Try and backpack into an area where other campers have been and built fire rings. Obviously, this isn’t always possible deep in the wilderness, so if you can’t find a former camp spot, try and set up your tent on the bare ground so as not to destroy vegetation. You’ll need to be 100 feet from a water source here as well.
There are other aspects of backpacking to keep in mind before setting out into the wilderness, too. You must properly dispose of your waste from your campsite. Try not to bring in items like cans that you’ll have to pack back out. Properly plan out your meals so you don’t have leftovers. Wash your dishes 200 feet from a water source. And when nature calls, it’s best to rely upon the “cat hole” method (unless you want to pack your droppings back out with you). Find a well-drained area 200 feet from the trail or water source, use a trowel and dig a hole about six inches deep. Do your business, then refill the hole with the loose soil you removed.
When it comes to campfires, you’ll need to contact the local ranger office or just look online to see if any fire bans are in effect for the National Forest you’re camping in. Many times throughout the hotter months, that will be the case. Be sure to use an established fire ring if one is available. If not, you can build a “mound fire.” You’ll need to lay out a piece of fireproof material or a fire pan commonly found at outdoor equipment retailers. If you don’t have one, a flat rock will do the trick. Cover the material or rock with an inch or so of mineral soil, found underneath the top layer of soil around you. Build the fire on top of the mineral soil and try to keep it small, then light it and keep warm. When it’s time to put the fire out, douse it with water, and don’t leave the area until it’s cool to the touch.
Deep in the wilderness, you’ll often encounter wildlife, which is a nice surprise, but animals needed to be treated with the utmost respect. View them from afar, and try not to let them know of your presence, as it could disturb them or even cause them to come after you. If you’re hoping to capture pictures, try and position yourself downwind so the animals don’t get a whiff of you. Setting up a backcountry camp in Colorado enters you into the delicate balance of the wilderness, so be sure to respect that.
There’s no shortage of ways to sleep under the stars deep in the Colorado wilderness. From deep treks into the Indians Peaks Wilderness near the Front Range Urban Corridor, to high peak traverses in the Collegiate Peaks outside of Buena Vista, to long desert walks near Mesa Verde National Park, backpacking is one of the best ways to connect with the wilderness, and Colorado may as well be the backpacking capital of the western United States.