Washington Gulch
Colorado,  Outdoors

Best Free Campsites in Colorado

It’s that wonderful time of year again. Camping season! What better way to celebrate than checking out the best free campsites in Colorado?

If you are like me, you count down the days until you can get away, breath the fresh air, and immerse yourself in nature.

Personally, I enjoy every minute of camping. Nothing beats waking up to the sunshine, smelling the camp fire smoke in my clothes, and feeling the crisp chill in the air, even despite the lack of sleep I may have just gotten.

The only thing I don’t like about camping is when I get stuck with fees or am surrounded by crowds. I go camping to get away from people (besides whomever I have taken with me of course) and I am not about spending a lot of money to sleep outside.

As a kid living in Los Angeles, camping options are shockingly expensive. That’s LA for you. While I would still go, camping simply wasn’t as much of a thing for me as it is now.

After moving to Utah, I learned about the wonders of camping in BLM land and I was forever convinced. On top of that, my fiancé Robb is quite the camper himself and what better ways to bond than uninterrupted nights under the stars?

Since we live in Denver, we tend to spend most weekends out in the wilderness.

But due to my work schedule, I mostly could go on the weekends. Between that and living near the city, it is a bit harder to find the perfect spot. We both like to stay up fairly late so we often try to find places that we can be loud into the morning without bothering anyone near us.

RELATED: How to find the Perfect Campsite

We also generally like to car camp which makes it harder to find a good spot. Of course we could backpack, but at times we like to have the luxury of the car. To be honest, I’m kind of a glamper and those luxuries are hard to carry in a backpack.

So with that in mind, we went out to find great options that we love. Here is what we found.

  1. Rampart Range Road

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While this spot is within a couple hours of Denver and Colorado Springs, there are several wonderful sites along this road with plenty of space for you and your entire crew.

Funny enough, we found this spot when we first moved to Denver and got kicked out of a spot by a park ranger. I know, I know, I usually don’t do that but my friends thought it was a good idea despite it obviously being a spot with high flash flooding risks. It was the Fourth of July so we got desperate.

Instead of getting in trouble, the ranger took us up Rampart Range Road where we found this beautiful site to fit our crew of 30 people. Yes, it easily fit 30 people.

RELATED: Ultimate Car Camping Checklist

Not only was it huge, there was also plenty of space between us and the next campsites. We were definitely able to party throughout the night without being rude to our neighbors.

Another added bonus is that these spots are equipped with bathrooms throughout the road to make your camping experience a little nicer for those who don’t want to go in nature.

When getting here, I recommend driving past all of the early spots since those are usually taken by people with dirt bikes and motor homes. Drive all the way up to Devil’s Tower trail head and turn right. That is where the spectacular sites are.

This spot is my favorite to go early season or late season because the weather is fairly moderate compared to the higher peaks. Plus, it is absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful in September with the colors changing.

  1. Poudre Canyon

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Located near Fort Collins, this location generally has nice weather for early spring or late fall camping. I actually got engaged here last April so it has a special place in my heart.

What you do is drive up to Poudre Canyon Rd and go up the road for a little ways. You’ll pass several small towns down this scenic road filled with several paid campsites. They are ok but if you keep driving for half an hour or so you will eventually hit a dirt forest road on the left.

There is a CSU mountain camping sign marking the turn and you will cross a bridge over the river. Once you drive up, there are several beautiful sites within five minutes of the turn. There are probably about 10 spots easy throughout this area. While there will probably be other campers, it is definitely better than camping at the river itself.

  1. Buffalo Pass

steamboat

This spot is a bit farther away but Steamboat Springs is pretty cool and I recommend checking it out. Plus, you can hit Strawberry Hot Springs for a great after camping soak.

Buffalo Pass is one you’ll want to save for later in the summer season. Steamboat Springs is a ski town, and well, there is snow on the mountains for a lot of the spring.

However, the drive up this pass is quite a looker and there are several spots to pitch your tent and take it all in.

When you’re in Steamboat, head over to Strawberry Park Road and turn right onto Colorado Rd 38. Basically, that will take you all the way up the pass until you find a spot. There are plenty of signs to get to Buffalo Pass so you’ll be able to find it easily. Just pay attention to where you can camp or not. No one wants someone camping at their private property.

  1. Monarch Pass

Much like Steamboat, this is a location that you can only visit in later summer since it is near a ski resort.

Basically you will drive from Salida headed towards Gunnison on Monach Pass. From there, there are a few turn offs that you can find camping spots. I know that Old Monarch Rd has some spots but we checked out this turn off right before the small town of Sargent.

It was filled with these beautiful Aspens and we were basically alone in the whole area. Given that this was the afternoon of Fourth of July, this was a big deal.

Since this spot is a bit far from Denver, we were able to get away from the Front Range crowds while still car camping.

  1. Washington Gulch

This is hands down my favorite spot to camp of all times. It is absolutely amazing. It’s kind of far from Denver but totally worth every minute of the drive. This is also only accessible in the late season since Crested Butte is a ski town.

Located in the beautiful town of Crested Butte, Washington Gulch offers jaw dropping mountain views, unbelievable wildflowers, and stunning waterfalls. Basically, I want my eternal soul to rest in Crested Butte.

We visited over Fourth of July weekend and while it was a week or so before the wildflower peak, it certainly did not disappoint. Late July, the town of Crested Butte even hosts a festival to honor the flowers. I mean, it was as if I was frolicking through a fairy dreamland.

Related: Why Crested Butte is my favorite town in Colorado

To get there, you’ll turn onto Washington Gulch Road and get ready to be mesmerized. To put it this way, I would have been satisfied if we didn’t find a spot since the drive was absolutely stunning and worth it even if we had to turn back.

When driving there, don’t settle for the spots near the bottom. They are gorgeous and surrounded by wildflowers so it may be tempting. However, once you get closer to the top and pass this trailhead (and the private property signs) you will see this amazing overlook with some of the most enchanting peaks I’ve ever seen (and I lived in Salt Lake City so I know all about pretty peaks).

We literally had to jump out of the car and take pictures.

So there we go. Here are my favorite free spots to camp in Colorado. I know there are several more places to explore but I won’t to recommend places unless I have been there. What is your favorite free campsite in Colorado? I would love to check out any great spots you have been to.

8 Comments

  • Leslie Carol Triesch

    We love to camp at Silverjack Reservoir off of Hwy 50 between Gunnison and Montrose. Just to the east of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, take the Cimarron Road south 21 miles until you enter the National Forest. There is paid camping, but if you continue a couple of miles past the lake, you will see plenty of campsites. Perfect for RV camping as well as tents. The East Fork Trailhead leads 14 miles to the base of 14er Uncompahgre Peak if you’re up for adventure. There is good fishing, great hiking, and eye-popping scenery.

    • TheYoungNarrative

      Thank you Leslie for the great tip! I’ve recently checked out Black Canyon for the first time over the Fourth of July this year and it blew me away. I camped over in Hartman Rocks Recrational Area and it was a ton of fun. We even got to see fireworks from Gunnison (although we obviously had no fire due to the bans). Your spot sounds pretty awesome though! That national park and the area surrounding it is just so beautiful and I would love to go back soon.

  • Kelli Wassom

    Hi! I just found your blog from pinterest. My family and I have never been camping and are planning on taking the adventure this August. The places you recommended look amazing. I was wondering, do you need a reservation for these places or do you just drive up and pick a spot? Also, if you just drive and pick a spot-are you likely to find one in August? Thanks for any tips!

    • TheYoungNarrative

      Sorry I’m a bit late to respond but these sites are all first come first serve. 🙂 I usually am able to find something pretty easily, even on weekends. Just keep going until you find a spot.

  • Brandy

    We like going to Phantoms Canyon between Pueblo and Canon City. Also we go to Lake Deweese and recently we camped at Clear Creek Reservoir and they are all free as well!! Happy camping!

    • TheYoungNarrative

      I love Phantom Canyon! I’ll have to admit though, as someone withal a hit of arachnophobia, I went there last October, ran into a tarantula, and got quite frightened lol. Perfect for Halloween though and it was beautiful. I’ll have to check out Lake Deweese and Clear Creek too! I’ve been expanding my list of favorite free sites and I’m always open to check out somewhere new.

  • Amy

    I’ve read this post quite a few times since I found it a few weeks ago, and I love it so much! We almost tried to do it this past weekend but deferred to this coming one in hopes of learning more beforehand. My hubs is nervous to say the least about loading the car with our tent and tons of what we might need and starting on an adventure without a known place to sleep- two small kids in the back seat which we’re still figuring out how to camp with seems like enough stress. Can you dumb it down for me PLEASE??? We don’t mind paying- the most intriguing part is the spontaneity of it. We are terrible at planning in advance, and all the state and national parks seem to booked before we can get the thought of going. How do you find the sites while driving and not pass them? How do you know how many there are to know if you’ve passed them all? Can you do 2 nights and leave during the day to hike somewhere nearby? Who maintains them? Is there anything there- flat tent pad, fire ring, table? When is the best time to go for a weekend to get a spot (Fri night/Sat morning)? What do you do if You don’t find anything?

    And how does Covid play into the whole scenario?

    My head is just so excited about the idea, but spinning with questions. Thanks in advance for any info!

    • TheYoungNarrative

      Absolutely! I don’t mind helping any new campers enjoy the outdoors! 🙂

      First, I will have to note that due to the horrible fires in Colorado, the whole state is in at least a level 1 fire ban which does prevent campfires outside any established fire ring. Many counties may have other restrictions as well but it’s safe to say that campfires will not really be allowed and trust me, they are on top of enforcement. You can totally still camp though and I wrote a story talking about how you can camp without a fire here.

      Next, I will recommend not going through Poudre Canyon right now because of the smoke. A fire unfortunately is right up the canyon from my favorite spot so it wouldn’t be pleasant or safe to be that close.

      However, I was just at Rampart Range this past week and it was great. The other spots shouldn’t be as affected either. A few other spots I’ve found that may work as well are Phantom Canyon near Canon City, Browns Creek near Salida, and Hartmann Rocks near Gunnison. I’ve been meaning to do a follow up post since I have discovered a couple other sweet free spots. Guanella Pass can also be nice but it does get really crowded on the weekends and since I work a 9-5, I usually skip it.

      These sites are first come, first serve so you do run a risk of not finding something but honestly, I’ve never had that problem. You just keep going and a spot usually does turn up, especially if you are farther away from Denver. If you still aren’t finding anything, you can search for other sites at freecampsite.net (which also does list some paid sites). It pulls up a map and has public entered sites with ratings.

      Also, depending on which forest you are at, you may be able to camp just about anywhere, especially not making a fire. It’s generally good etiquette to only use premade fire pits when going to dispersed campsites to prevent more harm to nature. To know the rules on the forest, look up dispersed camping on the forest website. Some may have restrictions to camp in areas where camping is allowed where others may only require that you are a certain distance from a river or lake.

      With that said, these sites that I am recommending are very primitive and go by a pack in pack out policy. That includes using the dig a hole method for going to the bathroom, which I understand may be daunting with children.
      Of my list, only Rampart Range has a couple of bathrooms near it and it’s only really near a few parts.

      There are also often no trash service in these areas and surrounding towns often lock up dumpsters so campers don’t drop their trash in. Unfortunately, if previous campers aren’t respectful, it can get messy. I personally try to clean up previous trash from other campers but there’s only so much you can do.

      Paid sites, however, can be a bit easier because they have facilities and site managers to maintain the area. I usually don’t camp in paid sites because I tend to stay up a little later and wouldn’t want to bother neighbors. However, they can be great for families. Since I haven’t been to many of these, I don’t have quite as many recommendations. Poudre Canyon does have quite a few really nice ones and there are several different paid sites all the way up the canyon. Unfortunately, the fire might make this less than ideal. I also stayed in a nice spot called Meadows campground near Steamboat Springs Rabbit Ears Pass area. I also saw quite a few paid areas up Independence Pass, Collegiate Peaks, and Cottonwood Pass that looked gorgeous.

      Honestly, the best way to find those is to look at the national forest you are trying to stay at’s website and they should be listed in their camping section. You can even just google sites since some of the more established places do have an online presence and will tell you what features they may have. They are often first come first serve and much like dispersed camping, the farther away from the front range, the easier to find a site and many of these areas have multiple campgrounds in the area.

      As for leaving on hikes, it is definitely ok to go out and leave your things. Generally, I consolidate my campsite and lock up valuables in the car. In general, no one messes with your things. In dispersed camping, you may want to block off the area you are at with rope or a flag but at paid sites, this is not a problem since you have the designated site reserved. Just make sure your stuff is put away so it doesn’t blow away or anything like that.

      For timing, try to get there as early as possible- Friday night or early Saturday. The morning does have the benefit of setting up with light but it’s harder to find sites since everyone goes on the weekend. I try to get to camping before the sun fully sets but you can still set up in the dark. Make sure you have extra lights since you won’t get the benefit of the fire. Again though, if you are in a less popular spot, this may not be as big of a deal.

      If you really can’t find anything, there is always a risk you may need to stay in a hotel or just head home. Fortunately, there are a bunch of campsites in Colorado so you can always keep looking. There are also KOAs that can be rented if you still want a camping feel. Honestly, this hasn’t ever happened to me in my experience camping and when my favorite spots are full, I’ve actually discovered new awesome sites instead. You may need to drive into town and get service or tips from local people.

      A few months ago, there was restrictions to camping due to COVID but they have all been lifted. You should bring a mask to get supplies or talk to staff at a site but you don’t need to wear it while out. Since things have been more restricted, you might see more campers but most sites are generally farther apart than the recommended 6 ft so you shouldn’t run into issues. Bathrooms may be closed too or may have requirements on masks. I haven’t seen it personally but it’s good to bring extra tp, hand sanitizer, soap, extra water, and your mask just in case.

      I hope this info helps and I do have a story to help new campers that may be helpful too. You can check that out here.

      Happy camping!

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