Rocky Mountain National Park has no shortage of views. They’re all great, but some are absolutely spectacular. Black Lake is the latter. MY RATING: 5 Stars. Black Lake is one of the best hikes ...
There’s nothing quite like sleeping underneath the stars, eating s’mores, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and coming home smelling like campfire. Camping is a great way to escape the weekly grind and totally immerse yourself in the wilderness. I love camping and if I could, I’d probably be out there every weekend. When the spring snow started to melt and it was too early to go hiking in the high country, I was up in the canyon scoping out new dispersed campsites (until I had to turn around due to deep snow and muddy roads). I’ve spent a lot of time this year getting familiar with different campsites along Poudre Canyon and know enough to give some solid recommendations.
There are different styles of camping – campground camping at organized sites, dispersed camping in underdeveloped areas, and backpacking where you have to hike in to your camp site. Since there are a lot of different options for different styles, I’m going to start with my list of recommendations for campgrounds. Personally, I’m a dispersed camper and would rather be away from others and not following any quiet time rules, but I’ve had quite a few people ask me about campgrounds this year, so I figured this was the best place to start.
If you’re unsure of the difference between campgrounds and dispersed or “primitive” campsites, here’s a photo of one of our favorite dispersed sites in Pingree. All that you’ll find is a fire ring. That’s it. In a campground, there’s usually a camp host, other campers near by, vaulted toilets, running water, and a usage fee. Amenities can vary depending on the site.
I’m going to include Pingree and Red Feather Lakes in this post since they are close to Poudre Canyon, and you dive through the canyon to get there anyway. So, this is technically best campgrounds in the Canyon Lakes Ranger District.
You can find the list of all of the Poudre Canyon campgrounds on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest/Pawnee National Grassland website. American Land & Leisure are the camp hosts at the campgrounds in the Arapaho National Forest, and they have links and information for those sites that you need to reserve.
I chose these sites as the best because of their views, surrounding beauty, and campground space. There are a lot of campgrounds that are too close to the main highway, have little access to recreation like fishing and hiking, aren’t particularly pretty with few trees or streams, and have tent pads/lots that are too close to each other (kind of like the houses in the burbs). This list makes sure you have it all! Each campground is linked to a Gaia GPS Map (one of the best maps I’ve found online!). Not only will you be able to see where the campsites are, but nearby trails, lakes, and other recreational spots that might interest you.
It doesn’t matter what time of year you go camping – be it Labor Day Weekend, Memorial Day Weekend, or any time in the summer in between. You’ll be able to reference this list for suggestions and use it as a resource whenever you’re looking for the best campgrounds in Poudre Canyon!
Mountain Park is one of the largest campgrounds in Poudre Canyon. It’s so big that it almost resembles a resort, and it is the one that’s packed with the most amenities. There’s a volleyball court, basketball court, horse shoe pits, pay showers, and a playground for the kids. If you’re more of a “glamper” than a backcountry camper – this is your spot. While the amenities are appealing, what lands this campground in my best of list is the access to Poudre River. Grab a spot along the Commanche Loop or the Crown Loop. Campsites on this side of the campground have access to the riverbanks where kids can play (when the water is low), people can set up camp chairs and chillax next to the sound of the river, and fly fishermen can cast away.
Kelly Flats is probably my favorite of the lower Poudre Canyon campgrounds. It’s smaller with fewer amenities than Mountain Park, but it’s in a lovely part of the canyon with a quiet, relaxing atmosphere. Campsites are spaced nicely so you don’t feel like you’re right on top of each other, there are park benches along the riverbanks to soak up the soothing sounds of the flow, and plenty of great fishing spots.
This campground is in upper Poudre Canyon. The dividing line between the two parts is when you cross Poudre River right after driving by Lower Dadd Gulch trailhead. Upper Poudre Canyon is by far my favorite place to spend time. The ecosystem is completely different – there are fluttering Aspen trees, thick conifer forests, breathtaking views of high alpine peaks, and tons of wildlife (including moose!). Aspen Glen is a small campground with few amenities and it’s right off highway 14. However! The trees block the sights and sounds of the road very well, and there are some choice campsites right next to the raging river. Campsite #6 is the most secluded and largest of the bunch.
Tunnel Campground is another large campground, but you don’t realize it until you drive around the whole place. There aren’t resort-type amenities aside from restrooms and drinking water, but it’s close to some great hiking and fishing in the Rawah’s – one of the most gorgeous protected wilderness areas in Colorado. This is off Highway 14 and on Laramie River Road, and considered high elevation. Be sure to pay attention to road closures in the spring, because this road tends to stay closed longer due to winter snow levels. Pick campsites along the backside flanking West Branch Laramie River for the best camping experience. Keep your eyes open for moose and elk in the area, too!
If I had to pick a #1 campground on this whole list, it would be Grandview. This is a tent-only, small campground near the top of Long Draw Road. It has the most breathtaking views of any campground on this entire list, overlooking Long Draw Reservoir and Rocky Mountain National Park. There’s amazing fly fishing in any one of the three lakes up there (Trap Lake, Peterson Lake, and Long Draw Reservoir), and fantastic trails (Corral Creek, Poudre Pass, and Trap Park). It’s unbelievable that we have this in our mountain backyard! The area is FULL of moose, and when I say full, I’m not kidding. That’s where I was chased off a trail by two last weekend. I’ve spent nearly every weekend up here since they re-opened the road this summer and I’ve seen at least three moose, if not five on every trip.
Now, speaking of the road. The caveat to this campground is that there’s a massive logging project going on in the area. They are removing 80,000 beetle kill trees and have been for the last few years. I’ll write about that in another post in the next couple of weeks. But with the logging, be prepared for delays of up to an hour if you’re coming up or going down Long Draw. It’s slightly devastating to see, but necessary. The logging project stops at 5pm, so you won’t be kept awake by tree removal, and every time I’ve been up there, I cannot hear the sound of logging on the trails or the lakes. It’s pretty muffled. So, other than road delays and the sad state of missing trees along the road similar to The Lorax, it’s not enough for me to consider this campsite off-limits due to logging.
Dowdy Lake is in the Red Feather Lakes area. We’ve been fishing Parvin and hiking up here often over the years, and noticed that campgrounds fill up fast. It’s a very popular area to hang out in, and Dowdy Lake Campground is probably the most popular of the bunch. This makes the best of list because of the close access to the lake and a boat ramp area. It’s a fantastic campground for kids where they can climb on rocks and walk the very well maintained trails long the lake. One word of caution here – don’t forget to be bear aware! A friend of mine camped here this summer and a neighboring campsite left their food out. A bear came through and the rangers had to hand out bear safety pamphlets. Apparently they’ve learned to scope out the picnic areas due to people being stupid, and I hate to say it, but this is why I prefer dispersed camping – fewer stupid people (but also more gunfire – another post for another day).
Last but not least, Tom Bennett campground near Pingree Park. This is the more primitive camping experiences of the developed campgrounds on this list. It’s small, tent-only, and there’s only a restroom for amenities. It’s situated along the South Fork Cache la Poudre River, so there’s some good stream fishing and there are some great trails nearby (Emmaline Lake!). The best part? The trees are perfect for setting up hammocks in your campsites. One of our favorite dispersed spots is near here and every time we drive by, we see people hanging out and taking naps in their hammocks by the river. I’ve recommended this post to friends and they’ve throughly enjoyed their camping experience here!
Sometimes I think I get too paranoid while solo hiking in the wilderness. That is, until something actually happens.
I spent this weekend fly fishing and attempting to hike around the Long Draw Road area in upper Poudre Canyon now that they’ve re-opened the road during the logging project (I’ll go more into the logging on another post). I say “attempting” because I was initially going to hike to Lulu City at the Poudre Pass trailhead, but it was torrential downpours up there on Saturday. So, I fished instead (and mostly car napped to wait out the storm).
I returned on Sunday, and due to an hour and a half delay to get to the trailhead, I decided to drive back down the road and hike Trap Park Trail instead.
I had been in the car for a while and planned on using the bathroom at the Poudre Pass trailhead, but with the turnaround and lack of bathroom at Trap Park, I was left with the trees. No big deal. I walked a few feet into the woods (away from the lake, because that’s where the moose hang out). I could still see my car. I kept my eyes peeled because I drove by a moose near the trailhead on the way up, and it seemed that moose were everywhere that day.
I didn’t see or hear anything and I was hyper alert because I was alone. I unbuttoned my pants. I heard a rustle and then? There’s a moose looking right at me only a few feet way.
“OH SHIT. OH SHIT. OH SHIT!” I exclaimed and grabbed my pants. I jumped behind a tree, took a breath and looked at the moose again. It was not looking happy because I startled it and it was starting to walk towards me. I looked at the distance I had to get to my car and decided that I could sprint to it. So I did. I ran like hell.
I got to the car, threw open my door and grabbed my phone. I was able to get video of not one, but two moose – a cow and an older calf running through the trees, around me, and over to Trap Lake.
This was all before the hike and now my nerves were jittery. I asked a couple of hikers about how many people were on the Trap Park trail above them. They talked about more moose and a bull that had run in front of them on the trail.
NOPE. No solo hiking that day! So, I checked out Trap Lake for another day of fishing.
Next to the high winds, I was moose blocked again. I left and went to Chambers Lake instead. Apparently I need to learn how to roll cast a hell of a lot better.
So, where did you go? What did you do? Any crazy stories to tell? Feel free to share your Weekend Adventure Report and any photos in the comments on the blog or on Facebook and Twitter! You can follow me on Instagram and get a glimpse of the weekend fun on Sunday night!
Rocky Mountain National Park holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of the most beautiful areas to hike and fish in, there’s an abundance of wildlife to view, and it’s a short(ish) drive from Fort Collins. But it seems that everyone around the world knows how amazing this part of Colorado is, and there are days that the park feels more like a crowded amusement park than a National Park.
I’m not one for crowded hikes. I’m out on the trails for a break from technology, stress, life in general, and being away from people is kind of high on the list of priorities. For some reason, Rocky Mountain National Park still speaks to my soul and draws me in. On days that the park is packed, I’ll try to find an area that most tourists wouldn’t dare trek. This is usually a trail that’s longer than 2 miles, or on a side of the park that most people forget about.
Last weekend I went up with a couple of friends for a short hike and it seemed that every single parking lot was full, cars were parked all over on the sides of the roads, and shuttles were full of people coming up from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. I felt like I was running out of trail suggestions, until we drove by Hidden Valley.
Hidden Valley is at the base of Trail Ridge Road with hundreds of thousands of people driving by it without ever really paying attention to what’s beyond the large parking lot. I know I did that for years.
Hidden Valley really is a hidden gem of solitude. It used to be a ski resort (which sounded pretty cool!). You can check out the history of the resort by watching the “Ski Hidden Valley” documentary. Now that is has been closed for many years, it serves as a picnic area in the summer with a short easy walking trail, and as a sledding hill in the winter months. You can read more about that from Growing Up Fort Collins. I’l make sure to get out there this winter as well.
But, there are unofficial, unmarked hikes on the old ski runs that nobody really knows about. And they kick your ass.
I tried to take my kids up with me one weekend and as the incline on the trail started to get steeper, an older couple were descending and told my kids, “It’s pretty steep up there, like really steep!” basically scaring the hell out of my youngest (who is just about 6 years old) and making him think we were on a death hike. I’ve had to drag that kid up more trails than I have patience for, so we gave up to protect my sanity.
On the day my friends and I couldn’t find a place to hike, I suggested trying this out. We were the only people going up the trail and only came across one small group coming down the entire time we were on the side of the mountain. That is a rarity in RMNP.
Here are the details!
After parking in the lot and walking to the top of the main trail loop, you’ll come across a well-worn side trail that takes you up beyond the picnic tables.
You’ll cross Hidden Valley Creek by either rock hopping or balancing on the log.
Most people will usually stop as the trail incline increases. You can tell by the trail wear decreasing and it starts to resemble a game trail. Then you’re left wondering if you should even be hiking there. The incline is dramatic, because you are hiking up the old Aspen ski run. It is straight up the side of the mountain, no switch backs, and at 10,500 feet of elevation with a 1,200 foot gain. So you’re dealing with a steep incline at a higher elevation with less oxygen. We took many breaks. It was nice because it forced me to stop and enjoy the scenery more than I usually do. Typically I’m focused on the accomplishment of the hike instead of the journey, and hikes like this cause me to slow my roll a bit.
As you look around, you can see cars driving up Trail Ridge Road from west to north, and you can see the Rainbow Curve overlook jutting out on the side of the mountain.
As you get higher and the trail gets smaller, it’s a little more difficult to discern where you should go. It splits around trees. Stay to the right near the creek and the open space of the long forgotten run and you’ll be fine.
Near the top you’ll come to the lodgepole pine forest. There’s more trail to cover – you’re not finished yet.
Go through the trees, hop over logs and you’ll reach the top at Trail Ridge Road. I’m sure it’s quite strange for people driving up to suddenly see hikers on the side of the road.
The trail up is 2 miles to the road. There is another 1,000 feet above the road to the top of Tombstone Ridge, but we didn’t go that far. Stopping at the road was sufficient for us. Maybe I’ll go back again and make it to the top.
As you descend back down, keep your eyes open for remnants of the ski area’s past – the ski lift clearing is still recovering, there are rusted wires, and occasionally old ski pole parts. Please remember the leave no trace practices as this is a recovering area. We found trash strewn about and the Jimenez Family from Chicago decided it would be a good place to leave their mark in the logs. Don’t be assholes like that.
Overall, this is a great short and intense hike that nobody really knows about! If you want some ass kicking solitude in an overpopulated national park, this is your trail.
Aspen Ski Run in Hidden Valley, Rocky Mountain National Park
One Way Length: 2 miles
Beginning Elevation: 9,300 ft
Peak Elevation (to Trail Ridge Road): 10,500 ft
Rating: Moderate difficulty