When it comes to choosing a backcountry campsite, the only things you really need are a water source and a relatively flat spot for your tent.
But there's a lot more you could ask for.
Mountain views. Shade and protection from the weather. Flat rocks for sitting. A campfire ring, if fires are allowed. A lack of mosquitoes. Solitude.
In Colorado, there's no need to settle for an average campsite. Whether it's a one-night stopover after a long day's hike or a base camp for a few days of fishing or relaxation in the mountain air, you've worked hard to get there and might as well enjoy it.
Here are my Top 5 places in the backcountry, quiet spots so magical it's worth every uphill, weighed-down-with-a-35-pound-pack step.
5. Horn Fork Basin,
Hordes of climbers pass through this valley west of Buena Vista, their eyes set on 14,000-foot peaks Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia. But what's the rush? This stunning valley has lakes, creeks, mountain views and plenty of camping.
To get there: In Buena Vista, turn west on Chaffee County Road 350 (Crossman Avenue), right on County Road 361 and left on County Road 365. Drive 5 miles to the trailhead. It's about a two-hour drive from Colorado Springs.
The hike: Follow the well-marked trail for 1.5 miles, turn right at a marked junction and proceed another 1.5 miles to reach a trail junction. Keep going left toward Mount Harvard for the best campsites.
Difficulty: 2 boots
Hint: Resist the urge to grab one of the lower spots and press on to just below timberline, where you'll find great sites hidden in the willows and among the pockets of pines.
4. Refrigerator Gulch, Lost Creek Wilderness,
The closest wilderness area to Colorado Springs is a backpacker's paradise, with too many multi-day loop options to count. Try to coordinate an overnight stop in this valley in your loop. It has room for plenty of tents, amazing rock formations no matter which way you turn, and you'll understand why they call it "Lost Creek" because the small river magically appears from a cave under the mountain.
To get there: There are many ways to reach this site, but the quickest is from the Goose Creek Trail. From Woodland Park, head north on Colorado Highway 67 to Deckers and turn left on Deckers Road, or County Road 126. After 3 miles, turn left on County Road 211, a gravel road with a sign for the Goose Creek Campground. Follow signs 11 miles up, and go 3.5 miles past the campground. Park at Goose Creek Trailhead parking area. It's about a 90-minute drive from Colorado Springs.
The hike: Head mostly uphill for 6 miles and turn left on the McCurdy Park Trail. Zig-zag up and down valleys for about 2 more miles to reach Refrigerator Gulch.
Difficulty: 2 boots
Hint: If the sun is blazing, avoid the large open campsite, cross the creek and find the spot with some shade.
3. Browns Lake,
Intrepid off-roaders can drive over the bulky hump of Mount Antero to reach this sublime alpine lake, but hikers get the best views on a mostly pleasant backpack from the Arkansas River Valley, with a short side trip to a stunning waterfall where most day hikers stop and turn around.
To get there: From U.S. Highway 285, midway between Poncha Springs and Buena Vista, take County Road 270 west for 1.5 miles to a four-way intersection. Continue west at a yield sign as it becomes Forest Road 272. After 2 miles, 272 goes west at an intersection. Follow this for 1.5 miles to the trailhead.
The hike: Follow the Browns Creek Trail to the Colorado Trail, which you will follow to the left for a few minutes before Browns Creek turns off to the right. This trail then ambles gently across meadows with great views of the Sawatch Mountains, your destination. Cross two creeks on flimsy log bridges - the balance-challenged hiker might want to remove boots and walk across - and if you are hankering for a sweet side trip, turn left at the sign for the falls.
After soaking in the scene and spray from the waterfall, return to the trail, where the challenging section begins. The trail heads endlessly upward through a dense blowdown that the U.S. Forest Service spent much of 2012 clearing. After a total of 8 miles and more than 2,000 feet of climbing, you'll reach the lake. A great campsite can be found at the east end, with more wide-open camping for larger groups at the west end.
Difficulty: 3 boots
Hint: Camp an extra day and climb 14,269-foot Mount Antero. This route is seldom used and mostly involves walking up Jeep roads, and you'll miss out on the summer crowds on the standard route.
2. Lakes of the Clouds,
Sangre de Cristo Wilderness,
Most valleys in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains have high alpine lakes, and these three large, shallow lakes are among the more scenic, with plenty of room to spread out and feel all alone, even if you have company, and tons of terrain to explore.
To get there: From Westcliffe, take Hermit Road west to where it ends at Sampson Ridge Road, nearly 6 miles, to County Road 172. Turn left and continue to the trailhead. The last 1.5 miles require a high-clearance vehicle. It's a 90-minute drive from Colorado Springs.
The hike: Turn right on the Rainbow Trail a short distance from the trailhead and then left on the Swift Creek Trail. Reach the lakes 4 miles and 2,200 feet of climbing later.
Difficulty: 3 boots
Hint: For the shadiest campsites with the best views, go right at the lower lake, left across the creek just below the middle lake and camp near the shores of the upper lake.
1A. Upper Slate Lake,
Eagles Nest Wilderness,
Back to the Gores for what might be the sweetest - and toughest to reach - campsite in this national forest.
Upper Slate Lake is a true Colorado gem, a quiet, glassy loch at 10,800 feet. Words do little to describe the beauty of the setting. The Gores have so many 13,000-foot peaks, most are just named with letters. At 13,230 feet, the imposing and jagged Peak Q dominates the skyline, a breathtaking sight for those willing to work hard to reach the lake. You're in Summit County but you feel far, far from the ski resorts, boutiques and posh condos.
To get there: From Silverthorne, drive north on Colorado Highway 9 for 7.7 miles and turn left on Rock Creek Road. After 1.2 miles, turn left on Summit County Road 1350 at a sign marked "Rock Creek." The road is rough but passable for passenger cars. Reach the trailhead after 1.7 miles. It's a 2.5-hour drive from Colorado Springs.
The hike: Follow the Rock Creek Trail for a short distance and turn right on the Gore Range Trail. You'll wind up and down the Boulder Creek drainage, then up another ridge and down a long, steep stretch. Try not to think about how your legs will feel reclimbing it on the way out. Turn left on the Slate Creek Trail. Unless you got an early start, you might want to start looking for campsites as you wind through a great, open meadow. Otherwise, continue steeply up past Slate Lake, which is pretty but not quite as nice as its upper neighbor. One mile and 1,000 feet of climbing later, you'll reach Upper Slate Lake. The entire trip is 9.3 miles and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, so spend a couple of nights in paradise.
Difficulty: 4 boots
Hint: Avoid the first obvious campsite and walk clockwise around the lake for the best spots. Take a day hike to the stunning waterfall on the west side of the lake.
1. My true favorite spot,
I'm not telling,
Every backpacker has one favorite campsite, a place where they find themselves over and over again to escape the rigors of the modern world and enjoy some peace and serenity.
This spot has wide-open vistas of Pikes Peak and lower companion Almagre Mountain, but it's close enough to town that it's an easy one-night getaway. It's quiet because nobody else is around and that's how I'd like it to stay.