There’s no shame in car camping. If you don’t mind some company, it’s a great way to get introduced to Colorado’s wonderful sights. Unfortunately, a lot of the most convenient camping spots fill up very early.
Rather than grumble about transplants and tourists, why don’t you get ahead of the curve and book a trip right now? Here are six accessible and unique summer trips, each with its own special feature, that you can book long before the season approaches. You’ll also find information about backcountry camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, which opens soon for reservations.
Anyway, I made two reservations while I wrote this thing, so I feel like it’s pretty useful! Let’s go — and do feel free to email me with additional trips and tips.
Stargazing and moonwalking at Dinosaur National Monument:
This park on the Utah-Colorado border is so cool. I’d call it a moonscape, but its bizarre desert forms are somehow more extraterrestrial than that. You’ll find a mountain cut in half by a river, a maze of paths through Mars-red hills and a series of huge box canyons where you can escape the summer heat — and it happens to be studded with dinosaur bones and painted with ancient art.
It’s also one of the darkest places in the country. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you could reserve a site at the Green River or Split Mountain campsite for July 22nd and 23rd (Saturday and Sunday night) to catch it at its absolute darkest…
You don’t necessarily need to book this in advance, though, as NPS advises the campsites rarely fill. Still, planning! Expect a five-hour drive from Denver.
Camping at the foot of the continent’s largest sand dunes:
Great Sand Dunes National Park is incredible — just miles upon miles of sand stacked into piles hundreds of feet tall. I prefer this as a September trip (which I detailed earlier), but, in either case, the Piñon Flats Campground is booking up fast. (Make reservations here.)
You could also grab a cute li’l cabin at Great Sand Dunes Oasis, a private campground with a restaurant outside the park.
Backpacking the place does not require advance reservations, but you’d best be prepared. More on that here. Expect a four-hour drive.
A quick jaunt near Denver:
Not every trip has to be huge. Now’s the perfect time to reserve sites at state parks along the Front Range, which can book up maddeningly fast. I just grabbed a date at Aspen Meadows Campground in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, which puts you pretty far into the mountains but within an hour of Denver.
Glacial lake tromping at Rocky Mountain National Park:
Oh, boy. This place is also right in our backyard and it is notoriously busy. Still, its proximity and vistas make it perfect for a majestic weekend trip.
RMNP requires reservations for both established and backcountry sites. Both fill up quite early, and both will give you access to incredible hiking in the high alpine park and its wooded shoulders. Expect a two-hour drive.
Wilderness camping in RMNP:
Reservation requests can be made starting March 1 for backcountry sites at RMNP. A link will be made available as the “Wilderness Campsite Reservation Application” on the NPS page at 8 a.m. that day.
Pick your backcountry site from this list ahead of time. Parties are limited to seven people unless you’re staying at a “group” site.
(What’s your favorite two- or three-day loop in RMNP? Email me!)
There are three established campsites with reserved sites and toilet facilities that accept reservations in RMNP. They can be booked six months in advance, and many already are filling up. All three allow RVs and tents. Keep in mind that dogs are generally allowed in these sites, but not on RMNP’s trails.
- Aspenglen – Walking distance to the Fall River Visitor Center and a convenient drive to Estes Park. It has easy access to Trail Ridge Road and the Deer Mountain trails network. It’s open May 25 to Sept. 26.
- Glacier Basin – I like the looks of this one. It’s at a slightly higher elevation, 8,500 feet, with direct access to trails that run to several glacial lakes and peaks, along with free shuttles to Bear Lake and Estes Park.
The site allows both RVs and tents and has flush toilets. A pine-beetle infestation has left the C and D loops shadeless. It’s open May 25 to Sept. 11.
- Moraine Park – This one’s at a lower elevation, 8,160 feet. It’s walking distance to the Moraine Park Discovery Center. Moraine Park allows RVs and tents, and it’s the largest of the park’s campgrounds
Also: Longs Peak Campground and Timber Creek Campground are first come, first served. Good luck with that.
Ancient exploration at Mesa Verde National Park:
Mesa Verde, of course, is famous for its Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. At nearly seven hours from Denver, you’ll probably want to make this a three- or four-day weekend.
Morefield Campground is an NPS site inside the park. It accommodates both RVs and tents. Reservations are available online now – click in the top-right corner of the site.
You also can make reservations for the park’s single-day backcountry tours.
Hike the rim of Black Canyon:
A visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park will have you meandering along a 2,000-foot-drop into the steep, narrow gorge.
Weekend dates for the three established NPS campsites at Black Canyon of the Gunnison are starting to fill up. The longest hiking trails run from the North Rim campsite — but, keep in mind that none actually run down to the canyon floor.
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Correction: The campsite in Mesa Verde is privately managed but it’s on public land.