January 11, 2017

Dispersed Camping in Colorado

A complete guide to dispersed camping in Colorado, aka how you can camp for free in the mountains.

Are you looking for free camping near Denver without the effort of schlepping a backpack up a mountain? Look no further. We have all the information you need on dispersed camping in Colorado. Most of these sites are within two hours of the city, so you’ll have no excuse not to pop in the car for a quick weekend in the wilderness.

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed camping (also known as primitive camping or car camping) is free tent camping with access to your vehicle. Many people enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with backpacking but don’t have the energy or time to spend on all the gear and hiking.

Dispersed camping allows you to get outside for a camping trip without the bells, whistles, and bustle of traditional campgrounds. This does mean that most services are non-existent: no trash cans, no running water, no restrooms, and no picnic tables. Some of the more commonly used dispersed camping sites may have fire pits from previous users.

The view of the night's sky from within a red tent

How can you find dispersed campsites in Colorado?

Secluded camping in Colorado is easy to find—if you know where to look! For starters, understand that you cannot dispersed camp in any national park. However, the majority of national forest or Bureau of Land Management land is fair game. They simply ask that you stay away from recreational areas such as campgrounds, picnic areas, and sometimes trailheads. Hopefully, it goes without saying, but you should never camp on privately-owned sections of national forest land either. If you are questioning a particular area, pick up the phone and call your nearest Forest Service office.

Getting started

To get started, identify which area you want to visit. Some popular Colorado options are Roosevelt National Forest, the San Isabel National Forest, and the Pike National Forest. Once you choose the land area, you have two options.

If you are the spontaneous sort, jump in the car and head to the chosen area. Once you arrive, slowly drive down any of the forest service roads. The farther you get from the main paved road, the more likely you are to find a dispersed camping site. Many times, they are indicated by a slightly-worn “driveway” and the presence of a fire pit. This type of adventurous searching may waste time and gas, but it is also the best way to find off-the-beaten path locations that few people know about.

Perhaps you are not the sort that wants to risk wasted time searching for a dispersed campsite? Not a problem. Each forest service area has its own Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM). You can pick up one of these maps from a local forest service office or access it online through the forest service website. Each small black dot on the roadways indicates dispersed camping. Of course, this makes the search much easier but keep in mind that anyone can pick up one of these maps, meaning these sites may be full. Always arrive with one or two backup plans in mind!

Free Tent Camping in Colorado

Now that you know the ins and outs of dispersed camping in Colorado, let’s get you started with some primitive sites near Denver. You may still see a few people in these areas, but it sure beats heading to your nearest KOA.

West Magnolia

Located just outside Nederland in Roosevelt National Forest, this area is a quick 90 minutes from the city. West Mag (as the locals call it) is a hub for trail running and mountain biking, so don’t expect to be alone. But 8 miles of Forest Roads are open for dispersed camping and you’ll easily see the various fire rings indicating campsites. For more information on available campsites, check out the MVUM map.

Guanella Pass

Part of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, Guanella Pass is most known for its unbelievable fall color. The hillsides are covered in aspen trees which make for a spectacular show in the autumn months. However, most people don’t realize that there is a ton of dispersed camping along the roadside. One thing to keep in mind: the road closes seasonally, so this is strictly available during late spring and summer months.

Cottonwood Pass

You’ll be cutting it close to get here in two hours, but it’s worth the extra time in the car. Cottonwood Pass is just outside of Buena Vista in the Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests. This pass tops out at an absurd 12,126 feet of elevation on the Continental Divide before plummeting back into the East River Valley near Crested Butte. You’ll see plenty of dispersed camping along the road, but keep an eye out for the roadside along the river: there are many tent camping sites down there that aren’t easily seen while driving.

Jones Pass Road

This gem is just a hop, skip, and a step from Denver (or 50-ish miles, but who is counting?) on the south side of Berthoud Pass as Highway 40 climbs up to the summit. Once you see the turn for Henderson Mine, hang that left. There are plenty of dispersed sites that dot the dirt road, but it does get rough as you continue; 4×4 is a good idea. If you have a rugged enough car, you can keep climbing and get away from the more popular sites.

Keep it Clean

Above all, please mind your manners while enjoying these dispersed campsites. As more and more people become interested in dispersed camping, it has been an uphill battle to keep these wild areas clean and intact. Pack out all of your trash, bury human waste far away from your campsite, beware of any broken glass, and be sure to take any of your food crumbs and debris back home to dispose of it properly. Ensure that you leave the campsite cleaner than it was when you found it—future campers thank you in advance.

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