Colorado is one of the most scenic states in the country, and camping in Colorado is one of the best ways to enjoy the natural beauty the start has to offer. The vast variety of terrain and settings makes Colorado a great state to experience camping in many different environments, from the mountain peaks of the Rockies to calm lakeside settings to red rock canyon country to peaceful forests. Whether you are enjoying a staycation with your family or traveling specifically here to enjoy camping in Colorado, you are sure to have a memorable adventure.
Getting Ready to Go Camping in Colorado: The Basics
Colorado is the 8th largest state in the U.S., and its geographic diversity offers some of the best camping in the country, from the flat grassland plains to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the Indian ruins in the southwest, Colorado provides a rainbow of choices for the aspiring camper.
Types of Camping
This article focuses on the joys of traditional tent camping, but the definition of camping has expanded to include stays in cabins, yurts and even teepees, as well as campgrounds with full-service RV sites with water, sewer and electrical connections. But for the nature enthusiast, nothing beats the simple joys of curling up in your tent under the night skies and hearing the sounds of nature envelop you as you fall asleep, and the crisp morning air awaken your senses as the morning light lifts the curtain of night from your surroundings.
Preparing for Your Camping Adventure
If this is your first time camping in Colorado or even if you are a veteran camper, be sure to make a list of what you’ll need. Talk to experienced campers to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything! If you are more of a novice, a careful planning checklist will help you avoid missing out on important items you may need.
Planning Where to Go and What to Take
With thousands of campsites in the national and state parks and forests across Colorado, it requires careful planning to ensure you find the best campground with the activities and amenities you want in the location you prefer. Whether you want a backcountry site with miles of open space around you, or a lakeside setting for your tent but still within easy reach of a cozy mountain town to enjoy some fine dining before turning in under the stars, it helps to have some help to navigate the broad array of choices. If you have your heart set on boating and water sports, don’t pick the Rocky Mountain campgrounds.
If you would like to duck into that cute mountain town, don’t select a backcountry site that is miles and miles removed from civilization. Check out what the hiking trail options are and whether there are various levels of difficulty that will suit the physical fitness of the members of your party. See what the elevation of the campground is and make sure it is not too high if anyone will have breathing difficulties at those heights.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website has a Camping section that helps you take care of the logistics of reserving your campsite and understand the fees involved. There’s a State Park Finder map to help you locate your campground, and you can make your campsite reservations online or by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (though some campgrounds require you make them directly through them). Try to make reservations the maximum 6 months in advance that the system allows. If you are looking to reserve your spot sooner than that, the site’s authors recommend looking at weekday dates for the best availability.
The site also explains the various fees involved including daily park fees and the camping fees themselves, plus the annual park pass that can provide an affordable alternative to paying as you go for frequent campers. It also reviews some amenities at state campgrounds, such as boat ramps, stables, picnic tables, rest rooms and showers, laundry facilities and even convenience stores.
What You Want to Do
There are many outdoor activities that Colorado campsites offer, and state park sites let you know where they can be experienced. The state park sites also offer information on outdoor learning subjects of interest including hunter education, wildlife conservation, fishing licenses, boating safety and other subjects related to outdoor activities that visitors may engage in while camping in Colorado.
Another good online planning resource is Camp Colorado. This site offers help in finding a campground with a search tool and maps based on what type of site, services offered and what months of the year the campground is open. An article section covers such topics as High Altitude Camping, Road Conditions awareness, towing and RV safety, camping etiquette and others. Its blog serves up information on the different areas of the state, flora and fauna, Colorado’s geology, state wildflowers, cold weather camping tips and other topics useful for readers camping in Colorado.
Beyond the Campsite: Great Activities
The range of activities that your particular campground offers will determine how you commune with nature. There are an amazing variety of outdoor sports and adventure activities available, so match your destination with what types of things you most want to do on your camping vacation in Colorado. Some can be enjoyed year round, including prime star gazing due to many parks being et at high elevations and being far removed from city lights. Other activities will be based on what time of year you plan to go camping. Here’s what you can do seasonally:
Warm Weather Months
There are many exciting activities that Colorado campsites have available during the spring, summer and fall months. Typical outdoor experiences would include hiking, whether it be a short, easy walk on a loop trail in the natural surroundings or a longer, more strenuous hike along the Colorado Trail. Additional activities are archery, and several campgrounds offer 3D archery, which allows archers to shoot at animal replicas in varying natural surroundings. Other favorites are horseback riding, as some campgrounds have stables and riding trails, mountain biking, off-highway-vehicle riding, and rock climbing.
Colorado campsites offer many opportunities for enjoying the local flora and fauna. This includes bird watching, and with over 400 bird species in Colorado to observe and enjoy you won’t be disappointed. There is even one park where sand-hill cranes nest each spring. There are also an abundance of opportunities for wildflower and wildlife viewing. From bighorn sheep to eagles to lakeside shorebirds, camping in Colorado brings nature to your tent site. There are many options to enjoy the lakes and rivers your campsite of choice may be near. This includes boating, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and swimming. Fishing offers the chance to catch Colorado trout and pike. A more unusual activity is gold panning: roll up your sleeves and try your hand at searching for nuggets of gold in Colorado rivers such as the Arkansas!
Some campgrounds are open all year and offer winter sports activities such as these traditional favorites skating and sledding. Other options may include taking to the slopes or through the woods on your skis or on snowshoes. And in winter, snowmobile enthusiasts can use many trails.
Top Campgrounds in Colorado
Camping in Colorado is as varied as the regions of the state. From the grasslands in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the center to the Native Indian ruins in the southwest, the state offers a scenic smorgasbord of places to visit and awe-inspiring landscapes. There are so many wonderful campgrounds to choose from, but here are a representative selection of some of the best, with a summary of what makes them special,and the activities you can enjoy there:
Moraine Lake Campground
Set within the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park, Moraine Lake has 245 campsites that and gorgeous mountain views. There is a plentiful variety of wildlife in the park that you may see, including moose, bears, sheep and elk. The campground is open year round, so winter camping is also available. A bonus is that there is easy access to the Park’s gateway town of Estes Park.
You can also take advantage of the shuttles available to take you through the park, so you can explore more of its diversity, or get to that more distant trailhead. Hiking is a primary activity here. Two options are the Fern Lake Trailhead, and the 2.3-mile long Cub Lake trail leading to a lily-pond covered lake.
Steamboat Lake State Park
Steamboat Lake State Park is less than 30 miles from Steamboat Springs, near Hahns Peak, and is open all year. In winter there is ice fishing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. In warm weather months there is hiking, such as on the Tombstone Nature Trail, a 1.1-mile loop trail, just one of 5.5 miles of trails, all framed by picturesque Hahn’s Peak. There is a marina with boats for rent, a swim beach. Wildlife in the include red fox and mule deer. There are also birding opportunities, as Steamboat Lake serves each spring as the nesting grounds for sand-hill cranes.
The Maroon Bells are near Aspen. This campground nestles below one of Colorado’s most iconic sights, the twin Maroon Bells, a pair of 14,000 feet peaks. There are three separate tent campsites here, Silver Bar, Silver Bell and Silver Queen.
The campground is close enough to Aspen to eat dinner in town and be back in the wilderness to sleep. Maroon Bells is open from late May to late September. Consider a visit in the second half of September to avoid the biggest crowds and enjoy fall colors and perhaps a dusting of snow on the Bells.
Little Molas Lake Campground
Little Molas Lake Campground is in San Juan National Forest. Fishing is a big attraction here as they stock Andrews Lake with trout. The campground has a beautiful setting beneath the mountain peaks of Snowden, Grand Turk, Engineer and Twin Sisters. Set in gorgeous country between Durango and Silverton, Lake Molas provides excellent hiking access to the Colorado Trail, and Rock climbing. There is also a lovely waterfall worth visiting 6 miles away in Cascade Canyon.
Guanella Pass is in Pike National Forest, an hour outside of Denver. This is a high-elevation site, as the pass is at 11,670 feet, so be aware of your exertion at these heights. Begin with fishing on Lake Georgetown, then take a hike up Mount Bierstadt, Mt. Evans or other 14ers (14,000+ foot peaks) in the area. Guanella Pass plays up the state’s pioneer past with Pioneer day reenactments. You can explore old wagon trails and ghost towns. too. At night, enjoy awesome nighttime star gazing.
Mueller State Park Campground
Another scenic option in Pike National Forest is Mueller State Park, which has excellent views of the Continental Divide and Pikes Peak, so hiking offers amazing views in any direction. One good hiking option is to go up Dome Rock or take a ranger-led nature walk. There are also lots of birding and wildlife viewing opportunities here, with bighorn sheep, elk, foxes and bears living in these surroundings.
Morefield Campground is near Cortez in the southwest corner of the state and is only four and a half miles from the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park and its spectacular Native American ruins. The campground is in a wooded canyon where you may spot deer and wild turkeys. Hike the Knife Edge Trail at sunset for spectacular views at Montezuma Valley. Enjoy the marvels of Mesa Verde from your campground base, taking in the spectacular ruins of Cliff Palace and others, then returning to the quiet wooded setting of Morefield to camp in the serene and peaceful surroundings.
Pinon Flats Campground
Pinon Flats Campground is in Great Sand Dunes National Park. With the 13,000 foot Sangre de Cristo mountains as a backdrop and 700-foot sand dunes, you’ll wonder if you are really camping in Colorado when you visit here. With scenery more resembling the Sahara, this area is one of the most unique in the state. Take hikes through the dunes, or you might even be able to try your hand at sand boarding down the slopes of the dunes! In May, Medano Creek’s melting waters create a natural water park. that makes for fun water play. And at night, the high elevation and clear skies make for great star gazing.
Saddlehorn Campground is in Colorado National Monument. Set in canyon country outside Grand Junction, Saddlehorn campground has a delightful mix of terrain, with forests, dramatic rock formations and mesas. Located at the end of a 23-mile long scenic drive through red rock canyons, the campground has great hiking opportunities. The Window Rock and Canyon Rim trails lead to stunning vistas of the red rock spires. There is also rock climbing plus a loop road for scenic biking.
Harding Spur Campground
Harding Spur is in Stagecoach State Park near Steamboat Springs. Here there is hiking and biking trails, plus birdwatching, beach volleyball and water sports. But fishing is the big draw here, as rainbow trout and pike bring anglers to test their skills against the wily fish. In fact, the largest pike ever caught in Colorado was reeled in here!
Echo Lake is in Arapahoe National Forest near Idaho Springs. There is hiking, fishing and canoeing on the 5-acre lake at the base of Mount Evans. Drive up the Mount Evans Scenic Byway for outstanding views and perhaps catch a sighting of bighorn sheep!
Angel of Shavano Campground
Angel of Shavano Campground is in San Isabel National Forest. This campground is three hours from Denver, near Salida, and so does not have the crowds at other sites closer to the city. The campground is over 9,000 feet above sea level, so exercise will get one winded much more quickly than normal. The 486-mile Colorado Trail runs through the area, offering great hiking, and there is strenuous mountain biking given the elevation. Fishing is available in the North Fork reservoir, though you’ll need a jeep or 4X4 to navigate the roads to get there.
Oh Be Joyful Campground
Oh be Joyful Campground is near Crested Butte. This campground offers a gateway to the Ruggeds Wilderness, a 65,000 acre national forest. But the town of Crested Butte is nearby for restaurants and mountain charm. Head out for hikes, fish on the Slate River, or mountain biking or kayaking. The wonderful scenery includes alpine meadows and icy mountain pools perfect for a refreshing dip.
Jacks Gulch is in Roosevelt National Forest near Fort Collins. Here there is hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding and opportunities for birding and wildlife viewing abound. The campground has a special appeal for those with horses, as there are campsites with corrals! The campground is surrounded by ponderosa pine forest and meadows, ideal for trail rides. A nature trail circles the area for scenic hiking. Look for the section with stunning views of the Mummy Range. Jacks Gulch is also near the Cache La Poudre River, which offers fishing and whitewater adventure.
Bear Lake Campground
Bear Lake is ideal for those looking to go trout fishing on the Cucharas River. There is also hiking (try the 14-mile long Indian Creek Trail), mountain biking, ATV trails and horseback riding.
Comanche National Grassland
Comanche National Grassland and campsites are near Springfield. The Grasslands were home to the Comanche Indians until 1805. Hike the Picketwire Canyon trail and look for dinosaur tracks, of which there are over 1,300 on a ¼ mile plain, as this area used to be a shallow lake. Note that the roundtrip hike to the dinosaur tracks is 10.6 miles and involves crossing the Purgatoire River, so ensure you are up for the trek!
Other activities include looking for the limestone markers designating parts of the historic Santa Fe trail which settlers used on their westward trek. There is Native American rock art on the sandstone walls of Picture Canyon.
Railroad Bridge, Arkansas Headwaters National Recreation Area
Railroad Bridge is within Arkansas Headwaters National Recreation Area near Buena Vista. The Arkansas River means whitewater rafting, and this is what leads many campers to stay here. But there’s more than whitewater fun here. You can also enjoy kayaking and try your hand at gold panning along the river’s banks. Plus there is biking, hiking and fishing.
North Rim Campground
The North Rim Campground is in Gunnison National Park near Montrose. Here you will enjoy epic scenery of a 200-foot deep canyon and forest. There is also fly-fishing available at North Rim.
Located in Chatfield State Park near Littleton, D Loop is just 15 miles from Denver, this site offers a respite from the urban area of the city, and offers boating, relaxing on the lake’s beach or fishing.
Colorado Camping Adventures to Satisfy All
No matter what type of outdoor activity you love, chances are good that you can enjoy it while camping in Colorado at one of the state’s many scenic campgrounds. From boating and swimming to hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, Colorado’s campgrounds offer so many ways to get out and enjoy the great scenery and natural beauty. But there’s the unexpected as well, with sites where you can go whitewater rafting, hike to see rock art or dinosaur tracks, or go panning for gold. Colorado will give you many reasons to return again and again to enjoy its spectacular campgrounds in beautiful settings.