The Ultimate Colorado Car Camping Guide

Photo: David Clifford/davidcliffordphotogrpahy.com

Summer here and it’s time to get out of the house and the heat. Here’s our guide on where to go and what to bring.

Car camping—haul everything you can carry, crack a beer, relax while the kids play with sticks. Honestly, this is the way it’s been since your grandparents got out in canvas wall tents. What’s different is your SUV packed to the brim with expensive bikes, boats, waterproof/breathable farbics and electonic-device charging lanterns. In that vein, we offer up some advice on our favorite spots to pitch oversized tents, and how to do it in style.

Our Five Favorite Car Camping Spots in Colorado

Cold Springs Campground
White River National Forest

Want to escape the crowds? You won’t find RVs gunning generators at this remote, five-site spot on the eastern edge of Stillwater Reservoir, but you can’t make reservations, either. Our advice? Arrive early and enjoy a beverage by the waterfall, then gather up the clan and hike into the nearby Flat Tops Wilderness.

Sites: 5 Fee: $20
Reservations: None. First come first served only.

Saddlehorn Campground
Colorado National Monument

Most folks who camp at Fruita just don’t want to make the drive up to this stunning spot that overlooks the valley that holds town. We are never sure why. Sure, it takes a bit longer to drive to the trails and you have to pay to get into the park, but there are almost always spaces available, it’s quiet (no motorheads shredding up the desert while they drink Old Swill at 1 a.m.), a cool breeze picks up at night and the stargazing is unparalleled.

Sites: 80 Fee:  $20
Reservations: You can make them but not required: nps.gov/colm/planyourvisit/saddlehorn-campground.htm

Pawnee Campground
Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Arapahoe National Forest

This one has been closed the past two season for remodeling. We hope it pays off because it sits at the gateway of an alpine playground. From here you can base camp for adventures into the Indian Peaks. Excursions include climbs up easy-yet-impressive peaks like 13,221-foot Mount Audubon or tougher third-class scrambles like 13,409-foot Navajo Peak. Or just fish in Lake Isabelle or Mitchell Lake.

Sites: 39 drive-in, 8 walk-in  Fee: $19
Reservations: Required for many sites, recommend getting them: fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/recare

Angel of Shavano
San Isabel National Forest

Even the Forest Serice calls this little campground a “secret.” But that hasn’t ruined the place. The access here is the big draw: you can muster for a ride on the Monarch Crest or even forgo the Dutch oven and drive in to Salida for dinner and beer if you are so inclinded.

Sites: 20  Fee: $17
Reservations: None. First come first served only.

Granite Tent Campground
Gunnison National Forest

If you live to fish this is the spot for you. The Taylor River practically runs through your tent here and if you don’t trust your own wild angling savvy you can pony up and head to nearby Harmel’s Ranch Resort which stocks pigs in its private stretch of the Taylor. Ripping lips not your thing? The famed bike trails of Crested Butte are a short drive away. Even closer is Hartman’s Rock in Gunnison and the singletrack of Doctor’s Park, which has spurred some locals to spout that “the best riding in Crested Butte is not in Crested Butte.”

Sites: 7  Fee: $10
Reseravtions: None. First come first served only.

THREE BIG TIPS FOR CAR CAMPING

1) Reserve way ahead of time. It’s shocking how fast campgrounds fill up. If your plans change you can find someone who will take the spot.

2) If you have kids, bring the bikes and striders. They will entertain themselves going round and round the campground while you relax with your morning or evening beverage of choice.

3) The perfect spot is neither too far from the bathrooms nor too close.

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