Best Dispersed Camping in Colorado

It’s no secret: backpacking is my jam. However, I’m not such a wilderness snob that I don’t appreciate and frequently prefer the comfort of car camping, too! But here’s the catch: if I’m going to camp from my car, I want it to be as remote and wild as possible. Fortunately, there is plenty of opportunity for dispersed camping in Colorado!

When I first introduced the idea of dispersed camping to Will, he gave me a little scoff. You see, dispersed camping gets a bad rap. Too often, people have vivid {and horrifying!} memories of pulling into a KOA and pitching their tent on a slab of concrete next to the bathrooms, all while listening to the hum of a half dozen motor home generators. Guys, it doesn’t have to be that way!

Dispersed camping in Colorado

Featured tent: REI Kingdom 6 {affiliate link}

If you’re unaware, dispersed camping is completely free and sites are spread throughout Colorado. Basically, they are just primitive locations for people to pitch a tent. A fire ring frequently exists but thankfully, crowds rarely do. Some areas have dozens of dispersed camping sites spread over the mountainside while others flaunt solitary sites, away from civilization. Some are easy to go to via car while others require 4wd or AWD. Regardless, dispersed camping has one major theme: you can arrive at the site with your car!

I’ve spent years camping in dispersed sites in Colorado, and I’ve racked up a few favorite locations. I’m reticent to give away all of the good spots, but I’m happy to share enough to get people exploring. After all, not everyone wants to lug a 50-lb backback up a 4,000 foot climb, and I appreciate that. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the great outdoors!

Want more info on car camping gear and what I recommend? Check out this post detailing my fave car camping essentials.Β 

Jones Pass Road

Dispersed camping in Colorado

Although not the absolute most peaceful camping site, the Jones Pass sites are close to Denver and really easy to access. I stumbled on them one time while exploring 4WD roads with my old Pathfinder.I love these dispersed sites for a couple reasons. Aside from their location, I’m a big fan of the nearby trails. Campers can hike Vasquez Peak or explore the Continental Divide Trail. Or, if hiking isn’t your thing and you have a sturdy car, drive the road a bit and catch the views above treeline. Freaking spectacular!

To get there: Take I-70 west to the US-40 exit towards Winter Park. Drive on 40 for roughly 8-10 miles. Just before the road begins climbing Berthoud Pass, you will see a sign for Henderson Mine with a sharp left turn. Take the road a few miles to Henderson Mine {obeying all of the Mine rules}, and then continue on the dirt road. Just passed the parking lot, you will notice dispersed camping sites. If you have 4WD you can take the road higher where the sites are more isolated.

Cottonwood Pass

Buena Vista is a quintessential Colorado mountain town and Denver residents can get there within two hours. {Save yourself some face: locals pronounce it like “Byoo-nuh Vis-tuh” and NOT the correct Spanish pronunciation!} Not only is there fantastic dispersed camping on Cottonwood Pass just outside of town, but the local vibe in town kind of rocks too. If you go, check out Eddyline Brewing. Yum!

Dispersed camping in Colorado

Cottonwood Pass was an accidental discovery years ago while hiking 14ers. You see, most of the 14ers in Colorado have long dirt roads that act as approaches to the trailheads. More often than not, these roads have little else other than a parking lot by the trail sign. We were hiking Mt. Yale and continued driving on County Road 306, past the trailhead until the road turned to dirt. Once it was dirt, we found a plethora of dispersed camping sites!

Plenty of sites dot along the roadΒ by the creek, and even more sites can be found once you crest the summit and begin the descent on the backside.

To get there: From Denver, take US-285 south to just outside of Buena Vista. Take a right (north) on US-24 towards downtown Buena Vista. At the stoplight in town, take a left on County Road 306.

Twin Lakes

Dispersed camping in Colorado

To be fair, this area was an accidental discovery but it was such a happy accident! A few years back, the group of us attempted La Plata Peak and….accidentally hiked the wrong mountain. We came back and conquered La Plata another weekend, but in the process, we discovered some fantastic dispersed camping!

People don’t tend to travel down this road, and if you take the time drive all the way to the end, you will likely have it to yourself. Occasional hikers or ATV-enthusiasts will ride by, but we camped there for two nights without seeing anyone! Again, the area has some beautiful hiking so there is plenty to do, and the Creek provides ample access to water. If you’re feeling sassy, the trailhead to La Plata is only a few miles down the road, so you can give a 14er a try!

To Get There: From US-24 south of Leadville, take CO-82 west towards Twin Lakes. From Twin Lakes Village, drive 8 miles west to the South Fork Lake Creek Road (aka Forest Road 391) on the left side. The first 1.5 miles is on private property, but dispersed campsites can be found after that point.

Kebler Pass

Do I need to remind you of the photos of this place?!

Dispersed camping in Colorado

If you’re looking for a stunning place to camp in search of fall color, look no further because nothing can top Kebler! It’s a bit far from Denver–roughly 4.5 hours– but if you have the time, it’s totally worth it. Crested Butte is one of my all-time favorite mountain towns in Colorado, and this drive takes you smack through it. Stop for lunch if you can; the downtown is chock full of restored mining buildings and houses, and I absolutely love a small coffee shop called First Ascent.

Kebler Pass itself is a beauty and is full of hiking and mountain biking. Many argue that CB is the birthplace of mountain biking, so it’s definitely a great place to give the sport a try. The pass is covered in aspen groves, and I’ve heard rumors that they are some of the largest in the country. Towering peaks loom in the background in that rugged, sharp way that the Elk Range has. In short, it’s stunning!

Dispersed camping in Colorado

Forest Road #706 has dozens of dispersed campsites before reaching the Lost Lake Campground. However, they get higher in elevation and are heavily shaded, so we only camp there in the heat of the summer. Otherwise, sites are littered throughout Kebler Pass Road {Gunnison County Road 12}. Literally, you will see dozens of offshoots from the main road, and every single one of them leads to bomb dispersed camping. You can’t go wrong!

To Get There: Take US-285 south from Denver until it connects with US-50. Take 50 into Gunnison before taking a right and heading north on CO-135/Main Street. Once in CB, take a left on Whiterock Avenue which turns into Kebler Pass Road.

Dispersed camping in Colorado

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  • Kayla @ kpLOVINGit November 5, 2014 at 4:09 am

    Beautiful pictures, as always. Remember when you didn’t have Will as your personal photographer and hardly ever posted photos on your blog?!?!?

    • heather November 5, 2014 at 6:20 am

      Haha yes! If I have to use one of my iPhone photos these days, I”m beyond sad πŸ™‚ Although, I’m actually debating getting a camera and having him teach me! I won’t ever be as interested or as talented as him, but his photos make it look fun. We’ll see!

  • RFC November 5, 2014 at 5:33 am

    Ah yes, I have fond childhood memories of “camping”; we were in tents, but there would be crowded bathrooms, a huge swimming pool, restaurant and even a store at the “campground” lol. Though it was nothing like the camping we do these days, it certainly instilled my love for sleeping in a tent!

    • heather November 5, 2014 at 6:21 am

      YES! Exactly that! I remember driving cross-country with my mom and staying at KOA’s because they were cheap.

  • Kovas - Midwest Multisport Life November 5, 2014 at 7:21 am

    So jealous of this. I know we have dispersed camping in Southern IL, but I’ll have to do some research and see if I can find something closer – thanks for the inspiration!

    • heather November 6, 2014 at 1:01 pm

      I don’t mind driving aimlessly until we find spots, but not everyone feels that way πŸ™‚ Thought a guide would help!

    • Frannie June 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      Hi there! I worked at a camp in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern, IL. They have amazing camping and climbing around there!

  • Kelly November 5, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    It’s been so long since I’ve been real,camping, I need to go again soon!

    • heather November 5, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      You should! But maybe wait till it’s a bit warmer so you aren’t miserable on your first try πŸ™‚

  • Heather @ FITaspire November 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    I keep saying we need to go camping, but we haven’t been in ages. This list is awesome!

    • heather November 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      What?! I didn’t know y’all hadn’t been out! Any interest in winter camping?

  • Barb November 6, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Awesome suggestions!! I love dispersed camping. I am also a fan of Lost Creek Wilderness for proximity to Denver but away from crowds.
    I now live in Taos, NM and there is dispersed camping EVERYWHERE in northern NM. If you ever want to wander south, let me know!! Also, Taos Ski Valley just added a lift to Kachina Peak…. come check it out!

    • heather November 6, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      I haven’t spent a ton of time there, but we do go to the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness a lot for the same reason: no crowds! It amazes me how people just blow through that part of the state…so pretty! {And also– we have plans to explore northern NM next year– I will keep you posted! We may even venture to Taos this winter!}

    • Lori May 4, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      Hi Barb!
      I was thinking of camping in Taos Memorial weekend. What’s the weather like then? Any places/hikes you would recommend?
      Thanks!
      Lori

  • Gina Begin November 6, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Love the picture of Tals and the description. Made me smile! This is a great idea β€”Β sharing spots to try out camping away from the crowds. I’m sure it will inspire a number of folks to get out there and explore a bit! (And it made me miss my tent. I might just go set it up in my living room now. πŸ˜‰

    • heather November 6, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      I love that photo too πŸ™‚ She is just so happy when we go camping– she just plays and sleeps and plays and sleeps. It’s her happy place!

  • Ryan November 18, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Awesome resource, and gorgeous photos. Thanks for putting together your recommendations, Heather! Thought I’d pass along a resource I frequently turned to on my year long road trip, freecampsites.net. Lots of listings, and nice to be able to roll into a new area and find free dispersed camping.

    • heather November 18, 2014 at 7:33 pm

      Thanks for the tip, Ryan!

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  • Jordan May 18, 2015 at 2:08 am

    What time of year did you camp at Twin Lakes? I was thinking late May, too cold?

    • heather May 18, 2015 at 9:22 pm

      I’ve been there a bunch, but was actually in the area a few weeks ago. The snow was really starting to melt at the lake at that point but the overnight temps were definitely chilly. It really depends on how much you enjoy cold overnights πŸ™‚

  • Katie @k8tlevy June 3, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Heather, this is AWESOME, and it looks like Kebler Pass is super close to where you suggested I look for backpacking in August. That might be where we overnight the night before we leave! Do you have 3-4 day backpacking trip recommendations around there?

    • heather June 4, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Oh friend, I could give you trips in that area FOR DAYS! We’re partnering up with CB tourism and headed there in a few weekends; I’ll get some info for you!

      • Katie @k8tlevy June 4, 2015 at 6:55 am

        Awesome, thank you! Dan was hoping to do some mountain biking too, if that makes sense. We’ll have four days, basically. Can’t wait to hear what you get into with CB Tourism!

  • Mary Beth Richardson June 3, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Great post! My husband and I are traveling to CO for a family wedding in Grand Lake. After the wedding we are spending a week traveling to hike (me) / mtn bike (him). So far, we are looking at Steamboat, Fruita, & Salida. If you have more on your list, please share your recommendations. (for dispersed camping or coffee shops or restaurants or trails)

    • heather June 4, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Hey Mary Beth! I definitely could give you a few more ideas; would you mind emailing me? Heather.Balogh@gmail.com

  • Joanne Harris June 10, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Hi there. We love camping but have only camped up in the Yampa area years ago. As a newbie to Colorado (recently retired) I’m wondering if you’ve ever had issues with wild animals camping in isolated spots. I love the isolation but everywhere else we’ve camped in the U.S., they’ve not been an issue. Thanks, and I can’t wait to try some of these spots. πŸ™‚

    • heather June 10, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Hi Joanne,

      You know, it’s never been an issue. We’ll occasionally see deer or elk or something but they leave us alone, and we’ve never run into black bears or big cats. Just be sure to keep your campsite clean and store all food in your vehicle. You should be fine!

  • Dinah June 10, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Heather, this is awesome! My husband and I are dropping our youngest off to camp in Bailey this weekend and think we shall pack up and head to Jones Pass…and are also eager to try the rest of these recommendations. Other than the military we have not done any dispersed camping and have been talking about it, off of school for the summer and ready to camp and hike. Really great to have all this information at our fingertips, thank you!

  • Karen June 10, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    you sound like someone who knows the area and would be a good source of information. I’m looking at camping in mid Sept for the fall colors. I will be coming from Az and have a tentative plan of camping and photographing around Telluride, last dollar road to Ouray, gunnison/Lake City, 2 days around Maroon Bells, Grand Mesa, Silverton/Durango
    Any suggestions…..I’m planning on bringing my two labs with me also.

  • Kelly June 11, 2015 at 5:15 am

    Growing up we only did dispersed camping in Wyoming and Montana. Now I live in Colorado, I find it difficult to camp as neither my husband nor I enjoy the camp ground experience. We usually go to Wyoming but want to find places a little closer to home. Are any of these places good for pulling a camper. We now have littles, must say the camper is wonderful for that. But once the girls are bigger I will take them backpacking too. Thank you.

    • heather June 11, 2015 at 6:08 am

      Hi Kelly, you could definitely take a camper to select spots on Kebler Pass. There aren’t hookups or anything but there are a few spots that are big and wide enough that it could work. You could also find a spot at Twin Lakes. Good luck!

      • Kelly June 11, 2015 at 5:16 pm

        Thank you. Hookups aren’t a problem. We have a generator if needed. We just like being away from people.

  • Allyson June 24, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    We’re planning to do some dispersed camping in our 4WD RV in the San Juans/Uncompahgre area in the next week. Do you have any suggestions on where to go? We don’t want to be near crowds or towns if we can help it, and we don’t need hookups or anything. Any recommendations would be great, as we don’t know that part of the state as well as other parts. Thanks! πŸ™‚

  • Barry June 28, 2015 at 6:26 am

    Good morning planning a trip to the Glenwood are in early August. We are looking for a rustic or dispersed camping spot in the area, we will be in pickups and tents, any suggestions?

  • Barry June 28, 2015 at 6:39 am

    We will have 5 children with us from 1 to 8 years of age as well. So something age appropriate in the area would be appreciated as well.

  • Ted June 30, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    If you’re not afraid of hiking in, lost creek wilderness is amazing! And free!

    • Barry June 30, 2015 at 8:07 pm

      Thanks Ted, I’m not, but lugging in 5 kids would be a bit much.

  • Crista July 10, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    sweet. thanks for this! i think we’ll be seeking out one of the spots in two weekends from now –

  • taryn July 14, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Thank you!! This is exactly the article I was looking for. We love to backpack, but it’s hard with a 3 and a 5 year old, and we just can’t bring ourselves to pay for a campground we don’t even want to be in. This is great!

  • Megan July 21, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Just when I’m about to give up on Colorado, I read something like this! I’ve gotten so frustrated with the crowds and traffic recently, and have really been looking forward to moving eventually. I’ll have to try out some of these spots and see if they change my mind! This state really is a special place – guess I just need to be trying harder to find the peace and quiet πŸ™‚

    • heather July 21, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      Hey Megan– Promise, there are far more quiet spots than busy! The problem is that everyone tends to go to the busy, so it’s a vicious cycle πŸ™‚ Do you backpack too?

  • Nick July 29, 2015 at 10:44 am

    These places look great! I will be checking out cottonwood or Twin lakes in a week with a few friends. Thank you!

  • Kevin July 30, 2015 at 3:09 am

    A couple places close to Denver to try are Peru Creek above Keystone and along Boreas Pass especially to backside if going up frame Georgetown.

  • Crista July 30, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Took your advice and camped at twin Lakes – THANK YOU – I was never knowledgable about dispersed camping until you.. xox

  • Amanda S August 10, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    I don’t know how I found this post, but you’ve inspired me to scope out dispersed camping. I camped near Breck this weekend to go mountain biking (right next to the Colorado trail!), and I’m going to use your recommendation for Twin Lakes next weekend when I do the Leadville 10k!

  • Barry August 20, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Good afternoon, we took a drive across Flat Tops from Rifle Gap toward the Loveland / Fort Collins area on dirt roads. Lots of dispersed camp sites along the way with easy access and of course great views. Well worth a look.

    • heather August 20, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      Good to know. Thanks Barry!

  • Gretchen August 20, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    I thought that I had read here that you could take a trailer up Jones Pass but, reading through the comments again, I’m not sure where I read that! Your description of Jones Pass was so enticing that I convinced my husband to take our 28′ trailer up there! It really is as beautiful as you wrote but it was a significant challenge trying to get that thing up there! We did make it almost to the top and thank goodness some guys were nice enough to move their car so that we could turn around or we might still be up there! We did see a small pop up and lots of tents. It’s definitely a popular area and, once you’re up there, it’s easy to understand why! The views, valleys, and wild flowers are incredible! It’s just not an ideal spot for a larger trailer! We will try Kebler Pass and Twin Lakes and if you have have other suggestions, I’d love to hear about them!

  • Scott F September 20, 2015 at 10:11 am

    This is an awesome website. My family and I are going to Kebler Pass this coming weekend. We will be coming in on Saturday Afternoon, given it is late in the camping season, are there enough dispersed camping sites that we will be okay coming in Saturday afternoon to find a site?

  • Brian September 28, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Hey Heather,
    I’ve done a lot of dispersed camping and backpacking (before my spine surgery). Know and good pull off either down in San Isabel near Cuchara or possibly the Wet Mtns? I need to do a fall foliage shot if it’s not too late. I don’t know then areas South of the Springs well.

    THANKS!

    • heather September 28, 2015 at 10:06 pm

      Unfortunately I don’t πŸ™ I recently did a post on fall color drives that may be helpful though!

      • Brian September 28, 2015 at 11:47 pm

        Thank you either way!

  • Mahogani Brown November 17, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Awesome article! …I’m new to dispersed camping & trying to find sites as close to denver as possible (as it’ll be my home for about a month + I’m currently driving a camry -2wd). . . Anything helps

    Blessings
    MB

  • edward jefferson January 19, 2016 at 8:05 pm

    I agree with you. Clearly the existing laws are not working though in that area. Because people are either unaware, don’t care or seem unable to follow the current law on wild camping. A specific ban on camping in some areas such as Loch Lomond shore seems to be the only solution doesn’t it?

  • Deborah Richey February 4, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    We camped in Red River NM last year after a week in Colorado. We had no idea you could do this ! We like privacy when we camp. Thanks for the great ideas. I think we will take 2 weeks off and stay in some o f the places you suggested! Yea for us!

  • Heidi Haas May 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Heather, this blog is fantastic! My husband is a big fan of dispersed camping and it makes me nervous as i’m a planner but i’m starting to see the beauty of it to be able to camp without the crowds. We’re planning on going down to the Great Sand Dunes and I was curious if you knew of any fun primitive places in the vicinity? Thanks so much!

    • Chris June 27, 2016 at 9:49 pm

      Just follow the road nearest the dunes and just outside the boundary of the dunes park there are tons of great sites.

  • Abby June 2, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    This is so helpful for me! I would love for you to post more when you find them, especially near Denver. πŸ™‚

  • Chris June 27, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    It would be more helpful to let people know that dispersed camping is allowed in any national forest. A lot of folks will assume this camping is on private land, when in fact all the spots you mention that I recognize are on NFS lands. It would be nice if you also reminded people not to camp on private land without permission.

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  • Natas July 23, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Stop blogging thus stuff, all these damn hipsters from out of state need to go back where they came from and stop crowding out these once great hidden spots…. you are ruining camping for the actual locals that took the time to go out and find these spots…

    • Chris July 25, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      Last time I looked these spots were part of the national forest lands. News flash! They dont belong to JUST you or colorado residents. These are taxpayer lands and everyone should be free to enjoy them. Stop being an elitist, entitled brat.

  • Audrey Wilcox August 4, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Joshua September 3, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    Where are parts 2 & 3 of this series?

  • Shawna September 28, 2016 at 11:33 am

    I’m so glad I found your blog! We are wanting to try out the Jones Pass. We have never camped in Colorado ever, we’re from Kansas. Any and all tips and suggestions would be extremely helpful. It would be this coming weekend. I hope you’re able to see this in time. Fantastic blog!

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