Summer in Colorado: Dispersed Camping 101

Name: Kate Bostwick, Class of 2018
Undergrad: University of Portland, OR
Hometown: Pendleton, OR
Fun Fact: I actually enjoy doing burpees.

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First thing’s first: the answer is yes…yes, there is time to get away from Regis for a weekend and put off studying for Cliff’s neuroscience class or practicing manual therapy skills until Sunday night…AND you will still pass PT school. One of the biggest fears I had about going back to school was that I would never have any free time. Luckily, that is not the case. If you manage your time efficiently, you always have time to do the things you love. If being outdoors is one of those things—like it is for me—you will have the time to enjoy all that Colorado has to offer. In this post I have reflected (wow—Regis has rubbed off on me!) on some of my favorite weekends spent in the mountains with my fellow classmates and have put together a detailed guide for you to explore these regions on your own!

Something that you should know about me is that I am a small-town gal who gets pretty overwhelmed in the big city. Nothing makes me happier than beating the crowd and enjoying a slow-paced weekend in the mountains with some of my close friends doing some fishing, sipping a nice cold beverage by the fire, and talking about subjects far from clinical prediction rules, dermatomes or goniometry. Personally, I like roughing it a little more than staying in a busy campground for the weekend. In order to do this, my classmates and I have done some pretty fun dispersed camping trips. If you don’t know what the heck dispersed camping is, keep reading; I highly recommend it!

Dispersed Camping: What Is It?

Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest outside of a designated campground. None of the services that are found at a campground (like potable water, trash removal, tables, firepits, etc.) can be found at these sites; they are found on public property off of National Forest Service roads and may require 4WD, depending on the location. Dispersed camping is FREE (yay for free things in grad school!) and requires you to bring all of your own gear. Although this seems like a free-for-all, there are rules that you must abide by:

  1. Place your campsite at least 100 feet from any stream/water source
  2. Leave no trace: you must pack out everything you pack in
  3. Be bear aware: store food in bear canisters…and just be cognizant of those dang bears cuz they’re out there!
  4. Drive on existing roads and try to camp in already designated dispersed areas

    Weekend Getaway to Buena Vista
    (2 hr 40 min from Denver)

If you’re looking for a drive with a beautiful view and plenty of options for camping, fishing, and hiking, look no further than this route to Buena Vista, CO!

Directions: I-70 W past Frisco, then to CO-91 S which turns to US-24 E.

Fishing: Twin Lakes are home to numerous brown, rainbow, cutthroat and lake trout. It is a great place for shore fishing and has access to the Arkansas River close by. The Arkansas lies just across US-24 E and has public access at several points along this highway.

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Fishing at Twin Lakes

Camping: About 6 miles south from Twin Lakes down US-24 E is Clear Creek Reservoir. Turn right onto CO Rd 390 and travel a few miles west (past private property) and you will see plenty of dispersed camping sites down by the river and up the hill on the base of the mountain. Be aware that there is no cell phone service–so be prepared to have a relaxing weekend without that iPhone 🙂

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Camping up past Clear Creek Reservoir

Hiking a 14er: If you continue down CO Rd 390 you will come upon the trailhead for a trifecta of 14ers: Mt. Belford, Mt. Missouri and Mt. Oxford. While I have not done this hike, it is a beautiful and challenging option for 14er-seekers. Remember to research your trail if you do decide to complete this voyage—it’s a long one!

Hiking to Ptargamin Lake: if you go back on US-24 E and head south towards Buena Vista, turn right on CO Rd 306 and head ~15 miles to the trailhead. This is a 2.74 mile hike with options for backcountry camping at the top–not to mention a large lake full of beautiful brook trout!

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Ptarmagin Lake

Breckenridge Beauty:
(1 hr 45 min from Denver)

Directions: I-70 W to CO 9 S to Breckenridge. From Breckenridge, drive 8 miles south on CO 9 and turn right on CO Rd 850; after a few hundred yards turn right on to CO Rd 851. Quandary’s Peak trailhead will be about 0.1 mi up the road on the left with parking on the right.

Camping: Follow the above directions but go past the trailhead on CO Rd 851 up the hill and there are many spots off of this road that you can camp. If you do a little scouting, there are some pretty sweet spots to set up camp on both sides of the road.

Fishing: Instead of turning right on to CO Rd 851, continue left and head towards Blue Lakes Reservoir for fishing of any kind. There are rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout in this reservoir and it can be accessed right off the shore at the base of Quandary Peak!

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Evening at Blue Lakes Reservoir (Amanda, me, Karlee and Taylor)

Hiking Quandary Peak 14er: 14,265’: highest summit of the Tenmile Range in the Rocky Mountains. The 6.75 miles round trip hike should not be overlooked because of its short distance. This is a challenging hike with exposure and, like any 14er, variable weather to be aware of…so do your research before you head out!

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Karlee and me at the top of Quandary’s Peak (60 mph winds not pictured)

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Buffalo Creek Campin’
(1 hr 10 min from Denver)

Directions: Take I-70 W to CO 470 E to 285 S, travel past Conifer and take a left onto Pine Valley/Deckers Road (CO 126) travel ~14 miles until you see a turn off for Wellington Lake/Buffalo Creek Recreation Area on the right, CO 550.
Camping: Along this road (CO Rd 550), travel until you find a spot that you like. You will see parking signs scattered along the road that have pullouts for your car/truck and campsites around them. You can take your pick of these sites for multiple miles; so if there is a crowd, just keep driving until you have room to yourself.

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Pitstop off of the Colorado Trail near our campsite

Fishing: Cheesman Canyon Trailhead is located 7 miles south of the CO 550 turn off on CO 126. Here, you can hike in to access South Platte River for some of the best fishing on this section of the river. I love this: because you have to hike in to access spots on the river, it’s  a little less crowded on a nice weekend as opposed to fishing right off the road.

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South Platte fishing access in Cheesman Canyon

Hiking: Along road CO 550, there are multiple access points to the Colorado Trail that you can hike any distance on. A few of the dispersed sites back right up to the trail—like ours did—which makes it super accessible.

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Happy campers (Karlee and me)

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