It’s summer, so it’s time to get into summer camping mode: roof box on the car, loaded with a tent, sleeping bags and stove, ready to roll.
You’ve streamlined the packing process, which means more time at the campground. Now you just need a destination — somewhere you can get to after work on Friday and still have daylight for setting up your tent.
Here are six options, all within a three-hour drive of Denver, that will make you forget about the traffic for the weekend. (Better yet, go midweek. You might not even have to reserve your site ahead of time.)
For anglers and wakeless boaters … and peace and quiet:
Chambers Lake Campground
Cache La Poudre River Canyon
Elevation: 9,200 feet
Driving distance from Denver: 126 miles, two and a half hours
Chambers Lake Campground is a quiet spot to camp among the conifers, right on the water. The lake is a reservoir surrounded by Roosevelt National Forest, with direct access to Blue Lake Trailhead and the Rawah Wilderness. If you can get a site there, the upper of the two loops is nicer; it overlooks the lake and surrounding mountains from a high ridge; the lower loop has some sites with closer access to the water — you can put in and paddle a boat right from shore. If Chambers Lake is full, there are numerous campgrounds down the length of the Cache La Poudre River, as well as dispersed camping in the area.
There are 44 total sites for tents and RVs up to 45 feet, and seven walk-in tent sites. Reservations: 877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov. $20/night for a single, $40/night double (two family) campsite. From Fort Collins, take U.S. 287 north to Colorado 14, then west for 52.5 miles. More: Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest, Canyon Lakes District, 970-295-6700, www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/arp/.
Echo Canyon Campground
West of Cañon City
Elevation: 6,330 feet
Driving distance from Denver: 124 miles, two hours
Though this campground has a range of sites and cabins — from a handful of peaceful tent platforms and RV hookup sites to luxury cabins and furnished wall tents, all with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains — the real draw here is the Royal Gorge. The campground is part of a bigger adventure resort run by Echo Canyon River Expeditions, a rafting outfitter across the street that runs trips in the gorge. Camping here is less a wilderness experience and more about immediate access to the nearby attractions of the Royal Gorge region, including the new Dinosaur Experience and Royal Gorge Route Railroad.
Tent sites are $49 per night, glamping tents $149. If you go for the glamping: with one queen bed and sofa sleeper with linens, they sleep up to four people; access to the fire ring, electricity, Wi-Fi and community bathrooms are included. 45044 W. U.S. 50. For reservations, call 866-341-7875, echocanyoncampground.com.
For hikers and mountain bikers:
Dumont Lake Campground
South of Steamboat Springs
Elevation: 9,500 feet
Driving distance from Denver: 134 miles, two and a half hours
Located near Rabbit Ears Pass, this campground is in a wildflower-filled meadow with views of the Park Range. Hikers and mountain bikers can travel up Forest Route 311 to the Fish Creek Trail, which descends through subalpine meadows, past lakes, to the popular Fish Creek Falls near Steamboat Springs.
The campground is adjacent to a lake and picnic area. There are 22 sites for tents and RVs up to 40 feet. Reservations: 877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov. $12/night. From Colorado 131 in Steamboat Springs, take U.S. 40 south for 16.3 miles. Turn left on Forest Route 315. The campground is on the left in 1.2 miles. More: Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, Hahns Peak-Bears Ears District, 970-870-2299, www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mbr/recarea.
For birders and other solitude-seekers:
Crow Valley Campground
Pawnee National Grassland
Elevation 4,800 feet
Driving distance from Denver: 84 miles, one and a half hours
Pawnee National Grassland is a haven for migrating birds. Created in 1954, it covers 193,000 acres of public land interspersed with private wheat fields and pastures. A birding checklist — more than 300 species have been spotted here — and a brochure detailing a 36-mile tour through the grasslands for cars and mountain bikes are available at the campground. A popular and worthwhile hike to Pawnee Buttes is a half-hour drive to the northeast. The campground is small, scenic and quiet when there are no large groups present. It is also remote, so be sure to stock up before entering the Grasslands. There are a few cottonwoods for some shade but not much.
Ten sites for tents and RVs up to 35 feet. Reservations: 877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov. Single sites, $12/night; double sites, $16/night. From Fort Collins, take Colorado 14 to Briggsdale. Turn north on County Road 77. The camp entrance is on the left in 0.2 mile. More: Pawnee National Grassland, Pawnee Ranger District office in Greeley, 970-346-5000, www.fs.usda.gov/arp.
For above-treeline wilderness:
Echo Lake Campground
South of Idaho Springs
Elevation: 10,600 feet
Driving distance from Denver: 46 miles, 1 hour
On the northern edge of the Mount Evans Wilderness, you’ll take the highest paved road in North America to your campsite. Hikers based here to walk the Resthouse Trail to the Summit Lake Trail to the top of Mount Evans (or you can drive). Most of the wilderness is above timberline, and the landscape is rugged glacial terrain with alpine lakes and tundra.
There are 18 sites for tents and a couple for smaller RVs. Reservations are accepted for some sites at 877-444-6777 and www.recreation.gov. $17/night. From Idaho Springs, take Colorado 103 south for 13.3 miles. Turn right after Echo Lake Lodge. More: Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest, Clear Creek District, 303-567-3000, www.fs.usda.gov/arp.
For families with young kiddos:
Jellystone Park Camp Resort
Larkspur, south of Denver
Elevation: 6,726 feet
Driving distance from Denver: 36 miles, 30 minutes.
I know what you’re thinking: why would I want to go to a commercial campground right adjacent to Interstate 25 and two sets of train tracks? I wanted to answer this question, so I went with the kids for a night. To make a long story short, my girls could care less about the interstate, the passing trains were thrilling, and in addition to sleeping in a tepee, they jumped on a giant bouncy pillow, bottle-fed baby goats, lined up for the flag-lowering ceremony with Yogi and Boo-Boo, then went on a tractor-pulled hay ride. We had dinner by our little campfire and, needless to say, they had a blast. Then it was a quick trip back home. There is also a playground, heated pool, pond, fishing, disc golf, basketball, volleyball, horseshoes, geocaching, a daily all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, hiking trails and ranger-led activities for kids with the campground mascots.
Basic tent sites range from $29-51. Various levels of electric/full hookup sites are $34-83. There are cabins, yurts, cottages, and tepees as well. Make reservations at 720-325-2393, www.jellystonelarkspur.com
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