Moon Colorado Camping author Sarah Ryan’s favorite state of being is “in transit.” A Fort Collins resident, Ryan enjoys long cycling trips, skiing to huts in the Colorado Rockies with too much food and lots of friends, and her annual Thanksgiving canyoneering trip. Her favorite playground is the Poudre Canyon—where she can go hiking, biking, fishing, and skiing all within two hours of home. We asked her to share some Colorado camping tips and she was happy to oblige.
The Best of Colorado Camping with Sarah Ryan
1. What campgrounds are Colorado’s best kept secrets?
This is a tough question because there are so many lovely campgrounds tucked away in valleys and forests that are rarely used! If you can get away from the Front Range for a weekend, you can definitely find a lightly-used campground that blows your mind. But if I had to pick just three campgrounds I would point to Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, Lost Trail near Creede, and Avalanche south of Carbondale. Echo Park is at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers—a truly staggering setting. Every site at Lost Trail has beautiful views of “thirteeners”—mountains with an elevation of 13,000 feet or higher—and it provides access to amazing recreational opportunities. Avalanche has all the hiking and scenery of the Aspen area, without the crowds.
2. What campgrounds would you recommend for a first-time visitor?
There are a couple quintessential Colorado campgrounds that a first-time visitor to the state shouldn’t miss. Silver Queen outside of Aspen is on the road to the Maroon Bells, one of the most-photographed sites in Colorado. Saddlehorn in Colorado National Monument is a little slice of canyon country with spectacular views of the Grand Valley. Lost Lake, west of Crested Butte, is a tiny little loop in a subalpine cirque. Pawnee campground sits on the shore of Lake Brainard and is surrounded by the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Pinyon Flats, located in Great Sand Dunes National Park, is unlike any other campground in the state (just watch out for bears!).
3. Name two campgrounds with the most stunning views.
At 10,680 feet, Molas Lake will literally take your breath away. To reach it you’ll have to take the San Juan Scenic Byway between Durango and Silverton, often called the most beautiful drive in the country. Molas Lake is a park surrounded by thirteeners and fourteeners as well as the Weminuche Wilderness. It’s truly a wild place. Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park sits in a grassy park surrounded by some of the highest peaks of the Continental Divide. It’s an ideal base camp for exploring the park, or stringing up a hammock and enjoying the views.
4. What campgrounds are best for families with kids?
The state parks do a great job of accommodating families. They often have interpretive programs—and even better, lakes, so the kiddos can splash and swim to their heart’s delight. Many state parks are full-service, which means you’ll have access to water, electricity and laundry— amenities that make a family’s time in the “wilderness” much more appealing. Two of my favorites are Mueller State Park and Ridgway State Park. Mueller is on a forested ridge west of Pikes Peak and it has 55 miles of trails for hiking and biking plus easy access to Florissant Fossil Beds. Ridgway occupies an ideal location in the southwest area of the state and has three very different campgrounds with trails, water sports, volleyball courts, and more.
5. Where can visitors find the best bargain campsites?
The most affordable camping is dispersed and backcountry camping. The national forests now list popular dispersed camping areas on their websites, and anytime you hike into the backcountry you can pitch your tent for free. Some areas that I particularly enjoy are Lincoln Creek, near Aspen, which has spectacular hiking, fishing, and four-wheeling; Bear River, west of Yampa, which has 32 sites with wonderful views and fly-fishing, and anywhere along the Colorado Trail, a 500-mile trail from Denver to Durango.
6. What’s your favorite Colorado festival?
The Tour de Fat in Fort Collins! Townies and visitors turn out on two, three, and four wheels in their most fantastical costumes for this outrageous and sustainable bike parade. I recommend camping along the nearby Poudre River for great views, good hiking, and a short drive or bike ride into town. Crested Butte also hosts a Wild Mushroom Festival in August that is potentially mind-altering. And Telluride has a festival pretty much every weekend in the summer, plus some beautiful camping at nearby Matterhorn and Sunshine.
7. What is the best time of year to go camping in Colorado?
If you’re headed into the mountains, you can’t beat July and August. Most of the snow in campgrounds and on trails is gone. There are afternoon thunderstorms to watch out for, but they usually pass quickly. It’s warm and sunny, and there’s often a cool breeze. At lower elevations or more southern destinations, camping is still possible into late fall, plus the leaves are changing.
8. Any tips for adjusting to the high altitude?
Drink water! Most people get into trouble when they get dehydrated. Also, just take it easy for a few days. Rest and relax. When you do start getting active, take it easy at first. If you are going to do something that’s physically challenging (the Leadville 100, anyone?) give yourself four to seven days to really adjust to the altitude. And, if you have a terrible headache, difficulty breathing, or swelling in the extremities, descend to lower altitudes immediately!
9. What item would you never leave behind when packing for a Colorado camping trip?
Besides a tent? My hammock! You never know when you'll find the perfect spot on a river or creek for swinging, reading, and napping. I also always have my camera, a sleeping pad and bag, a water filter, and a field guide.
10. Name two of the best areas to visit to avoid crowds.
Head west, my friend. If you want to be alone, try the areas around Creede, which has amazing scenery and access to the Colorado Trail, but is remote enough that the campgrounds are often nearly empty. You can also get lost in the White River National Forest to the southwest of Steamboat Springs and in the Sangre de Cristos mountains.
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