‘Tis the season for flaming aspen trees and our various pilgrimages to see them. Some Colorado travelers are content to enjoy the colors from their cars, gawking from the highway shoulder or the occasional scenic overlook. But for a more immersive experience, there’s nothing like golden hour in an aspen grove in autumn! The sun stabs horizontally through the elegant white trunks and already-glowing leaves become surreal in the light. Here are a few top-pick campgrounds to get you closer to those leaves.
1) Transfer Campground, north of Mancos
This remote, secluded campground on the west slope of the La Plata Mountains has a dozen campsites for tents and RVs in its own grove of aspen trees and wildflowers. Transfer normally attracts backpackers, mountain bikers, horse owners, and ATV riders who come to explore the La Platas via the West Mancos, Box Canyon, Sharkstooth, Morrison, and Bear Creek Trails. The 40-mile Aspen Loop Trail is open to ATVs, bikes, and horses. In the campground, site number 10 is one of the larger sites, and only 50 yards up a trail to the West Mancos Overlook with views of Debe’nsta, a.k.a. Hesperus Peak, a sacred mountain to the Din’e (Navajo) people.
If you go: There are no hookups, but there are picnic tables, grills, fire rings, vault toilets, drinking water, a group site, and horse corral. This is a first-come, first-served campground. The fee is $16 per night. Contact: San Juan National Forest, Dolores Ranger District, 970/882-7296, www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan.
2) Lost Lake, west of Crested Butte
Located on the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway, you can drive up to Lost Lake from either Paonia or Crested Butte. Both ways take you through some of the most massive, stunning aspen groves in the world. Lost Lake itself sits in a cirque at the base of East Beckwith Mountain, between the Raggeds and West Elk wilderness areas. The campground is in a healthy forest of aspen, spruce, and fir on the north shore of the lake, and many of the sites have postcard-perfect views of the Beckwith Mountains. Campers fish and boat on the lake, and also hike and bike the Three Lakes Trail, a 2.1-mile loop around Lost Lake with views of the Ruby Range. It connects to the Beckwith Pass Trail, which hikers can take through aspen stands and parks full of wildflowers into the West Elk Wilderness. There is an adjacent cluster of equestrian sites for horse owners.
If you go: There are three double sites and 11 single sites for tents and RVs. There are five additional dual-use sites for tents or horse trailers. There are no hookups. Reservations are not accepted. The fee is $18 per night for single sites or horse sites, $36 for doubles. Cash or check only. Contact: Gunnison National Forest, Paonia District, 970/527-4131, www.fs.usda.gov/gmug.
3) Rainbow Lakes, north of Nederland
Though the campground at Rainbow Lakes isn’t actually in an aspen grove, but it sits at the head of a stunning, color-rich valley, which you’ll see from the Peak to Peak Highway as you approach it from Nederland. This former bear-hunting camp at 10,000 feet has direct access to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and the Rainbow Lakes and Arapaho Glacier Trails. There are nine rainbow lakes with trail access to four of them. Fishing is available and there is no limit on brook trout, since they are invasive and threatening the native fish.
If you go: There are 17 sites for tents and small trailers. There are no hookups. There is no drinking water (you’ll have to bring your own or treat the glacier melt in the nearby creek). Reservations are not accepted. The fee is $13 per night. Contact: Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest, Boulder District, 303/541-2500, www.fs.usda.gov/arp.
4) Aspenglen, in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are five front-country campgrounds inside Rocky Mountain National Park and Aspenglen is the smallest and quietest campground. The Horseshoe Park and Deer Mountain Trails are close by, as is the Lawn Lake trailhead, all with spectacular splashes of fall color. The campground has four loops with 52 sites, including a number of superb walk-in tent sites.
If you go: There are 52 sites for tents and RVs up to 30 feet, including 10 sites for tents only. The facilities are wheelchair-accessible and there are flush toilets, drinking water, dishwashing sinks, bear lockers, campfire programs, an amphitheater, and a nearby riding stable. Reservations are accepted at 877/444-6777 and www.recreation.gov. The fee is $26 per night. Campers must also purchase a vehicle day use pass ($20 per day, unless you have an annual parks pass). Contact: Rocky Mountain National Park, 970/586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo
Joshua Berman is an “Around Colorado” columnist for The Denver Post and the author of Colorado Camping (Moon Outdoors: 5th edition, spring 2016). Find him: @tranquilotravel and at www.joshuaberman.net.