This may come as no surprise, but camping in Colorado is some of the best in the country. Sparkling high-alpine lakes, babbling streams, soaring peaks, rugged trails, and meadows packed full of wildflowers are only a few of the natural wonders that you encounter while setting up shop in the Centennial State. But, camping in our fine state can also be as overwhelming as choosing your meal from a delectable dinner buffet. How can you choose with so many enticing options? Take a look at the guide below and reference this when you head out for your next adventure under the stars. Perhaps you’ll find a new favorite among our list of the best camping in Colorado.
What’s So Great About Camping in Colorado?
It’s a fair question, and I’m sure nearby states would argue the point. But, here’s the thing: Colorado is a veritable cornucopia of outdoor beauty. Depending on your corner of the state, you can pitch a tent in anything ranging from the tallest sand dunes in North America (Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve) to some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 (Mt. Elbert is the second-tallest peak in the lower 48, right behind California’s Mt. Whitney). We have four national parks to explore (Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Mesa Verde) as well as eight national monuments, 11 national forests, two national grasslands, and 42 national wilderness areas. How’s that for options? More important than the statistics, however, is the all-encompassing love Coloradans have for their state. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a local who doesn’t list camping on her list of fave activities. This state has so much adoration for camping, hiking, skiing and other outdoor hobbies that it’s almost silly — almost. Obviously, there is a reason that so many people head to the mountains in their free time, so maybe the real question isn’t why the camping is so great. Rather, consider asking yourself this: What are you waiting for?
The Best Seasons for Camping in Colorado
Colorado is certainly a state of four distinct seasons (and the local joke is that you can frequently enjoy all four in a single day!) Depending on your outdoor prowess, you can undertake camping year round. However, not everyone is game for winter camping, and truly, you should only give that a try if you are experienced in the outdoors. If you are just getting your feet into the dirt, plan your Colorado camping trip between the months of mid-June through mid-September. Why? This is when you will find prime weather. Due to Colorado’s high altitude, the peaks and campgrounds are often socked in with snow well through May. In fact, the de facto start to camping season is Memorial Day weekend, but that usually means it’s time to drive to Utah for some desert camping while Colorado’s high country thaws out. More often than not, you can find some dry camping by the middle of June, and this will stretch through the summer months. Labor Day weekend is also a good bet for camping, but be wary of snow as you push into the middle of September. It’s not unheard of for flurries to fly as early as late September, and if you aren’t prepared for the fluffy stuff, it’ll make for a miserable camping experience. But, if you have both the gumption and the gear, some of the most beautiful camping can be found in early October when all of the aspen leaves change to a stunning gold color. It’s truly incredible and worth seeing!
Tips for Selecting the Best Campsites
Now that you know when you’re camping, it’s time to determine where.
The old adage, “Campsites are found, not made” rings true in this instance. You should always practice low-impact camping regardless of where you end up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a campground or a backcountry site; it’s a good idea to look for an open, flat area to pitch your tent. Camping on an incline means that you may roll around all night or in the worst scenarios, sleep while all the blood rushes to your head. No fun at all!
Depending on the season, consider your shade options. If you’re camping in the dead heat of summer, try to pitch your tent under a tree, where early morning shade will protect you from cooking in the tent before you’re ready to wake up. Conversely, if it’s shoulder season and you know you’re in for a frosty night, try to find an east-facing campsite. This means the sun will hit your tent as early as possible, thawing the ice and making your campsite a bit cozier for that morning cuppa’ joe.
Consider the topography of your selected flat spot. Often, chunks of flat land are low points which may be disastrous in rainy weather. On one recent stormy camping trip, my friends found themselves floating in their tent in the middle of the night. Turns out, their flat campsite acted as a bowl, collecting all of the rainwater. They had no other option but to climb outside in the storm and relocate the tent. Take a cue from their mistake: pitch your tent on high ground.
Take a look around your tent, too. Not only do you want to avoid pitching it underneath anything that may break, like a tree branch, but it’s helpful to identify other forms of protection from nature’s elements. For example, if it’s looking like a windy night, set up your tent behind some boulders so they can be used as a windbreak.
What to Bring
In terms of necessity, you don’t need more than the Ten Essentials on any camping trip: navigation, sun protection, extra clothing, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire (or something to start fire), repair kit, food, water, and an emergency shelter. If you bring all of these, you should be comfortable and happy for any camping trip. However, there are always little luxuries that make the camping experience that much better. For me, coffee in the morning, chocolate at night, and down booties post-hike are my simple pleasures. After a couple camping trips, you’ll be able to dial in your “necessary” luxuries too.
The Best Camping in Colorado
We’ve established the what, the how, and the when, but here’s the good stuff: the best campsites in Colorado. Of course, this is subjective and highly dependent on what you are looking for. But, these five campsites are tried-and-true, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll have a great time checking any or all of them out. Here’s where to go.
Guanella Pass Campground
Not only is this campground close to home (roughly an hour from Denver), but it’s reminiscent of a Colorado gone by. The Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway follows an old wagon route that connected the mountain towns of Georgetown and Grant. If you’re a history buff, you’re sure to enjoy the nostalgia that comes from seeing those old rutted tracks. Location: Guanella Pass near Georgetown, Colorado Price: $19/night Best Season: Campground is open from June 8, 2018-September 2, 2018 Pet friendly: Yes, on leash only.
This campground is filled with (you guessed it) aspen groves, making it a shady respite during the blazing heat of summer. This is a good thing, since the campground is located near one of the highest elevation lakes around: the stunning Jefferson Lake, sitting at 10,685 feet. If you’re a water lover, you’ll adore this campground for its easy access to both the lake and the contributing Jefferson Creek. Location: Near Fairplay, Colorado Price: $16.36/night Best Season: May 17, 2018-October 8, 2018 Pet friendly: Yes, on leash only.
White Star Campground
If scenery is your jam, take a look at White Star. Located at the stunning Twin Lakes, campers are awarded views of towering peaks above the lake, with the granddaddy Mt. Elbert looming behind them. The state’s crown jewel — the Continental Divide trail — is nearby for epic hiking opportunities. Location: Near Independence Pass outside of Aspen, Colorado Price: $23-24/night Best Season: May 25, 2018-September 3, 2018 (peak season). Walk-ins available through the rest of September Pet friendly: Yes, on leash only.
This isn’t a formal campground, so if RV hookups are your thing, take a pass on Platoro. But, if you are interested in sleeping near the highest reservoir in the state, it’s worth a look. A challenging road leads to three different campgrounds, and dispersed camping is available along the road. The road does get mucky in the spring, so it’s not a bad idea to call ahead to make sure it’s passable with your vehicle. Location: Platoro, Colorado Price: $16/night Best Season: Memorial Day Weekend-Labor Day Weekend Pet friendly: Yes
South Mineral Campground
Once you see a photo of Ice Lakes Basin, you’ll never want to camp anywhere else! The South Mineral Campground acts as a basecamp to the stunning Ice Lakes hike, and for that reason, it’s quite popular. Reservations are not accepted, so all of the sites are first come, first served. But again, Ice Lakes Basin. Hike the trail and thank us later. Location: Silverton, Colorado Price: $19/night Best Season: Memorial Day- Labor Day Pet friendly: Yes