Monday, July 10, 2017

Free RV Camping - Introduction

Despite some critics who say there is no more free camping in Colorado, there are a number of FREE or inexpensive camping areas that are conveniently located in some of the most popular tourist areas of the state.  Although most out-of-state RVers will use I-70 to get to the Western Slope, Colorado RVers know that some of the most scenic parts of the state are along the U.S. highways through the state.  For this reason, I will concentrate on the mountain sections of US 285, US 24, US 160, US 50/550, and US 40.  I'll let you find your own campsites along I-70 in Clear Creek, Summit, Eagle, Garfield, and Mesa Counties.  Also keep in mind that there are more gorgeous views, quaint towns, and FREE-inexpensive campgrounds and dispersed camping areas on State highways like CO 82-133, CO 62-145, CO 149, CO 65, CO 141, and CO 14.  In most posts, I mention potential camping areas along some of these State routes where they are convenient to the U.S. highway or "not-to-miss" scenic area or activity being discussed.

The scenic areas in this blog include the Upper Arkansas whitewater rafting mecca from Buena Vista to Salida; the Pikes Peak-South Park-Sawatch Range (the State's highest mountains) area; the Great Sand Dunes-Durango-Mesa Verde area; the Curecanti National Recreation Area-Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park region, the San Juan Mountains 4-wheeling paradise around Silverton, Telluride, and Ouray; and the Rocky Mountain National Park-Middle Park area from Winter Park to Grand Lake and Steamboat Springs.  If you want more information about each area, suggestions for activities and restaurants, and some itinerary suggestions, click on this link to the Colorado Field Guide.  And, if you are looking for great spots to set up your telescope or just stargaze through your camera lens, take a look at recommendations for some great dark skies areas HERE.

There is FREE “dispersed camping” throughout the mountains on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and US. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land unless it is specifically posted.  Although Free, there are still Federal regulations governing campsite distance from streams and roads, location of fire rings, waste disposal, cutting of trees, etc.  For more information on USFS dispersed camping, go HERE.  And ALWAYS check local (USFS, BLM, county, etc.) restrictions on campfires before deciding to grill that trout or make s'mores.

Also check for State Wildlife Management Areas (SWAs) in any part of Colorado you are planning to visit because camping is generally FREE (with valid license) in SWAs that allow it (many don’t).  You can find state parks and SWA locations in the free booklet of Colorado State Lands available at Colorado Welcome Centers or go HERE (filter this map by clicking on "Recreation" then on "Camping").

New CPW rules for 2020: Beginning July 1, 2020, a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license is required for EACH PERSON over age 18 at ALL SWAs for ALL USES (including camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, etc.).  And RESERVATIONS are now REQUIRED for camping at ALL Colorado state parks, although the reservation fee has been discontinued.   So, state parks are now relatively expensive ($35-50/night including the day pass), but the 2020 cost of a 5-day, non-resident fishing license is only $32.14 per person.  For a non-resident couple, that averages to $12.83/night if you camp at an SWA each night that you have a valid 5-day license (and San Luis Lakes SWA has 30/50A electric hookups for that price!).  Hard to beat that nightly rate for camping in some gorgeous mountain locations, with fishing, wildlife viewing, and hiking thrown in for "Free".     

In some of these Federal and State areas, you will be truly "boondocking" and not just "dry camping," as most dispersed areas and many SWAs have no potable water, RV dumps, pit toilets, or other camping facilities.  That means you must be completely self-contained and everything you bring in, you pack out.  And be aware that dumping gray water on the ground in Colorado is ILLEGAL and subject to stiff fines.  Why?  Because the Colorado Rockies are the headwaters of nearly every major interstate river in the SW and South-Central U.S.--the Colorado, San Juan, Animas, La Plata, Dolores, White, Rio Grande, Canadian, Arkansas, Republican (Kansas), and Platte.  And every drop of water in those rivers and their tributaries is used and reused by someone in Colorado or the states around it.  Just imagine enjoying miles of trout fly fishing access to a detergent-froth covered Conejos River after a thousand RVers decided to dump their gray water on the ground because the beautiful USFS Mogote campground has no RV dump.  Think about that before deciding to throw that dish water out the RV door!

And always keep in mind the 7 principles of "Leave No Trace" when you disperse camp in Colorado: 
  • Know Before You Go
  • Stick To Trails
  • Leave It As You Find It
  • Trash the Trash 
  • Be Careful with Fire
  • Keep Wildlife Wild
  • Share Our Trails & Parks
There are hundreds of miles of abandoned railroads in the mountains of Colorado and, as a general rule, they have gentle grades and wide curves, even if they were only 3-ft narrow-gauge lines.  This makes them very amenable to RVers who want to boondock on these old grades where they are on public land (generally USFS or BLM).  However, you will need to watch for overhanging trees and must find a sufficiently wide, level spot to camp and turn around.  That may mean taking your tow vehicle or toad along the old grade before taking your tall, wide motorhome, 5th wheel, or toy hauler into a spot from which you may not get out without damage.  I discuss several old railroad grades in the "US 24", "US 50", and "US 160-west of Pagosa" sections below, but there are many others off state and county roads, especially around Poncha Springs-Sargents, Gunnison-Crested Butte, and in the San Juans.

There is no overnight camping at Colorado Welcome Centers and CDOT rest areas and dry camping at Walmarts in the larger cities and most popular tourist destinations has generally been banned.  But CDOT rest areas in Fruita (I-70 near Utah border), Julesburg (I-76 near Nebraska border), Burlington (I-70 near Kansas border), and Holly (US 50 near Kansas border) do have FREE RV dumps and potable water.  And the rest areas just off I-70 in Rifle and Avon are conveniently located for those camping in the Glenwood Springs-Aspen-Vail area.  They have not only FREE dumps and potable water, but also shaded picnic areas and flush toilets that we often use when in that area.  However, the rest areas on I-25 between Raton Pass and Denver--located north of Trinidad, at Colorado City, and at Pinon (between Pueblo and Colorado Springs)--have NO dumps and Pinon has NO potable water.  Finally, your best choice for a rest area on I-25 going north from Denver is the big Wyoming Welcome Center east of the highway just south of Cheyenne, although there is also one west of I-25 in Fort Collins.


Fall in the San Juan Mountains--my favorite season and region for RV'ing in Colorado!

Keep in mind that winter starts early and spring starts late in the Colorado Rockies.  Autumn can present a problem for retired RVers and aspen-leaf viewers because most USFS campgrounds, some State parks, and many boondocking areas in scenic mountain areas begin closing in mid-September. And the opposite is also true in that USFS campgrounds and some State parks in the mountains do not open until mid-May.  Mid-May is also the average date of last frost in the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas.  In my nearly 60 years in Colorado, Denver has had snow on Memorial Day weekend and on Labor Day weekend--and Denver isn't even in the mountains!

Spring in Colorado--my back yard in a SW Denver suburb on May 21, 2019

Finally, two comments about driving in the Colorado mountains. First, Colorado law prohibits motor vehicle operators from driving at such slow speeds that they "impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic."  In these situations, the driver must drive in the right-hand lane if one is available or pull off the roadway to allow impeded traffic to pass.  On  the uphill sections of some two-lane mountain highways, this policy generally means that if a vehicle has more than 5-6 vehicles backed up, it must pull over at a safe location to let traffic pass.  A major category of vehicles to which this law applies is, quite obviously, RVs on mountain roads during the peak summer tourist season!  So, please obey Colorado's "rules of the road" and be a conscientious RVer.

Second, on one-lane mountain roads, the vehicle traveling uphill has the right-of-way.  Why?  Because the vehicle traveling downhill has gravity on its side when starting from a dead stop, but the uphill vehicle must overcome that gravity.  Since most one-lane roads in Colorado are gravel, rock, or just plain dirt, traction when going uphill is a problem even without considering gravity.  Apparently ATV/OHV and jeep rental contracts do not explain this rule, as the drivers of those vehicles just blast around Colorado's "jeep" trails without regard for anyone else.  So, please wait at the top for that 4x4 coming up the Engineer Pass road before you head downhill to Animas Forks!

Free RV Camping - US 285 (south of Denver)

In this post, I’ll discuss only campgrounds along US 285.  If you are in Denver and heading southwest on US 285, there is a Walmart just off that highway that formerly had RVs camped in the parking lot, but is now posted.   The Sam's Club store on Wadsworth, 3/4 mile south of Walmart, now has campers and truckers staying overnight in their parking lot.  Most other Walmarts around Denver also have “No Camping” signs. 

After leaving Denver and crossing Kenosha Pass into South Park, you can turn east on CO 77 at the tiny town of Jefferson and camp Free (with a valid CO fishing or hunting license) at Tarryall Reservoir State Wildlife Area (SWA).  It has 17 relatively short, no hookup, gravel back-in and pull-out campsites with picnic tables, fire-pits, and pit toilets in two loops directly off the highway.  The boat ramp and boat inspection station are located nearer the dam.  On an August 2020 weekday, all but one campsite were occupied by either a tent or RV, a dozen boats were on the lake, and fisherman lined the two peninsulas.  In the past, a half dozen campsites were located south of the lake, but those sites are now posted as "no camping."  That south area allows picnicking and fishing and has a boat ramp and pit toilet, but the gravel access road is fairly steep and rough. 

A little farther south on US 285 is a reservoir with absolutely Free camping (no permit or license required to camp).  Turn east off US 285 onto US 24, go about 9 miles and turn north into the south entrance road (CR 437) to the Denver Water Board's Antero Reservoir.  The campground is south of the lake and has 32 back-in campsites with picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets, but no hookups.  If you have seen South Park, you know it has few trees, so the reservoir has no campground shade.  But it has a boat ramp and very good rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout fishing (a valid CO fishing license is obviously needed to fish).

On one of our early RV trips on US 285 to northern New Mexico, we left Denver after work and spent the first night at the VFW Lodge in Johnson Village/Buena Vista (call 719-395-2929).  There are only four tight back-in spaces, but we had no problem because we were the only ones there on a Thursday night.  The VFW is located two blocks north of the highway, so there is some traffic noise.  But the spaces are on a level, asphalt-paved parking lot, with 30A electricity and city water hookups—for $10/night (now apparently $15/night).  Since the VFW had no RV dump, we drove the 25 miles to the then-Free dump at the Salida Visitors Center.  That dump is now closed, so you may need to go to the Poncha Springs Visitors Center at the intersection of US 285 and US 50 for their $10 automated dump.

Buena Vista and Salida are Colorado's most popular whitewater rafting destinations.  Brown's Canyon National Monument and the Arkansas Headwaters State Park are located between the two towns.  The FIBArk Whitewater Festival--kayak, raft, and paddleboard races, a hill climb, concerts--has been held along the river in Salida each Father's Day weekend since 1948.  Things have changed since FIBark began--the kayaks back then were made of canvas over a collapsible wooden frame!

The Buena Vista-Salida area is also well-located for aspen viewing during the fall color season.  Two of the best aspen-lined  routes in the state are paved Cottonwood Pass west of Buena Vista and narrow, gravel Marshall Pass southwest of Poncha Springs.


Whitewater rafting in the Arkansas Headwaters State Park north of Salida

We were in Salida one early October on a fall aspen-photo trip.  We had to stop at Walmart (on the north side of US 50 between Salida and Poncha Springs) to pick up a couple of items that we forgot.  There were nine RVs camped around the edges of the Walmart parking lot.  I saw everything from a 1970’s van conversion to a 40-foot Class A. Many hunters pass through Salida in the fall and some of these RVs were towing OHVs on trailers, so that may explain the numbers. 

If dry camping at Walmarts is not your cup of tea, there is a formerly Free public campground just east of Salida on US 50.  The Salida East-Bighorn campground sits right on the Arkansas River immediately east of the Four Seasons RV Resort, but, as of November 2017, it has been part of the Upper Arkansas Headwaters State Park, therefore no longer Free.   For $17/night, you get no hookups, a pit toilet, several picnic tables, and a take-out for Arkansas River rafting companies.  Despite the fee, don’t try to stay at Bighorn during the FIBArk whitewater festival in June!  If Bighorn is full, there is Free dispersed camping on BLM land northwest of Poncha Springs.  Go two miles west of US 285 on US 50 to CR 250 and drive north until the pavement ends and the gravel surface begins.

After crossing long, but very easy, Poncha Pass on US 285, you are in the high, dry, flat San Luis Valley.  If we are going to Alamosa or New Mexico, we always turn off US 285 south of Villa Grove and take perfectly straight, 70 mile-long CO 17.  

If you need an electric campsite near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Alamosa, the San Luis Lakes SWA, located 8 miles east of CO 17 on Sand Dunes Monument Road, has Free camping (with valid license).  This former State Park closed in 2017, but the now-SWA campground still has 30/50A electric hookups and sheltered picnic tables at 51 pull-thru and back-in sites up to 105 ft. long, pit toilets, and a dump at the entrance, but NO WATER!  Note for July 1, 2020: After this date, CPW rules now state that a valid CO fishing or hunting license for EVERY PERSON over 18 is required to camp or for any other use at ALL SWAs.  See the new rule HERE.  But San Luis Lakes is still the best bargain in Colorado, especially if you pay $9.75/year for a Colorado seniors fishing license and use it weekly like I do!  When we camped there in October 2018, it was about 1/3 full.  We had a great back-in space with no neighbors and a view out our rear picture window of the newly snow-capped Sangre de Cristos.

The national park, of course, has its own Pinon Flats Campground with picnic tables, fire grates, and flush toilets, but no hookups, for $20/night ($10/night with Senior Pass).  A problem for RVers is that, like many national parks, there are relatively few long parking strips.  So GSDNP is limited to a total RV length (truck and trailer or coach and toad) of 47 ft. and there are only 5 sites for RVs that total more than 35 feet.  We drove through it while staying at San Luis Lakes and, although it was full even in October, we saw very few sites that would fit our fifth wheel.


Great Sand Dunes National Park nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains


















A less expensive Federal campground for those with a 4x4 truck camper is located just south of the national park at Zapata Falls, but I wouldn't try it with any other RV.  It is a first come-first serve, $15/night ($7.50 with Senior Pass), USFS campground with a pit toilet, but no water and no trash containers (and it is bear country).  Located east of CO 150 on BLM Road 5415, the waterfall and views are the only real reasons to try to get there.

We have not dry camped at the Walmart in Alamosa, but have seen other RVs camped there.  It is a SuperCenter with a gas station, located on the north side of US 160/285 on the western edge of town (between Alamosa and Monte Vista).

Fall color along CO 17 on La Manga Pass





















South of Alamosa is mostly farmland and there are no places to stop overnight.  However, I always recommend that anyone who wants to really see Colorado, especially during the fall leaf-peeping season, should get off US 285 at Antonito and drive CO 17 to Chama, NM.  In early October of 2016, Cumbres and La Manga Passes had the most beautiful bright blue skies and fall color I have seen in nearly 60 years of living in Colorado (the photo doesn't do it justice!).  

One of the "100 Best Campgrounds in Colorado," according to the book of the same name, is located just off CO 17.  Take CO 17 west from Antonito for 36 miles to good gravel FR 118, 0.2 mile north of the Cumbres Pass railroad crossing.  Go north for 4 miles to the Trujillo Meadows SWA and reservoir.  It has 35 designated campsites, picnic tables, fire rings, drinking water in summer, and pit toilets, but no hookups.  The boat ramp is located another 1.5 road miles north of the campground.  This formerly Free campground is now operated by the USFS, with a nightly rate of $18 ($9 with the Senior Pass).  But for truly Free camping, there are numerous roads off FR 118 and parking lots near the railroad depot on which to disperse camp (I have done it in a tent, but not in our RV).  Just remember that you will be camping at 10,000 feet, so come prepared for any kind of weather--mild, sunny days, freezing nights, and a potential for heavy snowfall, since nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area gets the highest annual snowfall of any Colorado ski area! 

Free RV Camping - US 24 (west of Colorado Springs)

US 24 is well-known and well-used by Colorado RVers, but much less frequented by out-of-state RVers.  This may be due to its relatively short length west of Colorado Springs or because it crosses a long stretch of relatively unattractive South Park.  But US 24 provides the only major US highway access to the Pikes Peak Toll Road, Cripple Creek, Leadville, and World War II's Camp Hale.  

Camp Hale was the training site for the 10th Mountain Division and is considered the birthplace of nearly every current Colorado ski area.  This is due to the number of 10th Mountain veterans who returned to start ski areas and ski schools at Aspen, Vail, A-Basin, Loveland Basin, Keystone, and many others.  So, make US 24 part of your RV vacation plans if you like the idea of being just a little different from the majority of Colorado visitors.

I have mentioned Pikes Peak because it was important in American history for the wrong reason.  In 1858, gold was discovered near the current site of Denver, but no towns or even the name "Colorado" existed yet.  The only landmark most Easterners could identify in western Kansas was a mountain named for the first American explorer of the region, Lt. Zebulon Pike.  So the "59ers" painted "Pikes Peak or Bust" on their prairie schooners as they headed to the newest gold rush 60 miles north of that peak.  

Of course, a ride up Pikes Peak was also the inspiration for Katherine Lee Bates to write America the Beautiful (originally published as a poem called "Pikes Peak").  And every July the now-paved toll road hosts the Pikes Peak Hill Climb road race.  Every visitor to Colorado Springs should ride the cog railway (closed for upgrades 2018-2021?) or drive to the "purple mountain majesties'" summit at least once in their lives!

After a visit to Pikes Peak, the next stop along US 24 for many visitors is Cripple Creek.  At the town of Divide, you turn south on CO 67 to get to the State's richest gold mining district, the source of fortunes for the Penrose, Tutt, Carlin, and many other Colorado Springs families.  And Colorado's only open-pit gold mine is now located between Cripple Creek and its neighbor Victor. In addition to this gold mine, Cripple Creek mines gamblers as one of the three mountain towns that are now allowed to have "gaming."

Cripple Creek and Victor showing the size of the open-pit gold mine now located between them.  Gold is extracted from the ore using open-air cyanide heap leaching 






















Today Cripple Creek allows no overnight parking within the city limits.  CO 67 does provide several campgrounds, but neither are Free or inexpensive for what they provide.  The USFS campground called The Crags is located 4.5 miles south of Divide on CO 67, then 3 miles east on rough, steep, gravel CR 62, recommended only for truck campers and very small trailers.  The campground has 12 back-in and 1 pull-thru dirt and grass campsites with tables, grills, and pit toilets for $16/night ($8/night with the Senior Pass).

The next campground south on CO 67 is Mueller State Park, one of the most popular in the State.  With 110 shaded, paved, electric-only camp sites, plus water faucets, an RV dump, a Visitor's Center, and hiking trails, it is a great park.  However, it is also one of the most expensive public campgrounds in the State at $44/night, including the day pass.

Some people disperse camp along either the Phantom Canyon Road going south, or the Gold Camp Road running north and east, from Victor.  Phantom Canyon, a 19th century narrow-gauge railroad grade, is obviously narrow in spots, is all gravel, can be rough after heavy rains, and has some steep grades.  So it may not be very conducive for longer RVs, especially Class A diesel pushers or long fifth-wheels.  Gold Camp Road was the "Short Line" standard-gauge railroad grade to Cripple Creek, so its grade is wider and has broader curves.  Most of Phantom Canyon is located within the BLM's Gold Belt Recreation Area, while most of the Gold Camp Road is in Pike National Forest.  However, both of these areas are a considerable distance off US 24.

Pikes Peak Granite monoliths along the Gold Camp Road, an old railroad grade between Victor and Colorado Springs



 
For Free dispersed camping nearer US 24, you will need to drive farther west on US 24 to the town of Lake George.  A resort town during the early 20th century, Lake George was a popular picnic destination for Colorado Springs residents via the Colorado Midland Railway, which was abandoned in 1918. Today the town is the nearest source of supplies for boaters and fishermen at Eleven Mile Reservoir and its State park.  And don't forget to visit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument a few miles south of the US 24 town of Florissant.  You can take a walk through a "forest" of huge redwood trees (actually stumps) that grew in the area 40 million years ago.

Two USFS campgrounds are located on CR 96 a few miles south of Lake George--Blue Mountain and Riverside.  However, they are $16/night plus a $6 one-time use fee for gravel back-in and pull-thru sites with a hand pump and pit toilet, without an RV dump.  By turning east onto Blue Mountain Drive (CR 61/244) and driving one mile past the Blue Mountain Campground, you will reach open USFS land.  Take a left onto FR 875 or 876 and find a level spot within 300 feet of the road for a Free night of dispersed hilltop camping in the junipers and pines.  But be very careful with fires--find an existing fire ring if you really must have a campfire.  Keep in mind that the USFS employee who in 2002 accidentally started the nearby Hayman Fire, Colorado's second largest ever, served 5 years in the Federal Pen and still owes $44 million in restitution!  So, "know before you go" and check the Park County fire threat before roasting those marshmallows.

As discussed  under "US 285" above, one of the most popular places to camp Free in South Park is the Denver Water Board's Antero Reservoir, located 5 miles west of Hartsel and north of US 24.  If you prefer solitude, a convenient dispersed area is CR 311 that turns north off the highway near the top of Trout Creek Pass.  Several dirt tracks dead-ending in groves of trees are often used for boondocking.  And don't forget to stop for photos of the 14,000+ ft. Collegiate Peaks--Mts. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.--with the sun glinting off the snow when you top the pass the following morning.

The Buena Vista area has a number of very nice USFS campgrounds, especially those on the west side of the highway at the foot of the Collegiate Range.  However, all are extremely popular and priced as such.  The multi-year paving project on beautiful, aspen-lined Cottonwood Pass Road is finally completed, if you want to explore this old wagon road between the mining camps of Gunnison County and the Eastern Slope.  We drove it in our SUV in June 2020 and I would not hesitate to go back over it with our fifth wheel.  Lots of curves, but Gunnison County widened them so longer vehicles can use it.  My wife commented that she would use Cottonwood Pass instead of US 50 over Monarch Pass if she still had to make business trips to Crested Butte (she doesn't have to make any business trips because she's retired!).  You will likely find a few places for dispersed camping in both San Isabel and Gunnison National Forest along this road as well.

As mentioned in the section for "US 285" above, Buena Vista is also the northern entrance to the State's most popular whitewater rafting river through Brown's Canyon National Monument.  So, stop in Johnson Village and schedule a 1/2- or full-day raft trip on the Arkansas River.  While you wait for your raft trip, you may want to snag one of those paved, $15/night W/E RV sites at the VFW that was also described under "US 285."  And after your raft trip, you might want a pint and dinner at the Eddyline brewpub in Buena Vista.

Going north, you will find very popular Clear Creek Reservoir SWA, with Free camping (with valid hunting or fishing license), good trout fishing, and exploring the ghost town of Winfield as its attractions.  Go north of Buena Vista on US 24 for 13 miles, then turn west onto gravel CR 390 and 1/2 mile later, you are there.  Most of the dispersed campsites are at the west end of the reservoir along the creek and not between the lake and road.  When we were there in June 2020, every campsite was full despite the pandemic.

Even those opposed to paying for camping need to make an exception for the USFS Whitestar Campground at Twin Lakes, one of Colorado's "100 Best Campgrounds."  Turn west off US 24 onto CO 82 and go 7 miles to the campground entrance on the south side of the highway.  There are 3 loops and the best views of Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, the two tallest peaks in the U.S. Rocky Mountains, are from the Ridge Loop (Sites 30-45).  However, if your RV is very long, you may have to be satisfied with the Sage Loop, as it has been rebuilt with a few longer sites in the center of the loop.  Although none of the sites have electric hookups, potable water and a dump are available for the nightly rate of $19 for the Ridge and Valley Loops and $20 for the Sage Loop, plus an additional fee for the dump.  Of course, Senior Pass holders pay 1/2 those rates.  Due to its popularity, reservations are a must during the summer.  Even in June 2020, the pandemic summer, every campsite had a Reserved tag on the post.

While you are at Twin Lakes, take a drive west on CO 82 over Independence Pass to Aspen.  Aspen was one of Colorado's major 19th century silver mining districts and is now one of those 10th Mountain Division veteran-designed world-class ski areas.  Independence Pass is one of Colorado's highest paved passes, is only open in summer and early fall, and has hosted numerous bicycle races during the days of the Red Zinger-Coors Classic series and the more recent U.S. Pro Challenge.  It is a drive you won't forget, but leave your RV at Whitestar and drive only your toad or tow vehicle over the narrow pass road!

Mt. Elbert and Mount Massive, the two tallest peaks in the U.S. Rocky Mountains, after the first fall snow.











Once you leave Twin Lakes on US 24 headed north, there is no more BLM or SWA land.  Due to mining claims and private land, only USFS land is available for Free dispersed camping.  

So, on your way north, pause for a tour of Leadville, Colorado's richest silver mining town.  The Crash of 1893 bankrupted many of Colorado's silver millionaires, including Horace and Baby Doe Tabor.  You can visit the Tabor Opera House, the Silver Dollar Saloon (named for the Tabor's daughter), and the Matchless Mine--where Baby Doe died penniless in 1935.  One other attraction of note is the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame in the old high school building at 120 West 9th Street.  It is definitely worth a couple of hours!  Andif you need it, Leadville has a city-owned RV dump at 911 US 24 ($5 fee, call 719-486-2993 for payment details).

After Leadville, drive US 24 over Tennessee Pass to Eagle Park, the site of the Army's Camp Hale.  Hard to believe that 40,000 workers built a camp to house 16,000 soldiers and 4,000 horses and mules in only 8 months of 1942.  10th Mountain Division regiments would go on to fight in the Aleutian Campaign in Alaska against the Japanese and in the mountains of northern Italy against the Germans.  However, since its 1965 demolition, the only vestiges of that "city" are concrete foundations, gravel roads, and informational signs. 

Co. L, 87th Mtn. Infantry Regiment, 10th Mtn. Division at Camp Hale in 1944














One Free dispersed camping area near Camp Hale is located on FR 726 (Jones Gulch Road), which turns east off US 24 about 3.5 miles north of the top of Tennessee Pass and ends up at Camp Hale.  The road is graded gravel and there are four or five pull-outs and one back-in space that could be used for RVs up to about 40 feet.  The USFS has a designated campground right in the middle of Eagle Park named, you guessed it, "Camp Hale."  It has 21 level RV campsites up to 68' long and pit toilets, but no electricity, water, or dump for $18/night ($9 with the Senior Pass). But there are gravel roads all over the Eagle Park area that may lead to a secluded, dispersed campsite in the forested edges of the open park.  

This is one place you don't have to worry about train noise during the night, despite the tracks next to the highway.  Few trains have used the Tennessee Pass line since the Union Pacific bought the Denver & Rio Grande Western/Southern Pacific railroad company in 1996.  During the war, however, the thick coal smoke from the D&RGW's huge, triple-headed steam locomotives climbing the pass on that track produced the "Pando Hack" suffered by most of the soldiers.

Four more USFS campgrounds are located north of Eagle Park in the vicinity of Homestake Creek.  One, Gold Park, 7 miles west of US 24 on FR 703, is conveniently placed at the trailhead into the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.  The Mount of the Holy Cross was a famous 14'er that was a subject of William Henry Jackson's 1873 photos and  a Thomas Moran oil painting of the snow-filled cross that led to it becoming a National Monument from 1929 to 1950.  It was popular with many 19th and 20th century photographers until one arm of the cross was obliterated by a rockfall.  Incidentally, Jackson and Moran also provided the first public images of Yellowstone National Park, including Moran's most famous painting--"Yellowstone Falls".

Another potential dispersed camping area would be on the Shrine Pass/Turkey Creek Road (FR 709).  Drive north on US 24 to Red Cliff, a tiny, eclectic, former silver mining town that became a hippie haven in the 1970's.  Carefully drive through the narrow streets of town, staying on FR 709 for several miles until you reach a suitable pull-out in the valley.  If you want to drive the entire length of FR 709, it crosses Shrine Pass before dropping down to its northern access point at the Vail Pass rest area on I-70.  Numerous dispersed camping sites also exist just west of the top of the pass.  But they should be accessed from I-70 because heavy summer 2020 ATV/OHV traffic has made the uphill portion nearest Red Cliff extremely rocky and slow. Even with my 3/4-ton 4WD truck, I would not take my fifth wheel up that grade.

The next town north of Red Cliff is Gilman, a fenced-off, abandoned, contaminated former New Jersey Zinc company town.  The town sits on top of the Eagle Mine, once the largest underground zinc mine in the Rocky Mountains.  The mine portal is located 600 feet down the mountain next to the railroad track and the Eagle River.  And the aqueduct you will see west of the river north of Gilman is used to transport contaminated water from the mine to a treatment facility near Minturn.

If you are in need of a big meal at this point in your trip, stop for dinner at the Minturn Country Club (warning: their parking lot is too small for RVs).  They are a "cook-it-yourself" steakhouse which also has fish and chicken for those non-red meat eaters. There may be a line at the 5:30 pm opening time on weekends, so plan to go there mid-week!  That is, unless you are tired of cooking for yourself by this time in your RV trip and want someone else to do the work.  In that case, head to Vail or Avon for a "plethora" of good sit-down restaurants, many with larger parking lots.  Well, that's it for Free or inexpensive camping along US 24.  
 After Minturn, you're now on to I-70 or adjacent US 6.

Free RV Camping – US 40 (west of Berthoud Pass)

US 40 was built through Colorado in the 1930's as the shortest Federal highway between Denver and Salt Lake City.  Therefore, Berthoud Pass became the first paved highway pass over Colorado's Continental Divide.  US 6 (now I-70 between Idaho Springs, CO, and Green River, UT) was a longer route between the same two large cities, but Loveland Pass was not paved until the early 1950's.  Just a little Colorado trivia: a railroad route over Berthoud Pass was investigated in 1867 by the chief engineer of the transcontinental railroad.  But, after nearly being trapped on the pass by a heavy, early fall snowstorm, he routed the Union Pacific through southern Wyoming!

Although the route west of Steamboat Springs sees few out-of-state visitors, the Middle Park area from Berthoud Pass to Hot Sulphur Springs and Grand Lake is one of the busiest tourist areas of the state.  Although the big Winter Park Ski Area is not a major RV draw, Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake, Lake Granby, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, the Fraser River, and the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area make this a summer destination for many outdoor recreationalists, including RVers.  But, when planning your trip to Middle Park, keep in mind that Trail Ridge Road (US 34) across RMNP doesn't open until Memorial Day weekend and closes after the first major snowstorm of fall.  And its switchbacks and 12,000' elevation make it RV-UNfriendly unless you have a pickup camper or camper van.

This is one of my favorite areas to camp because I spent a college summer as a USFS road surveyor in Middle Park.  For most of the summer we lived in a government trailer in Granby and surveyed the right-of-way for a forest road west from the Willow Creek Road (CO 125).  However, we also lived and worked in Winter Park, at Monarch Lake, and on the Williams Fork-Ute Pass Road at the Horseshoe Ranger Station.  Great summer and one of my fondest memories of the '60's!

Monarch Lake, east of Lake Granby--one of my favorite places in Colorado!

Due to this popularity, most valley areas available for camping are filled with towns, ranches, second homes, and USFS, National Park, and private campgrounds.  Areas conveniently located along US 40 for dispersed camping-boondocking are limited and there are few places that provide Free camping.  

One exception is in the town of Hot Sulphur Springs.  The Pioneer Park campground is located just north of the Colorado River at the west end of Grand St.  Not only is the campground Free (with valid hunting or fishing license), but it provides a Sanolet, a dumpster, and fishing access to the adjacent Colorado River. Potable water and a restroom with flush toilets are located at the north end of the park.  The campground is within walking distance of most of the amenities offered by the tiny town, which is the Grand County seat.  The drawback is noise throughout the night from Union Pacific trains that rumble through town on the nearby tracks.

At the other (west) end of Byers Canyon, is Hot Sulphur Springs SWA that also has Free camping (with license) on the banks of the Colorado River.  At the east end of the bridge over the river, turn south on CR 50--Church Park Road, then turn right after 0.1 mile.  Camping is allowed in the gravel parking lots along the river and two restrooms are provided for fishermen and campers.  As in the city park, train noise during the night can be a problem for some RVers. 

Of historical interest, both Byers Canyon and Byers Avenue (US 40) in Hot Sulphur Springs were named for William Newton Byers, the founder of the Rocky Mountain News.  Along with Colorado's first newspaper, Byers owned the hot springs and built the first resort on the site.  A little known fact is that John Wesley Powell and his boat crews gathered at the resort in the fall of 1868 to assemble their equipment and practice river running in the adjacent rapids of the Colorado River.  In fact, two of Powell's crew were employees of the Rocky Mountain News, sent by Byers to provide news reports on the trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.  And, just incidentally, the famous geologist also made the first recorded ascent of nearby 14,259' Long's Peak while he was in the vicinity.  Not bad for a one-armed former Civil War major!

A little farther west on US 40 is the tiny town of Parshall and the turnoff to paved CR 3 and a connection to the Ute Pass Road (CR 15).  CR 3 takes RVers to Free camping (no license requirements for camping and no reservations) around the shores of the Denver Water Board's Williams Fork Reservoir.  Take CR 3 about 2.5 miles to paved CR 341 for the East Boat Ramp, designated campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, pit toilets, and an RV dump.  Or go 3.8 miles to gravel CR 33 and then another 2.8 miles to the West Boat Ramp near a peninsula sticking out into the lake.  The west area provides more designated campsites with picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets.  There are about 45 designated back-in and pull-thru campsites in the two areas and plenty of space on the peninsula for dispersed camping.  Don't count on having potable water, campground shade, or great cell service or OTA TV stations, but it's perfect for long RVs, solar panels, generators, satellite dishes, and rainbow trout, lake trout, and northern pike fishing (with a CO fishing license, of course).  When we were there in July 2020, about 75% of the campsites were occupied on a weekday.  And the lake was so full that a couple of campsites were partially flooded!

Interestingly, the town of Parshall may be the only one in the nation named for a 20th century civil engineering professor.   In 1922, Professor Ralph Parshall of Colorado A&M College (now Colorado State University) received a patent for a structure that could accurately measure water flow in streams and irrigation ditches.  The first-ever river-scale "Parshall flume" was installed west of Byers Canyon on the Colorado River and the town took its name from that flume! 

Middle Park, Colorado
Berthoud Pass in lower right and Kremmling in upper left connected by US 40.
Dark lake southeast of Kremmling is Williams Fork Reservoir with Free camping.
White areas on right are snow-capped peaks along the Continental Divide.
Bright white spot just below and left of center is the tailings pond at the Henderson Mill.

Also of interest is that continuing south on CR 3 to its end will bring you to Climax Molydenum's Henderson Mine and Mill.  This huge underground mine has operated since the 1970's.  Mill workers generally live in Frisco and Silverthorne and commute via Ute Pass, while most miners live in Idaho Springs and commute via US 40 and a deep mine shaft located on the Jones Pass Road at the eastern approach to Berthoud Pass, nearly 10 miles from the mine portal near the mill. Originally an electric train hauled ore from inside the mine to the mill, but it was later replaced with a 5 mile-long conveyor system. The elevation of the mine shaft is about 10,500 ft, while the elevation of the mill portal is just under 9,000 ft., a difference of 1,500 ft in elevation and all of it underground!  Unfortunately, the big 2020 Williams Fork Fire decimated the forest in a large area between the mill and the town of Fraser.

There are relatively few places to camp Free or for a price along US 40 west of Parshall.  Red Mountain RV Park in Kremmling has FHU sites.  Wolford Campground on Wolford Reservoir, north of Kremmling and east of the highway, has a current rate for electric sites, with separate water hydrants and RV dump, of $25/night.

Thirty miles north of Kremmling on Muddy Pass, the USFS has a cheaper, no hookup campground called Dumont Lake.  Two miles north of the intersection of US 40 with CO 14, turn north off the highway onto gravel CR 199.  The campground has 22 sites with potable water, picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets for $12/night ($6/night with Senior pass).  Adjacent to the campground are lake and stream fishing, non-motorized boating, and mountain biking and hiking trails.  Reservations can be made for this campground, but it gets relatively light use due to opening only about June 15 each year and closing in October.  So you may want to take your chances and avoid the reservation fee.

The popular USFS Meadows Campground is located 7 miles closer to Steamboat Springs (37 miles north of Kremmling) and a mile south of US 40 on gravel FR 297.  It has 30 tree-shaded and open campsites up to 35 feet long with picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets for $10/night.  This is a no reservation, first come-first serve campground, so never lacks for campers during the summer and during the fall hunting season. There are also other forest roads in the vicinity that might be used for dispersed camping, but we haven't done any there.  Be aware of hunters in fall--we've had them come out of the forest right into our campsite!

Before the recent bark beetle destruction of the lodgepole pine forests of northern Colorado, two of the most popular State parks among Colorado RVers were Steamboat Lake and Pearl Lake.  Located north of Steamboat on CO 129, these lakes provided secluded, shaded campsites around the lakes, plenty of boating room, and great fishing.  Now, however, there are few trees remaining in the campgrounds and they are less popular during summer than in the past.

The hot springs pool in Steamboat, Fish Creek Falls just outside town, and numerous summer festivals still bring in many summer visitors, but most stay in the abundant ski lodges and condos at Mt. Werner.  A word of warning: Steamboat Springs has posted "No Overnight Parking" signs in the Walmart parking lot and enforces them.

A new State park campground much closer to US 40 is the Yampa River State Park Headquarters on the south side of the highway west of Hayden.  This campground has 35 long RV sites with 20/30/50A electric hookups, water, an RV dump, flush toilets, showers, and a laundry for $32/night plus the $8 daily fee.  Included in the daily fee is access to the Visitor's Center and 13 fishing access points across public and private land along a 134-mile reach of the Yampa River between Hayden and its confluence with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.  Not inexpensive camping, but well worth it if you are a fly fisherman and want to fish one of the least dammed rivers in the State.  There is a limit of two trout, but no limit at most access points on non-natives like bass, pike, walleye, perch-crappie, and catfish.

Due to the extreme length of the Yampa River State Park, there are no SWAs with camping along US 40 west of Hayden.  However, BLM has several areas for Free camping  adjacent to the river (no license required for camping, just for fishing).  Juniper Canyon is part of the Yampa Canyons Recreation Area and is located 20 miles west of Craig on gravel County Road 53.  Turn south off U S 40, then, after 3.6 miles, take a sharp right turn onto CR 74 and go about a mile.  The site has a boat ramp, parking lot, pit toilets, and bear-proof trash receptacles. The 5 angled, back-in RV sites with tent pads, and 3 tent-only sites, each with its own picnic shelter.  Juniper Canyon is popular not only with boaters and fishermen, but also mountain bikers, hikers, ATV/OHV riders, and wildlife photographers.  The only nearby population is in a ranch house across the river from the campground.

Nearly identical to Juniper Canyon, but much closer to US 40 is the Maybell Bridge BLM campground.  Turn south at the east end of the Yampa River bridge just before entering the town of Maybell.  The Free campground has 5 angled, back-in RV sites, one pull-thru site, and 5 tent-only sites.  There are tent pads and picnic shelters at each campsite, as well as a pit toilet, boat ramp, parking lot, and trash containers.  However, the proximity to the highway and town make this a relatively noisy location compared to the quieter (unless the OHVers are there), somewhat isolated Juniper Canyon campground.

When we took our RV to Alaska, the city park in Craig, with its fantastic wood carvings, and the Moffat County Fairgrounds both offered Free camping, complete with electricity at the fairgrounds.  But the Craig KOA owner apparently complained to the two governments and that ended the public campgrounds. Incidentally, there are now "NO Overnight Parking" signs at the Craig Walmart as well.  The first come-first served city park campground in Maybell still has sites with electricity and a water faucet, but it is up to $20/night.  They also charge $5 for using their RV dump and $3 for a shower.  

And that takes you west on US 40 to Vernal, Utah or maybe northwest through Maybell to the very remote Free campgrounds at Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge on Colorado's reach of the Green River.  From there, you can take a raft trip on the Green through Dinosaur National Monument.  If one-armed John Wesley Powell could handle Whirlpool Canyon in a wooden dory, you can certainly handle it in a rubber raft. Or if you happen to be in Maybell on an early May Sunday morning, don't miss the Great American Horse Drive right through town on US 40!

Free RV Camping – US 50 (west of Pueblo)

If you happen to be traveling from Kansas to Pueblo on US 50, there are 10 State Wildlife Areas with Free (with valid CO fishing or hunting license) lakeside camping and a State park.  The SWAs are located north of the highway between Holly and Rocky Ford and John Martin Reservoir State Park's Lake Hasty campground is south of the highway.  And, if you have children with you, don't miss a visit to Bent's Fort National Historic Site when you go through La Junta.

But, after leaving the Pueblo area heading west on US 50, your first Free camping is southwest of Canon City in Temple Canon Park.  Be sure to check fire conditions/bans (719-269-9028) and the weather forecast before leaving Canon City, as the park is in a very dry area that is also subject to frequent flash floods (the D&RG Railroad abandoned its 1881 narrow-gauge line up Grape Creek due to an 1889 flood).  In this Canon City mountain park, the picnic and dry camping areas (Temple Ridge and Temple View) have gravel-dirt roads and parking areas, pit toilets, covered picnic tables, fire pits, and trash cans, but no water, RV dump, or hookups.  Camping is limited to 3 days and water and pay RV dumps are available at the Shell and Conoco gas stations in town.  To reach the park, turn south off US 50 on 1st Street, then right on 3 Rd., which becomes gravel Temple Canyon Road.  It is ~5 1/2 miles from US 50 to the park.

Farther west, the Salida East-Bighorn Canyon site on the north side of US 50 is next door to Salida's Four Seasons RV Resort, where we once stayed during a holiday weekend when all the public campgrounds were full.  Once free, Bighorn became $17/night in 2017, when it was added to Arkansas River Headwaters State Park.  For additional campsites and RV dump information in the Salida area, see "US 285" above.  

After a long day's drive to Salida, try a dip in the city-owned, indoor hot springs swimming pool.  A  special place in Salida for kids is the State's Mt. Shavano Fish Hatchery located on the north side of town next to the river.  And, best of all, this is the town to try summer whitewater rafting!

If you don't want to pay a $10 dump fee at the Poncha Springs Visitor's Center, the next Free RV dump station heading west on US 50 is in Gunnison.  West of downtown Gunnison, turn east on Rio Grande Avenue, then take an immediate right onto Airport Road.  At the first gravel road, turn right again and follow it behind the General Aviation hangers to the dump.  There is plenty of room to turn around in the parking lot at the dump, as you must leave the same way you came in.

In addition to boondocking along CR 250 as discussed in the "US 285" section, Free parking lot dry camping is allowed on the east approach to Monarch Pass at the Monarch Crest Gift Shop.  However, the elevation is 11,000', so have plenty of propane in fall!  And be sure to ask permission and buy something in their store to repay the owner's generosity.

Inexpensive USFS campgrounds are located west of Poncha Springs, includingg Monarch Park (just east of Monarch Pass and first opened in 1920!) and three more west of the pass and north of the highway. The Pitkin, Snowblind, and Quartz campgrounds are very scenic places to spend a day or two camping, fly fishing, mountain biking or hiking.  You can also check out the narrow-gauge railroad grade up to the Denver, South Park & Pacific's 1881 Alpine Tunnel under the Continental Divide.  The Pitkin Campground is listed as one of the 100 Best Campgrounds in Colorado.  When we were there on a weekday in June 2020, the pandemic summer, every campsite in both Pitkin and Quartz were full.  And most were full of ATV/OHV owners, as the Cumberland Pass Road is now "4-wheeler heaven".  So, if you want a little peace and quiet, I would highly recommend finding a different camping area.

Another abandoned railroad grade to explore is east of the town of Sargents, which is located on US 50 at the western end of Monarch Pass.  The Marshall Pass road (Forest Road 243) is the former 3'-gauge D&RGW Railroad line that operated from 1881-1955 between Salida and Montrose.  This serpentine route is probably best viewed from your tow vehicle or toad, but you may find a few Free boondocking sites at lower elevations on USFS land.  Just watch for cattle on the open range!

There is a large expanse of brush-covered BLM land southwest of Sargents for Free dispersed camping.  At Doyleville, take paved County Road 45 across Tomichi Creek, then gravel CR 14-AA about 5 miles to reach BLM land on both sides of the road.  Watch for cattle on the road as this is also all open range.  There is no water, pit toilet, or trash container, so you have to be self-contained to camp in this area.  Please stay on previously used tracks and take everything you bring with you when you leave.  There are no nearby residents, lights, or cell service, so get there before dark to find your campsite.  But that dark night sky is pretty spectacular, which is why my wife has taken star-track photos along that road.

If CR 14-AA is a bit too remote for you, there are also 7 Free "primitive" BLM campsites along CO 114 in the Cochetopa Canyon Recreation Area.  These are just roadside pull-outs, some shaded with trees and some shaded by the canyon walls.  There are a couple of pit toilets, but no water except what you bring.  Hopefully you can live without cell service for a night because the canyon walls block the signals, but there will be occasional traffic along this primary cutoff between US 50 and the San Luis Valley, so you won't be too remote.  Of historic interest, the Cochetopa Canyon area is where Gunnison County's uranium ore was mined during the 1950's Uranium Rush. And nearby Cochetopa Pass was the "easy" route over the Continental Divide that Lt. John C. Fremont was searching for in 1848 when he nearly lost the lives of his entire expedition in a fall blizzard (10 of his 35-man party did die).

Hartman Rocks, a Free BLM dispersed camping area just south of Gunnison, is very popular with Western State College students.  That's because it offers great rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and cross-country skiing only 4 miles from campus, as well as OHV and snowmobile riding.  It is located south of the airport via CR 38 (Gold Basin Road) to CR 56 (Hartman Rocks Road).  However, the dispersed camping areas are off a steep, rocky road that is suitable only for truck campers, short Class B/C motorhomes, and tent/pop-up trailers.  I certainly wouldn't take a Class A motorhome, fifth wheel, or long travel trailer there, even with my 4WD truck.  Too much chance of dragging the tail end on the ground or hitting a rock!

Free camping (with valid CO hunting or fishing license) is available in two SWAs ~15 miles north or east of Gunnison.  The Almont Triangle SWA is located 3 miles north of Almont along the east side of CO 135, but is only open from May 16 to November 30.  The Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery is across the highway--plan time for a tour if you missed the hatchery in Salida.  And Crested Butte is only 15 miles north of the SWA, so plan time for a visit that eclectic old coal- and silver-mining town as well.  

The Cabin Creek SWA is located east of Gunnison and open from April 1 to December 19.  Take CO 135 north for 2 miles to CR 10 (Lost Canyon Rd.), then east 8 miles to FR 604, then south 1.5 miles to the SWA.  This SWA is located adjacent to Gunnison National Forest's Fossil Ridge Recreation Management Area, so there may be other dispersed camping areas within the forest.  This RMA also contains several trailheads into the Fossil Ridge Wilderness Area.

Incidentally, some of the best fall color areas in Colorado are north and south of Gunnison.  Northwest of Gunnison is the Kebler Pass road, all gravel from Crested Butte to Paonia Reservoir.  To the northeast is the newly paved Cottonwood Pass Road (Almont to Buena Vista and suitable for most RVs).  The SE aspen-leaf peeping area is the old narrow-gauge, gravel/dirt railroad grade over Marshall Pass from Sargents to US 285 discussed above.  For the SW area, drive US 50 to CO 149 and Lake San Cristobal, just south of Lake City.  So, if you are visiting Gunnison County in mid- to late September, be sure to take your tow vehicle or toad on at least one of those routes.

Curecanti Needle, logo of the D&RGW Railroad and now name of the National Recreation Area, is located on Morrow Point Reservoir deep in the Black Canyon






West of Gunnison, the Curecanti National Recreation Area's Elk Creek Campground on Blue Mesa Reservoir is located between US 50 and the lake shore.  The Elk Creek D-Loop is the only CNRA campground with electric hookups.  The 28 paved sites have 20, 30, and 50A power plus potable water and a dump at the entrance station for $24/night ($14/night with the Senior Pass).  Not much shade anywhere in the campground, but Elk Creek has a visitor center, flush toilets with showers, a swim beach, a marina, and a boat ramp.  And cell service for those who must have it.  We camped there for several days in September 2019 and the campground was full on the weekend, but only half full on the weekdays.  I used it as a base for kayaking the Gunnison River and upper lake while very successfully fly and spin fishing the fall brown trout spawning run.  

Incidentally, the photo above is from the fantastic Boat Tour that took us from just below Blue Mesa Dam to Morrow Point Dam through the depths of the Black Canyon.  So, schedule a trip before you go and enjoy a half-day on the lake.  Warning: it's long downhill walk from the parking lot to the boat dock and a much, much longer climb back up the steps after the tour.  Not for the out-of-shape senior who just arrived from the flatlands or for those with heart problems!

If you don't need an electric hookup, the other three loops at Elk Creek have no hookups for $16/night ($8 for Senior Pass).  Farther west on US 50, the Cimarron Campground near Morrow Point Dam has additional paved sites with water, an RV dump, and flush toilets for the same price.  This campground is less busy during the summer than the campgrounds around Blue Mesa.

Original 1882 D&RGW C-16 #278 sitting on the remains of a Black Canyon bridge near Cimarron before being removed in 2009 for restoration







Curecanti NRA also has the Free, first come-first serve Gateview campground with great fishing in the Lake Fork a few miles south of Blue Mesa.  BLM has the $5/night Red Bridge campground on the same gravel road, but 4 miles farther south, which locates it just outside the NRA.  The Gateview and Red Bridge campgrounds have 6 and 7 campsites, respectively, with pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire grates, but water during summer and early fall only at Gateview.  Although neither site nor Lake City have a Free RV dump, there are Free dumps in both Gunnison and Montrose.  To get to the campgrounds from Gunnison, turn south off US 50 onto paved CO 149 at the upper end of Blue Mesa Reservoir and go approximately 20 miles to gravel Blue Mesa Cutoff Road (CR 25).  Turn north and go 2.3 miles on CR 25 to Red Bridge, then an additional 4 miles on CR 64 to Gateview.  Don't cross the bridge on CR 25!  Stay beside the river on Blue Mesa Road--the old roadbed of the D&RGW Lake City Branch.  Incidentally, the water in the Lake Fork at Gateview was so clear that I watched 18"-20" rainbow trout feeding on the bottom of a 10' deep pool located just below a huge boulder.  And I didn't have my fly rod with me!  Lesson learned, now I permanently keep one in the truck.

Finally, there is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park campground, which has both electric and non-electric, unpaved (gravel) sites.  The non-electric sites are the same $16($8)/night rates as the Curecanti NRA campgrounds, while the 23 short back-in and longer pull-out electric sites are $22($13)/night.  However, there is no water faucet, no RV dump, no flush toilets, no cell service, and no grocery store for 15 miles.  So, you must come prepared with everything you need except maybe electricity!  West of Black Canyon NP, there are Free RV dumps and potable water at the Montrose County Fairgrounds in Montrose and Confluence Park in Delta.

If you are skipping Black Canyon NP, a Free overnight dry camping stop could be the West Main Trailhead Park in Montrose.  Stay on US 50 (East Main) until you pass US 550 and the street becomes CO 90 (West Main).  Just before the bridge over the Uncompahgre River, turn left into a circular, paved parking area and you are there.  A restroom and trail along the river are available for your use and your RV can stay there for up to 24 hours.  As mentioned above, you can dump and fill with water Free at the Montrose County Fairgrounds at San Juan (US 50) and North 7th Street, north of the BMX park.

Incidentally, the Montrose Walmart seems to welcome RVers for overnight stays, but the Gunnison Walmart is much less accommodating.  The Gunnison Walmart is on the north side of town on the road to Crested Butte and was posted in 2016.  But, even if you could camp there, you wouldn't want to do it during ski season.  I tried skiing at Crested Butte one January when the temperature got to 40 below, so I wouldn't be caught dead camping in the Gunnison Valley in winter--free or otherwise.  Incidentally, Gunnison often records the lowest winter temperatures of any Colorado town!

There aren't many places to camp Free between Montrose and Grand Junction because, quite frankly, it is a dry, barren, alkali-dust, shale valley with very little to attract RVers, even just overnight.  BUT, if you have time to get a few miles off US 50, there are some great places to visit along CO 141 in Unaweep Canyon, like the Gateway Canyons Resort and its fantastic Auto Museum; along CO 65 through the Grand Mesa "lake district"; and along CO 133 to McClure Pass and  the Crystal River valley (scenic Marble and the eclectic Redstone company town).  However, those are non-US highways, so must be left to some other blog.

Free RV Camping – US 550 (south of Montrose)

South of Montrose between the towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Durango is located one of the most popular areas of Colorado.  US 550 in this stretch is called the "Million Dollar Highway" and is both beautiful and a terror for many RV drivers and passengers from the flatlands!  This area is tourist-heavy for good reason because it has some of the most scenic and most photographed mountains, passes, rivers, waterfalls, split rail fences, jeep roads, and narrow-gauge trains anywhere in the U.S.  This is especially true in the fall when the aspen are changing on Mt. Sneffles, on Dallas Divide, and in Animas Canyon.


Mt. Sneffels and Wilson Peak in fall as seen from Dallas Divide on CO 62 west of Ridgway

The "terror" of driving US 550 in an RV is due to a combination of factors.  The least of these is a tunnel and an avalanche shed that the highway passes through just south of Ouray.  The avalanche shed should have plenty of clearance for most RVs, but the tunnel has a clearance of only 13'9" and that is in its center  The more significant "terror factor" on US 550, however, is the Uncompahgre Gorge's lack of guard rails along a cliff that drops several hundred feet to the river.  Due to the narrow lanes and abundance of curves, northbound drivers tend to drift toward (over!) the center line to stay away from the sheer rock face on the east side of the highway.  This leaves little room for a long, southbound RV trying to stay in his lane, but away from the edge of that sheer drop!  

If in doubt on being able to negotiate the tunnel or you just want to avoid the gorge altogether with your RV (use your toad or tow vehicle to drive to Silverton), there is an alternative, very scenic route from Ridgway to Cortez and Durango. That is the CO 62-CO 145 route through Placerville and Telluride to Dolores that I use when towing my 5th wheel.  And, just FYI, the Town of Telluride has a Free big-rig/tour-bus friendly RV dump at their wastewater treatment plant.  It is located in the public parking area at South Mahoney Drive and Pacific Avenue. 


Telluride just off CO 145 with Bridal Veil Falls and Black Bear Pass Road switchbacking up the sheer wall of the box canyon




And, while on the subject of driving the roads of the San Juans,  this is Colorado's jeeping capital, so a few comments based on personal experience.  Jeep roads were originally animal trails, then Ute horse trails, then pack trails for miner's mules and burros, then wagon roads.  They were never designed by engineers, widened for modern 4WD pickups, or constructed with passing locations.  So, just because you have a 4WD truck doesn't mean you should drive the jeep roads of the San Juans.  If you want to do some 4-wheeling in your pickup, my advice is to have very good brakes, practice making 7-point turns, and stick to Engineer Pass and Ophir Pass.  If you want to experience the adrenaline rush of "conquering" passes like Imogene and Black Bear, either schedule a jeep tour with an experienced driver in Ouray or Telluride or bring/rent a small, maneuverable OHV.

As one example to emphasize this point, not so many years ago an out-of-state visitor drove his big 4WD pickup off a San Juans jeep road into an off-limits area and to the edge of a cliff.  When he couldn't turn around or back up without going over the edge, he walked out and notified the USFS.  When the rescue team couldn't get it out either, the truck had to be taken apart and airlifted out by helicopter.  That cost several hundred thousand dollars, including a massive Federal fine, but not including the cost of putting the truck back together (that's not in the USFS' job description)! 

A Free (with valid hunting or fishing license) camping area is located 16 miles south of Montrose and east of US 550 on Ouray CR 2.  It is the Billy Creek Tract of the Billy Creek SWA and camping is allowed there only from May 1 to December 31 (there are several other tracts in this SWA, but none allow camping).  

A few miles farther south on US 550 is Ridgway State Park, one of our favorite Colorado state park campgrounds.  The park has one FHU campground below the dam and electric-only sites in two other campgrounds, an open, sunny one near the boat ramp-marina area and a nicely shaded one up on Elk Ridge, where we camp.  On our last October stay there, the Elk Ridge D-Loop was walk-in only and there were a dozen available sites on a Wednesday afternoon.  The big reservoir allows all types of boating and fishing and the towns of Ridgway and Ouray are a short drive away.  It also hosts Colorado's biggest smallmouth bass tournament in July.

South of Ouray, Free camping is limited in areas near the major roads.  Dispersed camping is possible in some areas of the San Juan National Forest, but BLM lands are limited due to the widespread abundance of patented mining claims.  These claims are privately owned lands even when unfenced and unoccupied.  So, know before you go by buying detailed maps or checking with the USFS or BLM ahead of your stay in this area (Google Earth does NOT show mining claims).

                                           
                                                                 Red Mountain and the Idarado Mine on US 550 
                                                                                between Ouray and Silverton

Just north of Silverton on US 550 and 4 miles east on FR 585 is the very scenic USFS South Mineral Campground, another of Colorado's 100 Best Campgrounds.  With 26 relatively level, first come-first served campsites, potable water, pit toilets, and reachable with a 2WD vehicle, it is very popular.  So it is best to get there as early in the day as possible.

An extremely scenic drive near that campground is the Ophir Pass 4WD road (FR 679).  This 19th century wagon road for hauling mining equipment and supplies between Silverton and Ophir is only one-lane, hangs on the edge of a cliff, and has switchbacks too narrow to get a pickup truck around without a 3 or 4-point turn.  But, of the passes between Ouray-Silverton and Telluride-Ophir, this road is the least difficult.  Imogene and Black Bear are far more dangerous passes and not recommended for out-of-state visitors except on a jeep tour or ATV/OHV.  

One very popular Free dispersed camping area south of Silverton and east of US 550 is located along the very long, dirt Lime Creek Road (FR 591).  The easier northern entrance is located about 6 miles south of the Molas Lake parking area and the southern entrance is one US 550 hairpin curve north of Cascade Village.  It is considered a 4WD road, but, if you have a truck or RV with a relatively high clearance, you shouldn't have a problem.  However, being signed as 4WD, this is also one of the most popular ATV/OHV roads in San Juan National Forest.  So, if you want peace and quiet when you are boondocking in the Colorado mountains, this may not be your favorite campsite.

If you do dispersed camping along US 550, please be conscientious concerning USFS regulations, other campers, streams, and roadless areas.  In other words, please be a good “Tread Lightly” boondocker!  One recent summer, we drove the 4WD-only Bolam Pass road (FR 578) from the Durango Mountain/Purgatory ski area to the Cayton campground (now with 19 electric sites!), located on CO 145 south of Telluride.  Where this road runs adjacent to Upper Hermosa Creek, the USFS had posted the riparian areas with numerous “No Camping – Revegetation In Progress” signs.  Behind the signs were at least a dozen groups of campers, some with horse trailers and some with toy haulers, OHVs, and trail bikes.  And everywhere they had driven were deep ruts in the reseeded areas.  My wife was shocked at the arrogance of those campers, who obviously didn’t feel that any rules applied to them.  It was especially galling since a perfectly acceptable pine-shaded, Forest Service campground and a designated equestrian camping area were located only three miles east on the same road.  That is exactly the kind of behavior that the Forest Service is going to use the Travel Management Rule to end.  Will the Bolam Pass road be completely closed?  Don’t be surprised if it is.  That will be a shame because, although the upper portion of the road is extremely rocky (4WD-, OHV-, trail bike-, mountain bike-, horse-only) and traveled by relatively few people, the views of Lizard Head and the western San Juans from the top are spectacular!

As discussed in detail in the "US 160 West of Pagosa Springs" section below, there are not a lot of dispersed camping-boondocking areas near Durango and no dry camping at Walmart either.  Because of the popularity of Durango during the summer-fall tourist season, USFS campgrounds like Haviland Lake (another "100 Best Colorado Campground") and Junction Creek are generally booked months in advance.

South of Durango, the land is mostly private near the highway and Southern Ute Indian Reservation land away from the highway.  So, there is very little BLM land available for boondocking and not even a USFS pay campground.  Maybe New Mexico has more places to boondock along US 550, but, if so, I've never explored them.  You're on your own finding those.

Free RV Camping - Introduction

Despite some critics who say there is no more free camping in Colorado, there are a number of FREE or inexpensive camping areas that are co...