Colorado camping: Now’s the time to book summer sites

A reservable tent site in Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Most campgrounds on public lands begin accepting reservations six months in advance, so it's time to plan. (Joshua Berman, Special to The Denver Post)

The truly serious Colorado campers are poised to pick up the best summer campsites over the winter

By Joshua Berman
Special to The Denver Post

A reservable tent site in Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Most campgrounds on public lands begin accepting reservations six months in advance, so it’s time to plan. (Joshua Berman, The Denver Post)

Outside, the roads are crusted in ice and crud, the sky heavy and cold, and all our favorite hiking trails are buried in feet of snow. Sure, it’s a fine time to go snowshoeing and it’s all so sparkly and beautiful, yada, yada, yada, but if you are a serious camper, your mind is on other things like wildflowers, campfires and canoes.

Yes, the six-month campground reservation window is now open for summer 2016, and the frenzy is in high gear. I’m talking about hard core Colorado campground junkies, hunched over their computers, awaiting the first available moment to grab their favorite campsites across the state.

“I typically make my reservations at the earliest possible time,” says Denise Huckfeldt, a registered nurse from Thornton. “This means being logged in, site chosen and ready to hit ‘book’ at the stroke of midnight.”

And that still doesn’t guarantee you a spot. Many campers, myself included (until recently), have usually found it too difficult to book so far in advance, and resigned ourselves to avoiding weekends altogether during the summer and heading to first-come, first-served sites during the week. This worked like a charm for my family and me, but since I’m a teacher, I have that luxury of midweek camping during the summer.

Eric Edwards created CampsitePhotos.com to address another problem with the reservation system. “I came up with the idea while camping in Death Valley National Park back in early 2007,” he says. “I realized there wasn’t any good online source that had photographs of the campgrounds and campsites.”

So he created one, employing photographers to scour the nation’s campgrounds and create detailed galleries. The site has scores of Colorado campgrounds and is an excellent resource.

“Over the last 10 years,” says Edwards, “I’ve definitely noticed a trend of more people making camping reservations. Often times, popular Colorado campgrounds will sell out within minutes of when the reservation window opens. As a result, I would recommend campers plan ahead and make reservations the second they become available for when you want to camp.”

This is not news for longtime campers. By Jan. 4, Jenny Hanlon Zichterman, a French teacher from Littleton, had already booked five campsites for trips between April and the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

“I like to have reservations,” she says, “so I’m not looking for a [dispersed] spot with cranky kids in the car. And even though I don’t really know what our plans are six months in advance, reservations can be changed for a nominal fee if necessary.”

That’s true, you can make adjustments to your reservations, so there is some flexibility in the system. It’s also true that most campgrounds keep a percentage of sites off of the reservation system and available on a first-come, first-served basis, even if it’s not apparent on the main booking sites.

As for me, I’m getting used to this new idea of booking campsites two seasons in advance. But it’s all a matter of attitude. As Zichterman says, “For me, planning the trip in advance is half the fun! Making reservations and researching places to go, it’s kind of like lesson planning!”

So I do what’s necessary. I wait until a quarter ’til midnight, hunch myself over my computer and get ready to click.

Joshua Berman is the author of the fifth edition of “Moon: Colorado Camping,” which will be released in the spring. JoshuaBerman.net and twitter.com/tranquilotravel.

When it’s time to book

The main sites for booking campgrounds are recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com. Two sites for researching your campsite before booking it are www.campsitephotos.com and www.campgroundviews.com.

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This article originally appeared in The Denver Post on January 17, 2016.

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