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Rough it for free in the hills

May 20, 2009 Updated: June 15, 2015 at 12:35 pm
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This is the story some people don't want you to read.

Locals have their own favorite camping spots in the woods, and they don't want you in them.

And federal land managers have crowds to deal with on summer weekends, and they would prefer that a newspaper story didn't send more people to the most popular and accessible camping areas.

"We have some areas that are pretty heavily used by the public for dispersed camping, and I don't want to direct people there," said Leah Quesenberry, recreation planner with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

But like it or not, Front Range residents are going to venture into the woods this summer to camp. You can save money by staying closer to home and avoiding campground fees - $12 to $19 a night, plus $9 to reserve a site in advance - by finding a spot in the forest to plop down a tent or pull up an RV.

It's known as boondocking or dispersed camping. And you can do it just about anywhere on BLM land and in national forests.

"The whole national forest is open to camping," said Frank Landis, a recreation planner with Pike National Forest.

Technically, it's not the whole forest. Camping is prohibited outside campgrounds in two areas locally: along Colorado 67 for a few miles north of Woodland Park and around Rampart Reservoir.

In recent years when gas prices have soared, forest officials saw an increase in people camping closer to home, and Landis expects the trend to continue.

"I think we've seen a lot more people take advantage of what's in their backyard, whereas before maybe they would have gone to the Western Slope to camp," Landis said.

But keep in mind that the rules are different from using a campground, as is the experience. Here are some key differences:

You might not be able to have a fire. In dry years, the first fire restriction put in place is for campfires outside of developed campgrounds, and violating it can cost you $300.

There probably won't be a toilet. Take a shovel.

There won't be a bear-proof box like in some campgrounds, so put food in your car.

Take out your trash with you.

Use an existing campsite and fire ring - there is usually an existing circle of rocks for fires.

Take your own water.

Camp at least 200 feet from bodies of water.

People should also ensure they are using a legal road - many mountain tracks were created by off-highway vehicles and travel on them is illegal - and that the land is not private property, which intersperses federal land.

If it's a summer weekend in a popular and accessible area, such as Rampart Range Road near Woodland Park or Texas Creek west of Cañon City, be prepared to make new friends and be serenaded by the sounds of the nearby road.

For truly "dispersed" camping, slap on a backpack and trek a few miles from the road.

And if you think you'll miss amenities such as running water and a pit for a toilet, most national forest campgrounds open for the year on Memorial Day weekend. Make reservations at

Campground fees in the Pike and San Isabel national forests have increased $1 a day from last summer's rates, the first increase in three years, said Neal Weierbach, recreation manager for the forests. He said the agency awarded a new contract to campground operator Rocky Mountain Recreation, and the increase reflects "the cost of doing business."

He said campground reservations for the summer have been good, despite the economy.


• Rampart Range Road: From Woodland Park north - the camping around Rampart Reservoir is not free - you can find plenty of campsites on this and the many side roads, as well as the Rainbow Falls area near the Douglas County line. But many of your new friends will be there with their ATVs and dirt bikes.

• Old Stage Road/Gold Camp Road: Starting near The Broadmoor, this dirt road runs to Victor and Cripple Creek and is drivable by passenger cars. Many campsites line the scenic route.

The Wye Campground, near Penrose-Rosement Reservoir, is one of only two free campgrounds in Pike National Forest. There are toilets but no water.
If your vehicle is high clearance, 4-wheel-drive, head up Forest Service Road 379 to lovely campsites at Frostys Park, a valley between pointy Mount Rosa and Almagre Mountain, the only peak in the Colorado Springs skyline besides Pikes Peak that rises above treeline.

• The Crags: The campground at the popular trailhead on the west side of Pikes Peak isn't free, but the many campsites on the road in are. These fill up fast on weekends, and make sure you're not squatting on land of the Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp. Take Colorado 67 south in Divide and turn left on Forest Service Road 383.

• Texas Creek: Expect to share this popular camping area on BLM land 35 miles west of Cañon City with plenty of rafters and ATV riders. Turn right on the Arkansas River bridge behind the Texas Creek Junction. The road requires high clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles. (The bridge was closed in May 2009 to vehicles over 3.5 tons, prohibiting most trucks carrying ATVs and towing trailers. Check first for road updates.)

• Guanella Pass: Drive a little further, about 80 miles from Colorado Springs, and fight the Denver crowds. But it's worth it, as this area features stunning scenery and lots of hiking at the top of the 11,669-foot pass, and plenty of free camping along a dirt road passable with any car. The camping is on the south side of the pass. Take Highway 67 to U.S. Highway 285, follow it west to Park County Road 62 in Grant and go north.

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