There are more than 23 million acres of public land in Colorado, from dizzying mountaintops to lush valley bottoms, dusty canyons to glassy lakes, where in a few hours’ drive you can escape the noise and traffic of city life for a weekend wilderness adventure.
With so much green space on the state map, people often don’t know where to go to find their favorite activity in a place where camping is plentiful.
Fortunately, we do. Summer is at an end, but it’s not too late to get out of town for a weekend. Here is your guide to spots you can get to within a couple hours and stake your claim. We’re noting one activity at each for which that spot may be ideal; needless to say, there are plenty of activity options at each.
Take a short hike
Location: The Crags, Pike National Forest
Reason to go: This is one of the best short hikes in the area, three miles round trip, without too much elevation gain, and with plenty of interesting rock formations and great views. You can also climb Pikes Peak from the trailhead.
Camping: The Crags Campground at the trailhead, $12 a night, is first-come, first-served and fills up on weekends. There is pull-off camping along the road. Just make sure you aren’t on private property.
Get above timberline
Location: Guanella Pass
Reason to go: The road tops out at 11,669 feet, so a lot of your hiking work has been done. From the east side of the road you can hike to the top of fourteener Mount Bierstadt, and from the west side you can hike to Square Top Lakes.
Camping: Roadside camping is available on the south side of the pass, and you can make reservations for the Geneva Park Campground.
Climb four fourteeners
Location: North of Buena Vista, San Isabel National Forest
Reason to go: Four fourteeners, mountains higher than 14,000 feet, can be accessed from this road: Mounts Belford and Oxford (usually climbed together in a day), Missouri Mountain and Huron Peak, as well as a back-door approach to La Plata Peak. It’s in the majestic heart of the Sawatch Mountains in the center of Colorado, with summit views of mountains in every direction.
Camping: Free roadside camping is plentiful for miles along Chaffee County Road 390, and it gets better the farther in you go. Not far past the ghost town of Winfield the road becomes four-wheeldrive, where the best campsites hide. If it’s Saturday night and not much is available, there’s a large field at Winfield that serves as an overflow camping area.
Just relax in the woods
Location: Rampart Range
Reason to go: If all you need to be happy is a shady spot in the woods, the Rampart Range northwest of Colorado Springs is your closest bet. These arid foothills are full of roadside sites with fire rings.
Camping: Free sites are all around Rampart Range Road and the side roads, many of which can be navigated in passenger vehicles. Camping around Rampart Reservoir is limited to two reservable campgrounds, Thunder Ridge and Meadow Ridge.
Bring the kids
Location: Mount Princeton Road near Buena Vista
Reason to go: There are five national forest campgrounds along this good road, with easy access to town, rafting, hiking trails, fishing and the Mount Princeton Hot Springs.
Camping: No dispersed camping is allowed along the road, but three of the campgrounds, Mount Princeton, Chalk Lake and Cascade, are reservable at www.recreation.gov, a good idea if you are heading out to this popular area on a weekend. If you get there and can’t find a campsite, try going back to Buena Vista and taking Chaffee County Road 306 (West Main Street) toward Cottonwood Pass. Turn left toward Cottonwood Lake and look for free campsites past the lake.
Take a swim
Location: Pueblo Reservoir
Reason to go: There aren’t many places to swim comfortably in Colorado — most lakes are frigid mountain pools — but Pueblo Reservoir is an exception. With summertime water temperatures in the mid-70s and a swimming beach, it’s a great place to take a dip and appreciate Colorado’s brief summer. The swimming beach is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Camping: There are three campgrounds with 400 campsites in Lake Pueblo State Park, but on weekends they are certain to be full, so make reservations at www.parks.state.co.us.reservations.
Climb some rocks
Location: Shelf Road
Reason to go: The limestone cliffs of Shelf Road are among the most popular in Colorado, known for solid rock and a wide variety of technical climbing routes (1,000 and counting).
Camping: It’s a stunningly beautiful area for camping, with two campgrounds run by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, The Bank and Sand Gulch, 29 campsites between them.
Take a short backpacking trip
Location: Buffalo Peaks Wilderness
Reason to go: This wilderness area is dominated by the Buffalo Peaks, humped 13,000-foot mountains. But the real gem here is Buffalo Meadows, a serene network of open meadows at the high point of an 11-mile loop trail.
Camping: Choose a campsite in the trees around Buffalo Meadows — plenty are available with established fire rings — and enjoy the solitude.
Take a long backpacking trip
Location: Lost Creek Wilderness
Reason to go: This wilderness area abounds with backpacking opportunities, from one-night in-and-back trips to epic multi-day loops. It’s temperate, compared with many of the higher mountain ranges, with hidden valleys that protect bizarre rock formations as well as pinnacles and barren mountaintops that can be reached without snow gear well into fall.
Camping: Too many great backpacking campsites to mention. Some of the best are along the McCurdy Park Trail. Some nice campgrounds are Twin Eagles and Goose Creek — first-come, firstserved — and Spruce Grove, where reservations are accepted. There is also ample free car camping along the many dirt roads off Park County roads 77 and 31.
Location: Elevenmile Canyon (not Elevenmile State Park)
Reason to go: The narrow canyon lined with high cliffs is a hidden gem of the area, and that stretch of the South Platte River is said to rank among the best fly fishing in the state.
Camping: There are five designated campgrounds in the canyon, all reservable at www.recreation.gov. They fill up on weekends, so reservations are recommended.
(c) 2011, The Gazette (Colorado Springs) —MCT