EO’s guide to the best drive-in campgrounds: Just pull up the vehicle, unload and enjoy.
What’s there not to like about car camping? It combines the fun and adventure of a backpacking trip with the comforts of a two-burner stove, stand-up-room tent, cooler of beer and plush air mattress. Not to mention, if you’re short on time, traveling with kids, or towing bikes/canoes/fishing gear, there’s no easier way to overnight outdoors than to toss everything you need into the trunk and roll.
Colorado has one of the biggest menus of campgrounds in the country, but too many of those spots are overrun, poorly planned or filled with fume-belching RVs. To help you plan, we rounded up 10 of the best campgrounds across the state. Some are small and private. Others are better for rowdy groups, trailers and kids. But all are set in drop-dead gorgeous locales with adventure nearby.
1. The Crags – Colorado State Forest, southeast of Gould
Colorado State Forest is often overshadowed by its more popular neighbor, Rocky Mountain National Park. Yet, the scenery here is almost equally jaw-dropping, and the wildlife nearly as abundant. What you won’t find in the forest are the bumper-to-bumper windshield gawkers. The Crags Campground is wedged among rocky peaks at the southern end of the forest. A rough access road and small spaces make this best for tents and small trailers—and keep the crowds at bay. All the sites except No. 6 are reservable, but you probably won’t need a reservation except on busy weekends. Call ahead to be sure. What to Do: Climbing at Nokhu Crags and hiking the surrounding chain of 12,000-foot peaks are the choice pursuits, with several routes accessible from the campsite. Cast a fly in the bordering American Lakes for cutthroat trout.
CONTACT: 970-723-8366; http://parks.state.co.us/parks/stateforest
2. Mueller State Park Campground – Pike National Forest, south of Divide
Mueller is a popular spot, and once you set foot here, you’ll immediately see why. The park’s 5,121 acres of aspen and conifer forests are home to black bear, elk, deer, fox, coyotes and hundreds of bird species. Pikes Peak is in full view to the east, and a long stretch of the Continental Divide to the west. For walk-in tent sites, head up Revenuer’s Ridge to Prospectors Ridge. A dozen sites are (a short) walk-in only and spaced about 100 yards apart for privacy. Turkey Meadow sites are also a short walk in and provide the best views of Pikes Peak. What to Do: Access more than 85 miles of biking and hiking trails directly from the campground. Four Mile Creek provides stream fishing for trout. The south end of Mueller has the Four Mile Day Use Area where you can set off down the popular hike up to Dome Rock. Look for bighorn sheep. Have the family along? Sign up for a ranger-led nature program.
CONTACT: 719-687-2366; http://parks.state.co.us/parks/mueller/
3. Camp Dick – Boulder Ranger District, near Allenspark
Small groups, dog lovers, and wilderness buffs will feel right at home at Camp Dick Campground, which is situated in a glacial valley adjacent to Middle St. Vrain Creek and borders the Indian Peaks Wilderness. While many surrounding sites (including Rocky Mountain National Park) don’t allow four-legged hikers, they’re welcome (on-leash) at Camp Dick and in the wilderness area. Try to nab one of the sites that borders St. Vrain Creek—the sound of the water adds privacy and offers the chance to take a dip on hot summer days. The camp is normally full for the weekend by early Friday afternoon, so arrive early or reserve ahead. What to Do: Trails leading into Indian Peaks leave right from the campground. Horseback riding, biking and fishing are also available here. Campground full? Peaceful Valley Campground is approximately one mile east of Camp Dick and offers another 17 sites.
4. Long Draw Campground – Roosevelt National Forest, west of Ft. Collins
Most Fort Collins visitors stop at Poudre Canyon and Red Feather Lakes, but if you keep heading west, there’s much more to discover. At 10,030 feet in elevation, Long Draw is the ideal base camp to escape the heat and explore. All the sites are first-come, first-served, so get here early to stake out your ground. Twenty-one sites accommodate RV camping and four are more suitable for tents. Most of the sites are heavily wooded, providing shade and privacy. Local rangers say that once people visit Long Draw, they keep coming back year after year—a true testament to the area’s hidden beauty. What to Do: Fish for trout in Long Draw Reservoir, La Poudre Pass Creek, and Corral Creek. Hike the nearby Corral Creek and Poudre River trails. Nonmotorized boats are permitted in Long Draw Reservoir.
CONTACT: Canyon Lakes Ranger District, 970-295-6600
5. North Rim Campground – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose
Photos don’t do justice to the deep, narrow drama of the Black Canyon. You really must come and see it for yourself. There are many places to access the gorge, but the north rim offers the most solitude. The campground is arguably the most scenic in the area, set on the rim’s edge in an ancient piñon-juniper forest. Instead of looking up at snowy mountains—the quintessential Colorado view—you will be looking down into the nearly 2,000-foot-deep canyon. Campsites are on the small side, which discourages trailers and RVs. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early on busy summer weekends. What to Do: Hike along the rim or down into the gorge itself, where the fly fishing is unparalleled. At the end of the campground loop, set foot onto the Chasm View Nature Trail for amazing gorge views. The North Vista Trail leaves from the ranger station nearby and goes along the North Rim of the Gunnison to a high point on a nearby ridge. Climbing the “Black” is a unique adventure too (but not for the inexperienced).
CONTACT: 970-641-2337; nps.gov/blca
6. Cold Springs Campground – Routt National Forest, southwest of Yampa
Here, solitude is absolutely guaranteed. Farther off the beaten path than most car-camping spots, this is the uppermost campground along FR 900. It sits at the eastern edge of Stillwater Reservoir and only offers five sites and no RV access. No reservations are accepted, so arrive early to nab a spot. Your backdrop is a knife-edge ridgeline of 11,000–12,000-foot peaks, and there’s a waterfall and small pond on-site. The trailhead to the Flat Tops Wilderness is nearby, as are several other trails leading to the small lakes atop the mesa. Steamboat Springs isn’t too far away by car if you want to break up your wilderness experience with mountain town life or a dip in the springs. What to Do: Hike. Stillwater Trailhead lies just beyond the campground and offers access to the Flat Tops. Smith Lake Trailhead leaves from the campground and is an easy stroll to Smith Lake—great for an after-dinner walk or hike with small children. You can also fish on the reservoir.
CONTACT: Routt National Forest, 970-638-4516
7. Parry Peak – West of Twin Lakes, near Leadville
Anglers who want to save money on hotel fees and have easy access to the best holes should stop over at Parry Peak Campground. This lightly forested campground on Lake Creek makes a great stopover on a fishing road trip or a great destination in and of itself. The campground was recently rejuvenated, including some reforestation of pines that were destroyed by beetles. The sites are a bit close together, but the campground typically only fills up on the busiest summer weekends. For the best sites, stay left after crossing the bridge. What to Do: Lake and stream fishing are the biggest draws here. You can also launch a canoe or hike in and around the campground (access to Mount Elbert is close by). Surrounding Leadville you’ll find amazing white-knuckle singletrack for mountain biking. Climbers can access Monitor Rock, Outlook Rock, Black Slab, Dump Wall and more.
CONTACT: San Isabel National Forest, 719-486-0749
8. Bear Lake Campground – Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near La Veta
This isn’t the same Bear Lake you think it is. Located in far southern Colorado, the granite domes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains border a forest of spruce and fir. This in turn gives way to an open meadow and Bear Lake, where you can enjoy tent camping in the most southeasterly slice of national forest land in Colorado. The campground is well placed along the dense forest and alpine meadow above Bear Lake. Along the gravel loop, several wooded sites are spaced out with obscured views of the lake. More open sites are in the center loop as the road swings around into a grassy meadow. Reservations aren’t accepted, but sites are usually plentiful if you arrive by early afternoon. What to Do: Dozens of trails offer hiking within minutes of the campground, or make a side trip to the Spanish Peaks. Indian Creek Trailhead starts just beyond site 9. A foot trail circles Bear Lake, fed by the streams above and home to trout. A mile up trail is Blue Lake, with more fishing.
CONTACT: San Isabel National Forest, 719-269-8500
9. Saddlehorn Campground – Colorado National Monument, near Fruita
Until recent years, the canyon country southwest of Grand Junction was largely overlooked by outdoor junkies who only had tunnel vision for Moab. But the crowds are discovering Fruita’s trails and the forests and rock sculptures of the Colorado National Monument. Saddlehorn Campground is an ideal jumping off spot for exploring the monument, and the campground is a destination in and of itself. Loop B has a few sites that are especially private. For the best weather and least amount of bugs, visit here in early September through November. All sites are first-come, first-served. What to Do: Some of the monument’s best day hikes are accessible from the campground. The Window Rock Trail is a nice short loop with views. Canyon Rim Trail travels on the edge of Wedding Canyon for more views. For a longer hike, take off down the Monument Canyon Trail for 6-8 miles and tour the natural rock sculptures. Or try the Ottos Trail, which drops down toward the Pipe Organ and overlooks the depths of Monument Canyon. Drive or road bike the 23 miles from one end of the park to the other—numerous overlooks provide wide vistas over the canyon.
10. Vallecito Reservoir – Northeast of Bayfield, near Durango
Vallecito is one of the few large reservoirs in Colorado that marries the tranquility of camping with the bustling fun of water sports. For that reason, it’s an ideal destination for groups and families. Several campgrounds surround the reservoir, but we recommend Old Timers and Graham Creek on the east side, which is less developed. If you like fishing, visit in early fall when the water skiers are gone. Anglers can pursue rainbow and German brown trout, Kokanee salmon and northern pike. What to Do: Boating and water sports are the big ticket here. Several hiking trails are located near campgrounds, leading along streams and into the high country. You can take short walks to scenic overlooks or long treks into the Weminuche Wilderness.
CONTACT: San Juan National Forest, 970-884-2512 •