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 40, US 50/550, and US 160.  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.

                                                                    Colorado's Banff-Jasper-Glacier NP look-alike:
                                                                      The Maroon Belles and Maroon Lake in Fall

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 a valid SWA pass) 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 2023: Beginning in 2021, a valid Colorado "State Wildlife Area Pass" is required for each person age 16+ to use a State Wildlife Area for any purpose, unless they have a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license.  However, unlike the licenses, the rates for the CPW State Wildlife Area Passes are the same for both Colorado residents and non-residents and you can purchase them online at cpwshop.com.  The one-day CWA pass costs $10/person over age 15.  If you want to spend multiple nights camping at SWAs across Colorado, the annual CPW pass is $39.96 per 18-64 year-old adult, but only $10.95 for each 16-17 year-old and each senior over 64.  So, a 65+ grandpa and grandma could bring two 16-17 year-old, and any number of younger, grandkids to Colorado and spend the entire summer boondocking in their RV at SWAs around the state for a total cost of $43.80.  Hard to beat 50 cents a night for camping in some gorgeous mountain locations, with wildlife viewing, hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking thrown in for "Free".  San Luis Lakes SWA even has fifty gravel campsites with 30/50A electric hookups (NO water!), covered picnic tables, fire rings, a dump, and a 15-minute drive to Great Sand Dunes NP for that price!  And SWAs aren't limited to the mountains, so you can camp in one near Bent's Old Fort NHS or the new Amache NHS on US 50, near Sterling on I-76, near Springfield on US 287, etc.  But remember, the CPW SWA Pass is NOT valid for fishing.  Unless you are younger than 16, you will still need a separate fishing license!

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, Rio Grande, Arkansas, Platte, San Juan, Animas, La Plata, Dolores, White, Canadian, and Republican (Kansas).  And every drop of water in those rivers and their tributaries is used and reused by someone in Colorado or the surrounding states.  Just imagine what miles of trout fly-fishing access to the Conejos River would look like after a thousand RVers dumped their antibacterial detergent-laden dish water on the ground because the beautiful USFS Mogote campground has no RV dump!

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 Welcome Center/rest areas in Fruita (I-70 near Utah border), Julesburg and Sterling (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.  Travel trailers and truck campers were lined up at the dump in Fruita when we were there in May 2022 because the Colorado National Monument region is very popular with boondocking mountain bikers, kayakers, and music festival-goers.  And the rest areas just off I-70 in Rifle and Edwards 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 Welcome Center/rest areas on I-25 between Raton Pass and Denver--located just north of Trinidad, at Colorado City, and at Pinon (between Pueblo and Colorado Springs)--have NO dumps and Pinon (now closed) had 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.

Obviously FREE RV camping in the Colorado Rockies involves a lot of boondocking and dry camping.  But the only time families can camp here is during summer vacations and summer camping without hookups means no air conditioning!  How can a family survive summer temps without AC, you ask?  Our family didn't have AC when we tent camped in the 1980s, but we always camped at high elevations because average summer temps decrease with altitude.  For example, the City of Pueblo, at an elevation of 4,686' above sea level, has average daytime highs during June, July, and August ranging from 89 to 94 degrees.  However, a two-hour, 97-mile drive on US 50 up the Arkansas River canyon to Salida, at 7,083', will mean average summer daytime highs of 79-82 degrees, with humidity ranging from 15-30%.  So, just open some windows and turn on the 12v vent fan to cool the RV.  Plus, you shouldn't be inside the RV during the daytime anyway, you're in the Colorado Rockies!  But be sure to close your windows and turn off that fan at night because average summer nighttime temps in Salida range from 47 to 53 degrees!  Not going to Salida, but on US 160 to Durango?  Durango, at 6,522', has nearly identical average summertime high and low temps as Salida.  So, now what excuse can you have for not boondocking in a FREE Colorado Rockies campsite?

Autumn in the San Juans--my favorite time of year and region of Colorado for RVing

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 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!  Our backyard near Denver on May 21, 2019 and again on May 21, 2022!

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.  It is now posted with "No Overnight Parking" signs.  However, the Sam's Club store on Wadsworth, 3/4 mile south of that Walmart, now has campers and truckers staying overnight in their parking lot.  Most other Walmarts around Denver also have “No Overnight Parking” 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 CPW SWA Pass or valid hunting or fishing license--see the new rule in the "Introduction" section above) at Tarryall Reservoir 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 was 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 Antero campground has no shade.  But the solar panels worked so well when we had the motor home there in August 2021 that we never needed to use the generator.  It has a boat ramp and very good rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout fishing (a valid CO fishing license is obviously needed to fish), which was why we were camping there! 

On our first fall RV trip on US 285 to northern New Mexico, we left Denver after work and spent the 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 $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 dump at the Poncha Springs Visitors Center at the intersection of US 285 and US 50.

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 on the Arkansas River in Brown's Canyon NM

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 or Jeeps, so that may explain the numbers. 

If dry camping at Walmarts is not your cup of tea, there is Free public overnight parking at the Poncho Springs Visitor Center.  There are several long, asphalt-paved, pull-thru RV parking spaces at the west end of loop road.  The Visitor Center also has a $10 automated pay dump and potable water, as well as restrooms with flush toilets.  I used the facilities there in both spring and fall of 2023.  

There is also 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 just 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.  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!  CPW rules now state that a valid CPW SWA Pass or fishing or hunting license for EVERY PERSON over 15 is required to camp or for any other use at ALL SWAs.  See the new rule in the "Introduction" section above.  But San Luis Lakes is still the best bargain campground in Colorado!  When we camped there in October 2018, it was about 1/3 full and 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.  When I was there in June 2023, following the institution of the SWA Pass requirements, it had only 14 RVs filling 51 electric sites.  And that was during the summer tourist season--plenty of RVs on the highway, but not in the cg!

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 NP nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Range

A less expensive Federal campground for those with a 4x4 truck or van camper is located just south of the national park at Zapata Falls, but I wouldn't try it with any of my RVs.  It is a first come-first serve, $11/night ($5.50 with Senior Pass), BLM campground with a pit toilet, but no water and no trash containers since 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 my 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 Infantry 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.

Pikes Peak from Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs

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 (reopened on May 16, 2021 for first run in four years) 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 from Google Earth showing the size of the open-pit gold mine between them.  Gold is extracted from ore using cyanide heap-leaching technology.



















Today Cripple Creek allows no overnight street 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 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 from 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 motorhome.  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 CPW SWA Pass or valid hunting or fishing license--see the "Introduction" section above), 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.  When I went back in June 2023, the same was true and I had a hard time finding an open spot.  Plenty of nearby neighbors that night!

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 Mt. Massive, the two tallest peaks in Colorado, after the first snow of fall

















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 camping.  There is Free, dispersed USFS  camping available along the access road to Sugar Loaf Dam.  Take a left off northbound US 24 on CR 4, the Turquoise Lake Road, at the USFS office building and go about 5 miles to the Sugar Loafin' RV Park.  There the road has a three-way intersection, with paved CR 4 to the right, the paved golf course road to the left, and the gravel dam access road between those two.  Drive until you find an existing site with a fire ring (please do not create new fire rings and be very careful with campfires).  When we were there on an August 2021 weekday, there were at least 50 dispersed camping RVs, from tent campers and pickup campers to 40' motorhomes.  So you had better like nearby neighbors with your boondocking!  For San Isabel NF dispersed camping rules click HERE.  

If you need it, Leadville has a city-owned RV dump at 911 US 24, right across the highway from the USFS office ($10 dump fee, $5 for water in a self-pay box, with video monitoring!).  Incidentally, all of the RV dumps and water faucets in the USFS Turquoise Lake Recreation Area were "closed due to the pandemic" in 2021.  So, if you need water, better get it at the city dump station, even if camping in an established USFS campground.

On your way north, pause for a walking and driving tour of Leadville, Colorado's richest (and from 1878-1882, the world's richest) silver mining town.  The Silver 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!

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 the Ski Cooper Ski Area.  However, it was recently designated a National Historic Site.

                                                   Company L, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division                                                                                                                                      training on skis 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.  The coal stoves that heated each Camp Hale building also added to the dense smoke of the valley.

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 in a 1943 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, diesel truck, I did not take our fifth wheel up that grade.  And the entire road would be off-limits for our current motorhome, with the exception of a few, always full campsites nearest I-70.

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 aquaduct 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!

                                                           Steamboat Springs' city-owned hot springs pool

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, short Class C, or camper van.  I never even attempted towing our fifth wheel over it.  In addition, the East Troublesome Fire burned a wide swath of forest from CO 125 to RMNP, including buildings in both RMNP and the town of Grand Lake.

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--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 to a few gravel/dirt roads east of US 40 near the Mary Jane ski runs.  But there are few other places that provide Free camping.  If you can find a boondocking spot near Winter Park, Granby has a Free RV dump in Kaibab Park at 555 Park Lane.

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 CPW SWA Pass or valid hunting or fishing license--see the "Introduction" section above), 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 CPW SWA Pass or 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, 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 August 2023, nearly all of the campsites were occupied on a weekend.   And all of the level boondocking sites on the peninsula were filled with groups of fishermen, paddleboarders, and families with kids enjoying their final weekend before school started.  The lake was still so full (in August!) that a couple of eastern campsites were partially flooded.  So all the boat ramps on the west side of the lake were closed.

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 for $39-42/night.  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 $40/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 30 each year and closing in late October.  So you may want to take your chances and avoid the reservation fee, since one loop is FC-FS.

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 15 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 had two areas for Free camping adjacent to the river (no license required for camping, just for fishing) until 2023.  However, when we visited it in September 2023, both Juniper Canyon  and Maybell Bridge have now become part of Yampa River State Park.  That means that these formerly Free campgrounds are now $14/night for FC-FS dry campsites.  Juniper Canyon 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. It has 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 now-$14/night Maybell Bridge campground.  Turn south at the east end of the Yampa River bridge just before entering the town of Maybell.  The 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)

                                                    
                                           Curecanti Needle from Morrow Point Reservoir

If you happen to be traveling from Kansas to Pueblo on US 50, there are 10 State Wildlife Areas with Free (with CPW SWA Pass or valid CO fishing or hunting license
--see the "Introduction" section above) 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 completely tree-shaded campground is south of the highway.  And, if you have children with you, don't miss a visit to Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site when you go through La Junta.  If you camp in the La Junta area, there is a Free dump at the Pueblo West Quik Stop gas station (next to car wash) just south of US 50 at 101 S. McCulloch.

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 US50 to the park.

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!

Although we formerly dumped Free at the Salida Visitor Center, that dump is now closed.  There is Free potable water and a $10 (credit card machine) RV dump at the Poncha Springs Visitor Center at the intersection of US 50 and US 285.  In addition, the visitor center has restrooms with flush toilets and several long, pull-thru RV parking spaces that can be used for a Free overnight stop.  This is rare in Colorado, as most visitor centers and rest areas do not allow overnight parking.

If you don't want to pay a dump fee at the Poncha Springs Visitor 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.

                                                        
                                        US 50 on Monarch Pass and the Monarch Ski Area

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, including 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 no-hookup 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 road is now closed due to an avalanche that destroyed part of the Palisades railroad grade, but you can still hike or mountain bike to the portal. 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 first pandemic summer, every campsite in both Pitkin and Quartz was 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 1881 3'-gauge D&RGW Railroad mainline to Utah that operated between Salida and Gunnison to 1955.  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 3 Free "primitive" BLM campgrounds along CO 114 in the BLM Cochetopa Canyon Recreation Area.  These are located at approximately MP 12.5, 14.5, and 18 south of US 50, with pit toilets, but no water except what you bring.  Some campsites are tree-shaded and back up to the creek, but hopefully you can live without cell service because the canyon walls may block the signals.  Only a handful of the campsites were occupied in early June 2023.  However, 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 Boom. And nearby Cochetopa Pass was the "easy" transcontinental railroad 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.  Ten of his 35-man party did die and no railroad was ever constructed over that pass!

Hartman Rocks, a Free BLM dispersed camping area just south of Gunnison, is very popular with Western Colorado University 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 very steep, rocky road that has been made worse by a constant stream of OHVs. It is suitable only for 4WD truck campers, 4WD Class B motorhomes, and 4WD pickups towing off-road teardrop trailers. It was a very rough ride in May 2023 even in my 4WD, 3/4-ton diesel truck without a trailer, so I certainly wouldn't take a Class A or C motorhome, fifth wheel, or travel trailer up there.  Too much chance of dragging the tail-end on the ground, high-centering on a rock, or even bending the frame!

Free camping (with CPW SWA Pass or valid CO hunting or fishing license--see the "Introduction" section above) is available in two SWAs ~15 miles north or 6.5 miles east of Gunnison.  The Almont Triangle SWA is located 3 miles north of Almont on CO 135--halfway to Crested Butte--and is open from March to November.  It is located across the highway from the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery, which raises tens of thousands of kokanee and whirling disease-resistant trout each year.

Located 6.5 miles east of Gunnison is the Cabin Creek unit of the Van Tuyl SWA.  Travel US 50 to BLM road 3107 and go north 0.2 mile.  This SWA offers camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing on 200 acres of the Tomichi Creek valley, but an SWA Pass is required.

Incidentally, some of the best fall aspen color in Colorado is around Gunnison.  Northwest of Gunnison is the extremely popular (bumper-to-bumper traffic jams on weekends!) Kebler Pass road, mostly gravel from Crested Butte to CO 133.  CO 135 and the Kebler Pass road (CR 12) are part of the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway, with spectacular views of Mt. Crested Butte, Lake Irwin, and the volcanic peaks of the rugged West Elk Mountains.  To the NE is the newly paved Cottonwood Pass Road from Almont to Tincup to Buena Vista and suitable for most RVs.  The SE aspen-leaf peeping area is the old narrow-gauge, gravel/dirt railroad grade discussed above from Sargents over Marshall Pass to US 285 (not suitable for most RVs!).  For leaf-peeping to the SW, take US 50 to all-paved CO 149, the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, south to Lake City and Lake San Cristobal.  FYI, this natural lake formed behind a dam created by the Slumgullion Mudflow, which is so massive that it was visible in the earliest photos taken by astronauts.  If you visit Gunnison County in mid- to late-September, you should definitely take your tow vehicle or toad over at least one of those scenic routes.

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, boat ramp, and marina.  We last stayed there in the fall of 2019 while I kayaked the Gunnison River and upper end of Blue Mesa while fishing (very successfully!) for brown trout feasting on the kokanee salmon that were returning to their birthplace at the Roaring Judy hatchery.

If you don't need hookups, the other 3 loops at Elk Creek and several nearby campgrounds on Blue Mesa have no-hookup campsites for $16($8)/night.  Farther west on US 50, the Cimarron campground near Morrow Point Dam has additional paved sites with water, flush toilets, and an RV dump for the same price.  This cg. is generally less busy in summer than those around Blue Mesa.

Incidentally, the photo at the top of this section is of the Curecanti Needle, a symbol of the D&RG's 19th-century narrow-gauge "Mainline through the Rockies." A view once reserved only for railroad travelers, this photo was taken from our NPS boat tour on Morrow Point Reservoir through the depths of the Black Canyon.  So, schedule a trip before you go and enjoy a half-day on the lake. Note for 2023: the boat tour will not be operating this summer, but will hopefully be available in 2024.  Warning: it's a long downhill walk from the parking lot to the boat dock and a much, much longer climb back up the steps after the tour. I had to stop several times while climbing the steps in 2019 just to catch my breath despite having lived in Colorado for 60 years.  This trek is definitely NOT for the senior just arrived from the flatlands or for anyone with heart or respiratory problems!


1882-vintage C-16 2-8-0 steam locomotive #278 sitting on an original Black Canyon of the Gunnison D&RG railroad bridge before its 2009 removal 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 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 keep one permanently in the motorhome.

Finally, there is the South Rim campground at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 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, and no food for 15 miles.  So, come prepared with everything you need for an overnight stay and pack out everything you bring.

Note for 2023:  US 50 is only one alternating lane with a 10' width at Blue Creek on weekdays from 8:30am to 7:30pm and closed at night due to construction between Sapinero and Cimarron (MP 123-127).  It is fully open on weekends.  This multiyear construction project is expected to be completed in Fall 2023, but don't hold your breath!  When I was there in early September 2023, the digital sign said waits of 1-2 hours were possible.

West of Black Canyon NP, there is a Free RV dump and potable water at the Confluence Park off US 50 in Delta.  NOTE: Sorry, RVers, another shut-down due to abuse by other RVers.  In October 2020, Montrose County closed their Free RV dump station at the fairgrounds due to black tanks and trash bags dumped on the parking lot!  However, there are several pay dumps at Montrose gas stations, including the Shell Super Mart on East US 50.  Since Durango and Salida closed their city park dumps several years ago and McPhee Recreation Complex near Cortez closed theirs in 2020, we'll see how long the dumps in Delta and Gunnison remain open and Free.

If you are skipping Black Canyon NP, a Free overnight (24-hour limit) 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.  Please DO NOT abuse the privilege of your Free stay or Montrose will ban camping at this site as well.

Incidentally, the Montrose Walmart currently 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, 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, or along CO 65 through the Grand Mesa "lake district".  Even more scenic is CO 133 to McClure Pass, the Crystal River valley (historic Marble and the eclectic Redstone company town, with its rare USFS electric-hookup campground), ritzy Aspen, and Glenwood Springs, with its huge hot springs pool and access to I-70.  However, those are not US highways, so finding your campsites on those routes will be left to Campendium or some other blog.

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...