With camping’s popularity surge during the pandemic, looking for less-traveled campgrounds has become even more of an art form.
Some people have their favorite go-to campgrounds, some have secret spots in dispersed areas, and others Coloradans are always up for exploring. Here are a few non-obvious ideas up and down the Front Range, traveling from north to south.
Elks Campground at North Sterling Lake State Park
Traveling away from the mountains instead of toward them is certainly a “non-obvious” thing to do in Colorado. This state park north of Sterling has several campgrounds around a 3,000-acre reservoir, but head to Elks, on the northeastern shore of the lake. These sites are closer to the water and there are several facilities in this otherwise remote spot, including a marina, store, boat rental, and nearby archery range. The surrounding sandstone bluffs were first seen by settlers traveling west on the Overland Trail in the mid-1800s.
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Elks is popular with boaters, anglers, and hunters; out of the 50 total sites, numbers 5-7, 27-32 and 41-49 are closest to the water and have the best views. In general, there are few trees and little privacy, but it’s rarely crowded during the week. All sites have 30-amp electrical hookups and the majority are pull-through.
Reservations: 800/244-5613 and cpwshop.com. The fee is $36 per night. Campers must also purchase a vehicle pass ($8) or Annual Parks Pass ($80). From Sterling, take 7th Avenue/County Road 37 north for 10 miles. Turn left on County Road 46. The park entrance and campground are on the left in 3.9 miles.
Crow Valley Campground at Pawnee National Grassland
This is the main campground in Pawnee National Grassland, 84 miles north of Denver. It is a peaceful, single loop at the end of a short dirt road outside Briggsdale. There are 10 campsites for tents and RVs up to 35 feet, in a relatively primitive campground with vault toilet, picnic tables, and tent pads. Birders have spotted more than 300 species in this area of northeastern Colorado. The campground has access to a few group and picnic facilities (which may or may not be open), and is near several trailheads.
Reservations: 877-444-6777 or recreation.gov. Single sites, $14/night; double sites, $20/night. From Fort Collins, take Colorado 14 to Briggsdale. Turn north on County Road 77. The camp entrance is on the left in 0.2 mile. More: Pawnee National Grassland, Pawnee Ranger District office in Greeley, 970-346-5000, fs.usda.gov/arp. Open mid-May-early October.
Jellystone Park at Larkspur
Only 30 minutes south of Denver, along Interstate 25, you’ve probably driven past Jellystone Park at Larkspur, a Sun RV Resort, which was just completely rebuilt into full-service commercial campground resort. As of this summer 2020, it is also a 40,000-square-foot waterpark: Yogi Bear’s WaterZone (for resort guests only), has a large pool, wet deck, six waterslides, and other activities. When we stayed there, before the renovation, my kids couldn’t care less about the noise from the highway or rumble of the trains (there are two nearby sets of active tracks), and they couldn’t get enough of the Yogi and Boo Boo characters, and all the activities.
There are 287 full hookup RV sites (50 amp, room for slideouts), plus 89 fully furnished cabins (there are four styles of pet-friendly cabins that accommodate up to six guests), and plans for future glamping sites and other accommodations. There is also a dog park, mini bowling alley, arcade (closed at the moment), rec center, sports courts, fitness center, two pools and a hot tub. There is a general store and ranger-led activities for kids, including daily flag ceremonies with the campground mascots.
In order to comply with social distancing regulations, a number of activities have capacity limits, including the pools and WaterZone. They’re offering daily crafts and activities for families that are socially distanced, plus families can choose to pick up a craft and complete it at their RV or rental cabin. The three on-site restaurants are available for delivery and the on-site general store is offering delivery as well.
Reservations are accepted at 720/325-2393 and jellystonelarkspur.com. RV sites start at $61/night. Open year-round. Directions: From Denver, take I-25 south for about 30 miles. The campground is on your right, at the end of the exit ramp at Exit 174.
Turkey Meadow and Prospector Ridge at Mueller State Park
Mueller State Park is a 5,000-acre park west of Pikes Peak (less than two hours from Denver) with a group of campgrounds totaling 132 sites. There are 55 miles of trails in the park and you can visit nearby Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and the Pikes Peak region.
Some of the campground loops are designed for RV parking, but Turkey Meadow and Prospector Ridge are reserved for walk-in tent camping. There are also cabins for rent in the area. Basic facilities include restrooms, showers, drinking water, dump stations, a laundry room, amphitheater, playground, and interpretive programs (but always ask to see what is currently offered).
Reservations: 800/244-5613 and cpwshop.com. Walk-in tent sites are $28 per night and electric sites are $36 per night. Vehicles must also have a Daily Parks Pass ($8) or Annual Parks Pass ($80). Revenuer’s Ridge loop is open year-round. The rest of the campground is open mid-May-mid-October. From Woodland Park, take U.S. Highway 24 west for seven miles. Go south on Highway 67. In 0.9 mile, turn right at the park entrance. The campground is two miles past the fee station.
Purgatoire Campground in the Spanish Peaks region
Located in the Spanish Peaks region, some 200 miles south of Denver, this small, 13-site campground on the North Fork of Purgatoire Creek is just a few miles from the North Lake State Wildlife Area. The campground setting is a spruce-fir forest with aspen groves and small meadows. The upper campground loop overlooks a meadow and has the most appealing sites, with aspen groves and views down the valley.
Plan a hike on the North Fork Trail, a five-mile trail that links the Purgatoire campground with the Cuchara Creek area. Fishing is also good on North Lake, but only artificial flies and lures are allowed. There are no hookups.
Reservations: 877/444-6777 and recreation.gov. The fee is $19 per night. Open late May-early October. From U.S. Highway 160, take Highway 12 south for 31 miles. Turn right on Forest Route 411/North Fork Road. The road ends at the campground in 4.2 miles. Contact: Pike and San Isabel National Forest, San Carlos District, 719/269-8500, fs.usda.gov/psicc.