Destination Exploration

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  Photo: Terri Ross

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Photo: Terri Ross

Camping in Colorado: Options, variety and a map

By Lisa McIntyre

Listening to the sounds of a babbling creek while sipping your morning coffee or watching billions of stars shine in the night sky … these are some of the gifts of nature. Studies show that being outside among flora and fauna is good for your health. It slows down the rhythm of our fast-paced lives, and it draws so many to Colorado.

Colorado covers more than 100,000 square miles of sun-soaked land and water. There is an endless list of destinations to explore and Colorado’s 42 state parks, eight national monuments and four national parks are a great place to start.

We selected three extraordinary locations and three camping styles to help you explore the outdoors. 

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: Boondocking in a vintage trailer

In the southwest corner of Colorado, hours from the buzz of city life, stands the highest and densest archeological region in the country, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and includes more than 6,355 recorded ancient sites ranging from cliff dwellings and kivas to rock art and shrines. More than 176,000 acres of colorful orange canyons and sparse desert mesas provide visitors a rugged and historical journey back about 10,000 years to the time of the ancestral Puebloans.

We recommend boondocking in this region. Also referred to as “dry camping,” boondocking is basic camping in remote areas without amenities like toilets, electricity or water. If you are properly prepared, the experience offers a serene, meaningful experience. Vintage caravan trailers are a great fit, because they are often not equipped with all the amenities of new, fancy recreational vehicles. Rough roads and parking limitations make it impossible for vehicles over 24-feet to travel in the area.

There is no cost to enter and camping is free on all BLM land. You can stay in one location for up to 14 days, then you must move at least 25 miles. Please camp responsibly, which means being cautious with fires and litter. Use previously occupied sites if possible. As the saying goes: Pack it in, pack it out, and leave no trace. 

Enhance your expedition by visiting nearby Mesa Verde National Park and the Trail of the Ancients, an official American Byway that travels through the monument.

“If you like to explore on your own, with an un-curated aspect and no development, this is a great place for that,” says Jennifer Frost, Park Ranger at Canyon of the Ancients.

There are many access points, but the best option for entering the monument is three miles north of Dolores at the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center on Highway 184. The center provides information to visitors who wish to camp and explore, including a map with permitted camp sites. Few amenities are available once you venture off the beaten track, so pick up water, food and fuel ahead of time.

• Focus: archaeology, history, preservation, exploration

• Open: year-round

• Amenities: none, BLM camping

• Websites: trailoftheancients.com or mesaverdecountry.com

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.  Photo: Lisa McIntyre

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Photo: Lisa McIntyre

Great Sand Dunes National Park: Tent camping (or car camping)

Great Sand Dunes National Park is nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the southeastern edge of the San Luis Valley, where picturesque snow-capped fourteeners seem to sprout directly from the flat, desolate valley to touch the sky. The park covers nearly 30 square-miles and contains four ecosystems for a plethora of year-round adventures. 

The dunes seem otherwordly, being far from the nearest ocean. They were formed over thousands of years by strong winds blowing across ancient lakebeds in the valley. The winds gather and flow over the mountain range, blowing the sand into a variety of large dunes. 

Pi~non Flats Campground in the park offers 88 camp sites for tents and RVs up to 35 feet, but with no electric or water hookups. 

During the day, hiking and surfing on the dunes is the name of the game. The 750-foot Star Dune is the tallest. It takes about an hour to hike to the top, zig-zagging across deep, steep, drifting sand. Miles away from big-city lights, the area also offers exquisitely clear night skies.

“Try to get a campsite on the outer edge of the campground with a view of dunes,” said avid camper DAnna Lawson. “It’s wonderful to watch night fall on its sparseness, then see the headlamps from people coming back to the campsite.”

Medano Creek runs through the park just below the surface of the sand most of the year. In late May or early June, melting snow causes the water to rise above the surface. The water’s pace is slow and the bottom is soft, sandy and easy to traverse when heading to the dunes. In summer, the campground often fills up six months in advance, as do others within 20 miles of the park, so make reservations early.

• Focus: nighttime stargazing, hiking, four-wheeling, views, sand-surfing, waterfalls

• Open: park open year-round, campground open April 3-October 31

• Amenities: visitor center, campground, ADA services (dune-specific wheelchairs available at visitor center)

• Website: nps.gov/grsa/index.htm

Recreational vehicles are popular at Jackson Lake State Park.  Photo: Courtesy Colorado State Parks

Recreational vehicles are popular at Jackson Lake State Park. Photo: Courtesy Colorado State Parks

Jackson Lake State Park: Motorhome and toy-hauler camping in designated locations

Mountains are only part of the Colorado landscape. The eastern plains, dotted with farms, ranches and wide-open spaces are the gateway to the great plains of America’s Midwest.  

One of the best recreation spots on the Colorado plains is Jackson Lake State Park, a 2,411-acre reservoir just north of Greeley. Author James Michener once called the lake “an oasis on the plains.” You can fish, hike, mountain bike, hunt, water ski, jet ski, ATV and so much more. It’s a haven for family gatherings and adventure.

There are 260 camping sites lining the lake. Most have full hookups, and amenities include water faucets, electricity, a marina, and even a public facility with flush toilets, coin-operated showers and a laundromat. Toy-haulers and motorhomes are excellent ways to take in the lake’s vast experiences. 

“The water level of the lake goes down dramatically later in the season since it’s used for irrigation, so we mostly go early in spring and summer,” says Deanne Kelly. She and her family have been going to Jackson Lake every year for decades.

The park has two entrances and a park pass is required. Additional fees are charged for camping and required reservations are only taken in advance at cpwshop.com or by calling 800-244-5613.

• Focus: non-motorized and motorized water sports; stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), kayaking, canoeing, jet skiing, water skiing, family camping

• Open: year-round

• Amenities: bird-watching, swim beach, off-highway vehicle track, boat ramp, marina, fishing pier, ADA accessible, showers, dump station, laundry facility

• Website: cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/jacksonlake

Lisa McIntyre is a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Social Documentary. She seeks to illuminate the human experience through oral, written and photographic storytelling.