En route to Ridgeway State Park with the majestic San Juan Mountain range in the background.
The Centennial State is drowning in natural beauty, and the best way to see it is to pitch a tent right in the heart of it all.
Given the opportunity, most Coloradans (or are they Coloradoans?) will wax lyrical about how their state is pretty much heaven on earth. They'll tell you about the 300 days of sunshine a year they get, their embarrassment of riches when it comes to outstanding natural beauty, and, thanks to a combination of high elevation and mid-latitude interior continent geography, how wonderfully cool and dry their climate is. There's also all the great beer and the legal marijuana of course, but that is for another time.
And while the "300 days of sunshine a year" claim is somewhat suspect, the rest is absolutely right: with four national parks, eight national monuments, 42 state parks, over 4,000 campsites, 53 14'ers and over 600 13'ers, Colorado is a state that calls to outdoors lovers, and there really is only one way to experience it. Up close and personally.
Early-morning view from atop one of the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Where to start? National parks.
With so many options, that's the obvious question, but the four national parks aren't a bad way to begin.
Waking up in the shadow of the highest sand dunes in North America is a hell of a thing to do, but hiking up to the top of one and sledding back down before breakfast is another thing entirely. The early morning scramble is one that many visitors to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve partake in, and it is just one of the reasons to visit this national park.
Just over half an hour’s drive from the small town of Alamosa (try Milagros Coffee House on 529 Main St. — it's a great coffee shop in its own right, but it is also one of the social enterprises operated by La Puente Enterprises, whose mission is to develop sustainable social enterprises for the common good), Great Sand Dunes National Park has 88 campsites, three of which can host groups of 15 or more ($20 a night for regular sites, $65-$80 for the larger sites depending on the size). Established in 2004 (although it had been a monument since 1932), Great Sand Dunes is unique among national parks.
A few hours north of Sand Dunes is Pikes Peak in Pike National Forest near Colorado Springs. The view from the top of the peak inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write in her diary an entry that would eventually become the poem America the Beautiful. There are serviced and dispersed campgrounds in the forest as well as cabins. Check fs.usda.gov for details.
A few more hours north is Rocky Mountain National Park. The biggest national park in Colorado and the third most-visited in the U.S., RMNP is very accessible from Denver with routes taking you through either Longmont (stop for a beer at Left Hand Brewing) or Boulder (among other things, the Flatirons are worth the short detour). The park has 150 lakes and 450 miles of streams, wetlands, pine forests and alpine tundra. There are five established campgrounds, and reservations are suggested during the busy summer and fall months, in part due to the stunning foliage.
Springtime at Priest Lake, just outside Telluride.
More camping in gorgeous nature — or stay in a yurt.
For something a bit more secluded, there are plenty of primitive, or dispersed, campsites all over the state. Priest Lake, a beautiful spot between the private Matterhorn Campground ($22 a night), and Trout Lake (good for kayaking and the like) are just outside the millionaire’s playground of Telluride. There are no designated sites, and any vehicle that can handle the ever-so-slightly rough terrain is welcome. There are fire pits and a toilet, so it isn't as remote as perhaps it sounds. The lake is small but in the dwindling sunlight it is incredibly beautiful. Galloping Goose Trail is nearby, and the site is popular during festivals in Telluride.
Priest Lake has also been known to attract some eclectic characters, including my newfound friends Ken and Baby (another story: read that anecdote here.).
Sunset over Montrose, Colorado. The town is the gateway to the San Juan Mountains and a great jumping off point for camping in the region.
Elk Ridge Campground in Ridgeway State Park (just over an hour north of Telluride towards Montrose) is one of three in the park that has over 250 sites in total, including 25 slightly more secluded walk-in campsites. Each loop of sites has restrooms, coin-operated showers during high season, a laundromat, snack machines and even a playground. For a slightly more unique approach to camping, try one of the park's yurts ($80 per night). With pinewood floors, a ceiling light and fan, and a skylight in the center of the domed roof, these are not simply yurts. A thermostat-controlled propane heater/gas log stove will keep up to six people warm and cozy in the winter, while a front deck with a picnic table and an elevated barbecue grill make the yurts perfect for small groups.
The park is great for non-motorized water sports, and with Montrose being just 30 minutes away and Ridgeway town 10 minutes, there are plenty of places for supplies and a good beer (Two Rascals in Montrose is good, and Colorado Boy has a branch in both towns). The John Wayne classic True Grit was partly filmed in Ridgeway and is commemorated by the True Grit Cafe. Kate’s around the corner is also a good spot for breakfast and lunch. In the summer it's essential to get a Taste of New Orleans Sno-Ball from the corner of Main and Townsend in Montrose.
A cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park
CO's Four Corners
Southwestern Colorado, known as the Four Corners region, is home to, among other places, Mesa Verde National Park. Formerly home to an ancestral pueblo, the park has well-preserved cliff dwellings and clifftop villages that were built between 450 and 1300 A.D. Ranger-guided tours are available for a few bucks.
Open year-round, camping is available at Morefield Campground. The 267 sites are located in a high grassy canyon filled with native flowers, deer and wild turkeys.
And this is just the tiniest sliver of what is on offer in Colorado.
When to go
Camping season in Colorado generally begins when it is warm enough and ends when it is too cold, although with many campsites being open year round and many “campers” choosing behemoth RVs over tents, glamping is possible anytime of the year.
To make sure you have the most up-to-date information, peruse the websites of the National Parks Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Colorado branch of the Bureau of Land Management. They have all of the information about camping in Colorado you could ever need as well as plenty of common-sense advice, including the camping golden rule: Leave No Trace.