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!