The old adage “know before you go” takes on new and heightened meaning in the Colorado wilderness.
Before we go camping, we need to know the fire restrictions, to begin with. These are becoming more widespread amid this mega-drought and amid waves of new arrivals. The pandemic marked a period of larger crowds across the mountains – and heightened campfire anxiety leading to greater burns.
With these mobs come new land management strategies. Of course, we still have our secret places. But these places have become and are becoming more uncovered, putting more and more pressure on the agencies tasked with maintaining the forest with short-term federal funds.
The result: a shift from dispersed to designated. Campsites that were once free now require fees and, in some cases, reservations made days or weeks in advance on Recreation.gov.
So maybe it’s time to learn to get along with our camping neighbors, time to enjoy our serviced campsites. Here are a few :
Why book a hotel room in Ouray if you can find a place here within 2 miles of the town’s shops, restaurants and hot springs?
The “amphitheater” is natural, formed by a volcanic explosion in ancient times from the San Juan Mountains. After the campground opens in mid-June, limited sites are available to enter without an appointment. Better to book. $24 for the night.
It’s a familiar place to people around Colorado Springs. Usually open in late May, this is a first-come, first-served campground. Good luck snagging one of the 17 sites, especially on weekends.
The campground is a must-see outside of Divide, a getaway from town and the base of 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.
Ridged mound drainage basins
Last year, Crested Butte became a prime example of the camping revolution. Across the valley, many sites have been cleared and others made official and marked for drivers on the roads to Slate River and Washington Gulch, for example. Things have also changed along the Kebler Pass. What has not changed: the breathtaking landscapes.
If you are driving, managers recommend having backup plans in case the sites are full. Or you can make reservations at several campgrounds, like Lake Irwin along Kebler Pass or Oh Be Joyful along the Slate River.
In southern Colorado, closest to Rye and Beulah, the big bonus here is history. You can say you camped in what is considered the first US Forest Service campground as we know it. Davenport was rebuilt the way Arthur Carhart originally designed it in 1919 – the plan that would inspire recreation plans across the country.
Accessible by road from Lake Isabel, as well as by hiking via the Carhart and Squirrel Creek trails from Pueblo Mountain Park. Without appointment and reservations, $24 for the night.
At 122,300 acres, the sheer size of this National Conservation Area west of Grand Junction allows for all to expand. It’s a rugged, dry patchwork of sandstone canyons, arches and spires that tends to be hot in the summer. A few summers ago, we at least imagined the cool Colorado River in sight of the Knowles Overlook Campground.
As at Crested Butte, the motto here is “designated dispersed”. First-come, first-served at marked sites off Interstate 70 along the popular Kokopelli Trail.
Peaceful Valley and Camp Dick Campgrounds
These two sister lands are located in a glacial valley outside of Allenspark, in a dreamlike landscape intertwined by Middle Saint Vrain Creek and framed by the Indian Peaks. It’s a meeting place for anglers, hikers and mountain bikers, a combination that makes the sites very popular. Forty-one sites at Camp Dick, a mix of walk-in and booked. Ditto for the 17 sites of Peaceful Valley. Fees start at $25.
Peak One and Pine Cove Campgrounds
For their amenities and their proximity to the city, they are suitable for the whole family. They’re based on the Frisco Peninsula, where you can choose your adventures on the trails or on the water at Dillon Reservoir.
Peak One and Pine Cove combine to form 136 sites that can accommodate tents, caravans and motorhomes. First come, first served at Pine Cove, reservations from $22 at Peak One.
Pinon Flats Campground
Just as the sight of North America’s largest dune field is unforgettable, so is a night at its base. You will understand why the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has a rare international dark sky classification.
If you’re struggling to book a spot at Piñon Flats, the views are also great from campsites along the primitive 4WD Medano Pass. Other options are Oasis Campground, just outside the park entrance, and Zapata Falls Campground, 11 miles south.
Red Feather Lakes Campgrounds
You don’t hear much about Red Feather Lakes around Denver and the southern Front Range, but you definitely hear about them in the northern parts. It’s a quaint community of cabins and waters popular for boating and fishing — and campsites fill up fast. Check out Dowdy Lake, Bellaire Lake and West Lake Campgrounds. Fees start at $24.
In 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife began requiring reservations for camping at all state parks. Luckily, there are some underrated gems that still make reservations fairly available. That includes this lake on the southern border of the state.
On our last visit, we settled into the South Shore Campground, enjoying the shimmering reflection of Fishers Peak. Carpios Ridge Campground is another option, located near trails exploring the park’s plots on land.