By Gabe Toth
Camping in Colorado can mean different things to different people. Some are looking for a place to get away and enjoy the solitude of the outdoors, while others are seeking a location near activities and amenities. From the southwestern part of Colorado to a quick drive out of the Denver metro area, there are plenty of getaways around the state.
For those in the Front Range looking for a quick change of pace, there are options along the Peak to Peak Highway near Brainard Lake and Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, less than an hour from Boulder and 90 minutes from Denver.
The National Forest Service maintains developed camping areas near those locations, including Rainbow Lakes, Pawnee, Camp Dick and Peaceful Valley. Off of County Road 100 and down Gold Lake Road, though Gold Lake itself is privately owned, there are a number of free dispersed camp sites that offer privacy, clear skies for stargazers and plenty of space for groups.
Nestled between the James Peak Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park, the Indian Peaks Wilderness offers access to nearly 78,000 acres of undisturbed high country. Dozens of trails and mountain passes crisscross Indian Peaks, but group size is limited and permits are required for larger groups and campers. At nearby Brainard Lake, visitors can access the South St. Vrain, Long Lake and Mitchell Lake trailheads. There are also restrooms, water and trash service at Brainard Lake.
A bit further southeast in Chaffee County, the Arkansas River Headwaters Association maintains a number of developed campsites downstream from Salida. Less than two miles from the junction of U.S. 50 and Highway 291 is Salida East. Located on the Arkansas River, Salida East offers 21 campsites, toilets, fly fishing access, and a boat ramp for whitewater rafters and kayakers.
Beginning in the spring, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) will start converting the sites from “primitive” to “basic,” with picnic tables, fire pits and tent pads. Day use of the site is $3 per person or $7 for a vehicle. Further east on U.S. 50, down the Arkansas River, the AHRA offers camping at five other riverside sites: Railroad Bridge, Ruby Mountain, Hecla Junction, Rincon, Vallie Bridge and Five Points Campgrounds. From Salida East to Rincon, there are nearly 20 miles of accessible Class II and Class III rapids for water craft.
For those who stay at Salida East, the towns of Salida, Poncha Springs and Buena Vista are just a short jaunt up the road. And, with proximity to the mountains surrounding Chaffee County, including the Collegiate Peaks to the west, there is access to myriad hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and disc golf opportunities.
Heading southwest, less than an hour from Durango and 20 minutes from Pagosa Springs, the Ute Campground offers a launching point for a variety of Colorado adventures. With 26 campsites, this area on U.S. 160 sits just a few miles from Chimney Rock National Monument, which covers 4,700 acres and includes hundreds of homes and structures built by ancient Pueblo Indians.
Almost directly across U.S. 160 sits the Lake Capote Recreation Area, which offers fishing and its own campground. It has become a birdwatching destination as a pair of osprey have made their seasonal home there during the South American winters.
Access to the Continental Divide Trail, San Juan National Forest, South San Juan Wilderness and Weminuche Wilderness are accessible from U.S. 160 nearby.
Sites at Ute Campground can be booked online for $22 per night or $154 per week at recreation.gov. For details on hiking, fishing, and other outdoor opportunities, including the Arkansas River Headwaters Area, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website at cpw.state.co.us. For more information on national parks and wilderness areas, including Ute Campground, Brainard Lake and Indian Peaks, the National Forest Service is located at fs.usda.gov.
A former newspaper journalist, Gabe Toth is the head brewer at Twisted Pine Brewing Co., as well as an avid snowboarder and outdoors enthusiast.