The Yin and Yang of Camping in Western Colorado

May 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm
Playing by the Colorado River

Playing by the Colorado River

Dry, dusty, desert winds. Warm, green, apple orchards. And the massive river that connects both worlds.

Western Colorado is a world of micro climates. The north face of each hill is different from the south. If there is water coursing through a valley, it’s lush and green. If not, it’s brown, dry, hot and harsh. We spent a long weekend camping in the Grand Junction area of Western Colorado, and managed to experience nearly all of the Colorado River basin extremes.

Our original plan was to camp at the 18 Road bike trails all weekend, but 8p rolled around on our drive out I-70, the sun was setting, and our tank was almost out of gas. We filled up at a station right across the street from the Island Acres Campground, which is the eastern-most part of the James M Robb Colorado River State Park system.

Our Campsite at Island Acres

Our Campsite at Island Acres

They had plenty of sites, all with either electric or electric/water hookups, nestled in a grove of just-green cottonwoods on the banks of the Colorado River. The valley was filled with the haze of campfire smoke and the smell of fresh green grass – something we don’t have much of on the Front Range this spring.

Since we thought we would stay only one night, we took a slightly cheeper electric-only site on the river-side of the park. We let G out of the car while Mark leveled the trailer, and he took off through our neighbor’s site and immediately found a new friend. The little boy, we’ll call him B, was almost the exact same age as G, with the same long curly blond hair and the same happy, wild, spirit. They played in the dusk of the campground that night until we pulled them apart to sleep.

G spent a lot of time playing in this ditch with his friend

G spent a lot of time playing in this ditch with his friend

The next morning, G and B played and played. Mark and I enjoyed hanging out with B’s family, and the lovely green campground, so much that we payed for another night. We mountain biked all day on Saturday and then came back Saturday night to enjoy another evening at Island Acres.

This campground has quarter-operated hot showers and nice, clean bathrooms. There are lots of ponds for fishing, a nice playground, and even a sandy swim beach (that wasn’t open this early in the season). The sites are level and great for even big-rig RV’s, and far enough apart that it doesn’t feel cramped at all. The campground is a little expensive because you are required to buy a daily pass for the state park with each night of camping. The electric only sites are $20/night + $7/night entry fee. The electric and water sites are $24/night + $7/night entry fee.

Island Acres is just a few minutes from Palisade, Colorado, which is the heart of Colorado wine country. The wide valley is filled with peach trees, apple trees, cherry orchards, and grape vines. A number of California-style wineries have sprung up in the last few years, and Palisade now boasts a Fruit and Wine By-way chocked with sun-kissed love in fruit form.

Camping in the Unrestricted Zone at 18 Road

Camping in the Unrestricted Zone at 18 Road

The free camping on the BLM North Fruita Desert Special Recreation Area is on the exact opposite side of the camping spectrum. This high desert sits at the edge of tall sandstone mesas that mark the transition from the Rocky Mountains to the canyons of the desert southwest.

There are two main areas for camping on this land. The first is the marked pay-for sites that sit near the top of the area hill. These sites are in a great location for the biking area, and are a little outside of the worst of the dust. But they also fill up quickly and cost $10/night.

The Free Camping in North Fruita is nearly empty during the week

The Free Camping in North Fruita is nearly empty during the week

The other main area for camping is the Unrestricted area. This is a branching 2 mile long dirt road in a valley below the main mountain bike trails. There are probably hundreds of campsites in the valley, and on Saturday the place was hopping full with mountain bikers camping and partying and having a great time. There is virtually no shade, very little grass, and plenty of swirling dust and dirt.

But you can camp for free, ride as much as you want right from your site, and our trailer made it up the road without a problem. After the campground emptied out on Sunday evening, we felt like the only people in this wide open, beautiful desert.

Riding back to camp in North Fruita

Riding back to camp in North Fruita

So that was two very different camping experiences. The Island Acres campground is full of amenities and green grass. It is easily accessible from the interstate and can cost nearly $30 a night. The North Fruita Desert camping area is full of sand, sun, and desert dwellers (mountain bikers and lizards and such). The camping is free and convenient and very, very dusty. We had a good time in both places and managed to experience the full spectrum of Western Colorado climates in the space of three nights camping.

Desert Love – Mountain Biking Lake Pueblo State Park

April 15, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

-John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

Evening in the desert

Evening in the desert

Each time I go out into the world, I feel peace as the sun warms my skin. I feel the freshness of the winds and the energy of the storms. Even in the harsh climates of the desert, where the wind will scour you with sand, and the storms will rock you to the core.

Last weekend, we went looking for some sun and peace in the desert of southern Colorado. We packed up our bikes and trailer, and snagged a campsite in Lake Pueblo State Park. The desert sun and desert winds were there for us to enjoy.

Our Campsite at Lake Pueblo State Park

Our Campsite at Lake Pueblo State Park

This was my first time in this state park, and I was surprised at how much there is to do here. The park has miles of exciting single track for mountain bikers. Some trails run along the ridge lines of eroding sandstone bluffs, others wind through narrow rocky canyons, thick cholla forests and dry desert arroyos.

Wanna ride?

Wanna ride?

G even got in on the mountain biking on this trip. He took his strider out on the Conduit Trail and took off! We were a little worried about his control when surrounded by hazards like cactus and steep hills, but he stayed right on the trail and had a ball.

The lake is the other major draw for this park. The marina and ample fishing make this a big local recreation site. The lake winds between sandstone bluffs, a little like Lake Powell, making a fun place to explore by kayak or canoe as well.

Playing in Lake Pueblo

Playing in Lake Pueblo

As the sun set on our day of adventure Saturday, I watched Kelvin-Helmholtz waves appear in the sky above our campground. It made for a beautiful sunset, but as an atmospheric scientist, I should have known what those clouds meant.

Kelvin-Helmholtz Wave Instability

Kelvin-Helmholtz Wave Instability

Around midnight, the wind kicked up hard. We had sustained winds of 50-60 mph for two or more hours. Our trailer is all hard-sided, so, thankfully, we didn’t have flapping tents or swaying popup supports to deal with. But it was scary enough in our trailer for us to all huddle together in bed. G slept through the whole thing. Mark and I stayed wide awake, ready to grab the kiddo and take off if needed.

Dusk and Breezy

Dusk and Breezy

On Sunday, the winds had calmed and the sun was out. Mark and I each took another loop of riding, and we each found a new beautiful spot hidden back in the canyons. I found a windless and sunny gully to bask in for a few minutes. Mark found a canyon filled with cairns along a trail named “Stonehenge.”

Cholla Canyon

Cholla Canyon

We headed home, noting the swirling dust and sand in the desert north of Pueblo. And then we hit a road-block, as I-25 north of Pueblo was closed due to a sandstorm. We drove off the shoulder of the Interstate onto the outer road, dragging our little trailer through the weed and trash filled ditch and over a small embankment. Then we hit a dirt road next to the interstate and plowed through the sandstorm like we knew what we were doing.

G slept the whole time.

The winds howled down a mountain valley, filling the air with yellow dust and reducing visibility to nothing. The trailer rocked the entire truck when it was slammed by the gust. Mark kept a calm head and drove through maintaining his speed. I squinted into the dimness and prayed that nobody was stopped in front of us.

G snored.

The kid loves camping!

The kid loves camping!

And we made it home. Later than we expected, but otherwise fine. We were sun burnt, wind burnt, scoured, dirty, sweaty, tired, and happy.

The First Pancake

April 8, 2013 at 5:31 pm

The First Pancake Phenomena is well known. You always throw out the first pancake. Your pan is too hot, or too buttery, the pour was too big, the flip was too small, for whatever reason, you always throw away the first pancake.

The same rule applies to trying just about anything again for the first time in a long while. Your first time back is going to be rusty, painful, and generally disappointing. You just have to get through that first time to find your rhythm again.

Red Rocks west of Denver

Red Rocks west of Denver

Last fall, we finished up the camping season with three great trips to Vedauwoo. Then the trailer went into storage, and I went into work mode, and the months passed. But as the sun started staying up longer, and the snow started melting, we knew it was time to get back outside.

Last weekend we had our First Pancake (aka Shake-Out) camping trip of the year. It’s almost guaranteed to not go according to plans, so we try not to make many. We are almost guaranteed to forget something important, so we camp close to home. Things are almost guaranteed to go terribly wrong, so we try to keep it simple.

On a short hike... is that a snake?

On a short hike… is that a snake?

This trip, like so many other shake-out trips, had some wrinkles…

… We ran out of propane as I was packing up the trailer, but didn’t realize it until we were ready to leave. At that point, it was after 6p on a Friday night, and we couldn’t find a place that was open to fill the tank. Since it was going to be very cold on Friday night, I did not want to head out without the ability to heat. So, we decided to stay home Friday night and leave first thing Saturday morning.

… We got lectured by the staff at the campground, specifically one lady who decided since we were “clearly new at this” that she needed to explain everything to us. Granted, we have never been very good at the whole RV gig. And her complaints about our propane tank being held on by only a bungie cord were completely valid.

… Since we did not camp on Friday, I brought all of my bathroom stuff into the house. And did not realize I had forgotten it until about 8p on Saturday night. All of my prescriptions were back at the house, so I drove home on Saturday night. Happily, it was only a half hour trip.

A picture is worth a thousand words

A picture is worth a thousand words

Even with all of these wrinkles in our first pancake, we still had a really fun weekend. We toured and hiked around Red Rocks Amphitheater. We wandered around downtown Golden, running through parks and throwing rocks in the creek. G had a great time playing around the campground, and slept really well in the camper. And we made it through our first pancake. On to a summer of good rhythms and great adventures!



The Smell of Autumn

October 4, 2012 at 6:59 am

Every season has an associated sense in my mind. The taste of snow and Christmas cookies in winter, the sounds of laughter and loud music on the car radio in summer, the feel of the first warm sun and soft rain in spring, and all of the lovely smells of autumn.

The smell of aspens shivering in a chilly breeze.

The smell of crunchy dead leaves as I hike through.

The smell of rocks and sweat and dirty climbing gear.

The smell of happy, dusty kids.

The smell of flowering sage.

The smell of chilly mornings and distant storms on the wind.

The smell of full moons and campfires. The smell of rocks and dirt and falling leaves and new mushrooms. The smell of roasted peppers and the first frost. The smell of change and life and death and autumn.

Camping on Chambers Lake

July 27, 2012 at 7:40 am

As I might have alluded to in my previous post, we spent last weekend camping and hiking up near Cameron Pass. I reserved a campsite at the Chambers Lake campground back in March, and the weekend had finally come around.

Our awesome campsite (lake just in front of the hill back there)

The campground was beautiful, as expected. There are lots of sites big enough for medium-sized RVs, but not a place for the big class As. We camped on a peninsula that reached out into the middle of the lake, so our kiddo could spend his day running back and forth between beaches and throwing rocks from them.

Sneaking out to throw rocks in the rain

We saw plenty of people fishing, but only a few catches. We saw canoe-ers, kayakers, inflatable-rafters and lots of swimmers on the lake as well. In fact, the boating looked like so much fun, Mark and I were discussing roof-racks and paddling-with-toddler logistics for the whole trip home (“So, how do we keep the kiddo from throwing all of our stuff into the lake?”)

Don’t you wish you were here right now?

It was a fantastic place to spend the weekend, and I will let the photos speak for themselves. Next year, who’s coming with us?!

How I spent most of the weekend

Sunset on Chambers Lake

Sunrise over Chambers Lake

Morning on the calm mountain lake

Bald Eagle Circling

Zonked halfway through a luna bar on the trip home

RVing in Colorado – Coyote Camping

May 23, 2012 at 5:33 am

Mark and I have been tent campers for as long as we’ve known each other. When we dirt-bagged our way between climbing areas for a summer in 2004, we actually tent camped for the whole summer. But when the baby was born, I knew this part of our lives was about to change.

Up all night with the baby - but the RV made it a lot easier

I could write an entire blog post about why we bought our travel trailer, and I might get around to doing exactly that one day. But for now, I’d like to write a series of posts that I think might be more useful to visitors of this blog. This is simply going to be a little guide to some of the best campgrounds we’ve seen for RVs in Colorado.

People look for different things when it comes to camping, and it seems the variety of options available to RV camping is even wider than your tenting options. Do you want a plush RV park, with hot tubs, full hook-ups, and around the corner access to Denver night life? Or are you looking for a completely free, undeveloped back-woods site in the depths of the Rockies? Well, Mark and I have seen both and many in between. Each one of the posts in this series will cover a different ‘class’ of campgrounds, divided up by amenities.

This post is all about Coyote Camping – free, undeveloped camping that is RV compatible. All of these sites are without hookups, fire rings, picnic tables, level concrete pads, and price tags! These are rough camping areas that work well for tenters too, and would be best for smaller RVs, camper vans, and truck bed campers. If you want to really get away from it all, here are some good places to do it.

1. Pingree Park Road, west of Fort Collins
Check out Pingree Park Road Camping in Google Maps.

The Poudre Canyon isn’t as dramatic or as popular as some of the other mountain access roads along the Front Range, and that gives it a lovely, quiet, charm. There are a number of dirt, 4-wheel drive roads that access the Roosevelt National Forest lands from this canyon, but Pingree Park Road is the best for RVs. This road runs south out of the canyon, and offers lovely views of the northern parts of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Mummy Range. From this road, you can access trails that take you into the Comanche Peak wilderness, over Mummy Pass, or up to the amazingly beautiful Emmaline Lake.

Hiking around Comanche Peak - accessible by Pingree Road

There are a number of large dirt pull-outs and spur roads from Pingree Park Road that lead to nice, free, dispersed campsites. Mark and I often drive this road in the fall to see aspens fill the hillsides with their bright gold, and there are always a lot of trailers and RVs camping along the way.

Fall Aspens along Pingree Park Road

To get there, take 287 north out of Fort Collins to Ted’s Place (a gas station) and turn left on Co-14. Drive 26 miles through the canyon and turn left on Pingree Road, or Co Rd 63E. The first mile or so is pretty steep, but once the road levels out, you can start looking for campsites all along the way. There is some private property in the area and it is usually well marked.

2. 18 Road, Fruita
Check out 18 Road Campsites and Trails in Google Maps.

As rock climbers, Mark and I used to camp in a style influenced by mountaineers – light and fast, ready to bivy or head for the summit at any minute! Ok, not really, but at climber’s camps, small tents are the way to go. Mountain bikers, on the other hand, do it RIGHT. I have never seen more beautiful RVs in a remote desert setting than I did the day we rode the 18 Road trails.

This network of trails lies about 10 miles north of Fruita, Colorado, on the vaguely named 18 Road. I think this is like 18th street, but more deserty. Wherever the name came from, this road starts in Fruita and heads north towards the sandstone mesas visible from town. The mountain bike trails are awesome, with over 40 miles of well signed and beautiful single track in every level of difficulty imaginable. We visited with my brother a few years ago, and we all three rode the “Kessel Run” at least 3 times that afternoon.

Favorite trails at 18 Road

While we were there, we checked out some of the great camping. If you take 18 Road north from Fruita, there is an unnamed dirt road that breaks left just before the trails and then heads north parallel to the main road. There are probably 15 or more campsites along this road, all open, very nice, and free. This land is part of the North Fruita Desert Special Recreation Area, managed by the BLM, and dispersed camping is allowed. There is a pit toilet, but no water or any other amenities.

Mountain Biking in Fruita!

Even if you’re not into mountain biking (but can put up with mountain bikers around), this would be a nice, free place to park your camper in Western Colorado. The surrounding areas of Fruita and Grand Junction have great recreation possibilities, especially along the nearby Colorado River, and among the many lovely fruit orchards and wineries in the area.

3. Buena Vista surrounding areas
Check out Buena Vista Dispersed Camping in Google Maps.

This area is the one that I have the least familiarity with of the three. While Mark and I have visited Buena Vista a number of times, it’s been five years since we last camped there. At the time, we did not have an RV, but we saw quite a few camping out in dispersed areas of the San Isabel National Forest. If you have a rugged RV and a taste for adventure, this is an area where you will find some beautiful free camping.

View from the free campsite along Co Rd 390

Buena Vista is an awesome small, mountain town in central Colorado. It is primarily known for the amazing local rafting on the Arkansas river. However, the town sits at the base of the Collegiate Peaks, part of the Sawatch Range that contains several of the tallest peaks in Colorado (known as 14’ers). Mark and I have camped for free along two different roads in the area, and saw trailers and RVs along both of them.

Our favorite was a free campsite just off of Co Rd 306 (aka Cottonwood Pass Road). We drove out here to hike Mt Yale, and when the National Forest campground was full, we found a nice little site just off the road. Just next to us was a little class C RV, and its owners were enjoying the aspen forests, big mountains, and free camping just like us.

We also found some nice, wide-open, free campsites along Co Rd 390, which heads west of US-24 just north of Buena Vista. We tent camped here when we climbed Mt Belford, but I’m pretty sure there are RV-compatible sites in the area too.

Buena Vista Campsite - we needed an RV!

Finally, an area worth checking out is the desert-scrub areas north and east of town, accessed by Co Rd 375. There is some bolted rock climbing in this area, and Mark and I have explored it a tiny bit. There were a lot of ATVs and some rougher roads, but lots of open space and free camping in the area. Here, what you miss in lack of shade you make up for in amazing views of the Collegiate Peaks.

Awesome views from Co Rd 375 - NE of Buena Vista

The Verdict
Beautiful, dispersed, no-amenity camping abounds in Colorado. Many of these sites are right off of a main road, and very accessible to RVs. But it will take a sense of adventure and a bit of courage to go beyond the trailer park and explore these mountains to find the best spots. Have fun!

What are your favorite spots for free camping in an RV? What places did I miss on this list?

Super Moon and Tiny Town in Vedauwoo

May 6, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Last weekend we snuck out on Saturday night for an evening of windy camping and grilled steaks in Vedauwoo. Since it was the very end of the semester, we couldn’t get any friends to come along for climbing. So, our goals were more modest: 1) Photograph the Super-Moon Rise in Wyoming, and 2) See if we can locate an interesting new area with a few bolted routes.

Mark using the crash pad as a grill windscreen


I had hoped that with the wide-open prarie in Southern Wyoming, I might be able to get an awesome photo of this supposed Super Moon rising. Of course, as we drove up in the afternoon, the skies clouded over with storms and the prospect was bleak. I held out hope that the storms would move off before sunset, but they never did.

Hiking to a moon watching spot on a cold, windy evening

Later in the evening, I was putting G to bed and the trailer started to glow with a weird silvery light. I looked out the window and saw the edge of the bright, full moon peaking out over the distant cloud tops. So, I handed the baby to Mark and ran outside with the camera!

Super-moon rise over storm clouds

It wasn’t quite the photo that I was hoping for, but the moment was very nice for me. Sitting out in Vedauwoo with the wind whistling by, I watched the distant storms light up with lightening and the full moon surf the cloud tops. It was a peaceful and lovely time to be outside in Wyoming.


A little searching on Mountain Project turned up some interesting new information about bolted routes in Vedauwoo. Apparently, some development has happened on a boulder just past the Reynold’s Hill pull-out. Mark and I were hoping to go check out these climbs, but, again, I forgot all guidebooks or directional printouts.

Hiking back to the Reynold's Hill parking

So, we went with the classic ‘Voo formula and just walked off into the woods towards some rocks that looked promising. Shockingly, we found the area right away!

Tiny Town (5.8) a new bolted line in Vedauwoo

The routes are on a smallish boulder about half a mile from Vedauwoo road. There is a cow trail that one can follow from the tree line in towards the rock – which Mark decided looked like a boob (nipple and all) from a distance.

Currently, there are two fully bolted routes, Tiny Town (5.8) on the west-ish side and When it Pours, it Rains (5.10+) on the north-easterly side. There’s also a third set of anchors on a clean looking wall, which is probably Small Steps (5.12-), set as a project on TR.

The SE side of the Tiny Town boulder (Anchors but no bolts - yet)

The area is very kid-friendly with a nice flat base and short, easy approach. Mark and I are excited about getting back here to work these routes soon – Who wants to come with us?!

The world's longest, most ghetto stick clip next to the 5.10 route

The US Pro Cycling Challenge

August 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm

This summer, we were thrilled to have a pro cycling stage race roll through Colorado! I’ve been a fan of pro cycling through most of Lance Armstrong’s career, and I was super excited to try to get a chance to watch the same riders battle it out in the mountains near my home!

Spectators write on the road

The race actually came down the highway near our campsite for the weekend, but we spent most of the day Saturday on an epic-ly wet bushwack, and missed the show. On Sunday, we rolled the baby and dog and trailer out of the mountains and down to Golden, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pro riders as they raced their last day.

Info bike

Of course, things didn’t go quite as planned, and we ended up hiking about a mile and a half with G in his stroller and the dog down the side of a busy road. But, we got a spot on a hairpin curve just before the course heads up North Table mountain, and waited expectantly for the riders.

Jelly Belly rider attacking

The race was far more of a speeding circus than I expected. Cars announcing the arrival sped by. About 30 cops led out the race. Team cars piled behind the riders, squealing their tires as they flew around our corner. And the riders themselves flew past in all their lycra-clad glory.

A long line of riders

It was awesome.

Team cars

The race heads up Lookout Mountain