Colorado invokes an antiquated vision of the what the West once was, an echo of the way things used to be. Wooden tracks leading to long tunnels held by timber beams. Boulevards through mining towns with a long, continuous stoop on either side. Ramshackle wooden buildings painted in pale pinks, yellows and blues that are unbroken by alleyways in-between. White-capped peaks circumflex against the sky, the eerie bugle of a bull elk after dark, the quiet gurgle of an alpine brook. Horses and Stetsons and wild canyon lairs.
We have cars now, but the mystique of Colorado’s backcountry remains. The state has such an abundance of options that it’s impossible to satisfyingly condense them into a mere 12 campgrounds. Remote areas such as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison remain relatively untouched and are well worth exploration. Let this humble collection serve as an inspiration to all of us.
Frederick Jackson Turner traced some of the more enduring traits of the American character to the importance of geographic fringes. To travel beyond the developed domain was to induce a perennial rebirth. Find yourself reborn in the backcountry of Colorado in the same way, not for the progress of civilization but for the reclamation of a long-past heritage of wildness.
In and around Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited parks in the National Park Service, but it remains a quintessentially American experience of wilderness.
- Moraine Park, Glacier Basin, and Aspenglen campgrounds are your camping mainstays here. They are all busy. They are all central to Estes Park. They are all within striking distance of some of the best day hiking in the area—Beaver Meadows, Bear Lake and Chaos Canyon, and the Mummy Range respectively.
- Longs Peak Campground provides the most convenient access to Longs Peak. Summits begin before dawn, and camping at the trailhead is a sure way to get an early start. Late sleepers can still get up to Chasm Lake.
- The Wild Basin is less frequented than other parts of the park and features some of the highest and most rugged terrain, like the Lion Lakes and Bluebird Lake.
Sawatch, Elk, Gore + Mosquito
The Sawatch Range and Elk Mountains are among Colorado’s most scenic mountains. Four hours outside of Denver, they see less foot traffic, and because they don’t have the national park designation, may offer more in the way of recreational opportunities.
- Oh Be Joyful Campground is a fantastic home base for adventures near Crested Butte. The adventures are unparalleled, with backpacking, mountain biking, paddling, fly fishing, horseback riding, skiing, off-roading, wildflower hikes—and more.
- Maroon Creek Road Campground offers the most convenient access to the picturesque Maroon Bells Scenic Area, perhaps one of the most photographed alpine vistas in the country.
- Sylvan Lake Campground is far quieter than busier parks in the Sawatch Range and elsewhere, but it doesn’t skimp on amenities (eight cabins!) or adventure opportunities.
- Railroad Bridge Campground is serendipitously placed near the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, and you can pan for gold to pay your campsite dues.
Western and Southwestern Colorado
The farther from Denver, the fewer the people. Western Colorado and the Four Corners area is where your heart is free to run rampant. Rewild yourself in the San Juan Mountains or find your flow state on a canyon trail.
- Morefield Campground is the only camping option with access to the striking Mesa Verde National Park.
- Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground is perfect for a fishing getaway in impeccably maintained grounds.
- South Mineral Campground sits on Clear Creek and South Fork Mineral Creek, which boast beautiful waterfalls to explore.
- North Fruita Desert Campground is smack dab in the middle of 40 acres of prime mountain biking trails. Give yourself a full weekend to take advantage of its Moab-esque scenery.