5 Best Campgrounds in the Rocky Mountains plus Tips for Camping
Few outdoor places rival the breathtaking majesty of the Rocky Mountains, a chain stretching across 3,000 miles of the continent. The climate varies from dry steppes and high desert near the base to the cold and frozen tundra on the peaks.
The American section of Rocky Mountain National Park alone features more than 60 mammalian species and 300 birds. You can enjoy the splendor from one of the range’s many campsites, as long as you watch out for all that wildlife. This destination fits the bill if you’re seeking the ultimate nature getaway.
What should you know before your excursion? What supplies do you need and how should you prepare? Here are the best campgrounds in the Rocky Mountains and how to protect yourself from wildlife while camping.
The 5 Best Campgrounds in the Rocky Mountains
You’ll find a blend of paid campgrounds and boondocking or dispersed camping locations throughout the Rocky Mountains. Here are five impressive sites to add to your list, whichever type of camping you prefer.
1. Timber Creek Campground
Timber Creek Campground is the only paid site on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll find it on the banks of the Colorado River, just a few miles north of the Grand Lakes entrance.
This site is available by reservation only. It features flush toilets, potable water and fire rings, along with an amphitheater, trash receptacles and staff on site. The max RV and trailer length is 30 feet, and fees cost $30 per night.
2. Estes Park KOA
KOAs have a reputation for providing some of the best camping sites anywhere. They’re typically replete with amenities to make your stay more like a vacation than roughing it.
This location has Wi-Fi available for those who work on the road while adventuring. The site has a pavilion, dog park and cable television. There’s also a bathhouse, game room, laundromat and a free shuttle to town to help you replenish your camping supplies.
3. Moraine Park Campground
Moraine Park Campground lies on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It has year-round trash and recycling, although only the B Loop remains open in winter on a first-come, first-served basis. There is staff onsite with firewood and ice for sale.
The site features toilets and potable water. Additionally, there’s a dump station for the RV set. The maximum RV or trailer length is 40 feet.
4. Stillwater Pass Grand Lake
The first three parks on this list are paid sites. These last two are dispersed. What does that mean? You pack-in, pack-out, with no onsite staff or amenities.
Dispersed camping in national forests is permitted for 14 days at a time, 30 days maximum in a calendar year. This area is open May through October and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis down various dirt roads. You can take your RV but mind your ground clearance.
There are several dozen dispersed camping areas around Allenspark, Colorado. You’re sure to find somewhere to park your rig or pitch your tent, even on crowded weekends like Memorial and Labor Day.
Dispersed camping requires a slightly higher level of awareness. While it sounds dreamy to be the only person for miles, it’s also nice when other people have your back. Pay attention to the wildlife safety rules above and don’t enjoy so many campfire brewskis that you lose your senses.
Bonus: Drop-Camping Courtesy of Professional Outfitters
As you’ve probably gathered, there’s much more to the Rockies than the expansive national park. This land is a hunter’s paradise, teeming with game. However, you might not know the best hotspots if you’re traveling from another location.
Your best bet is to opt for a drop-camping expedition. There are scores of professional outfitting companies that offer this service. Such an excursion has considerable benefits:
A dedicated campsite: While you’ll rough it in a tent, an experienced guide escorts you to your base camp while providing valuable area and safety information.
A fully outfitted campsite: Your guides will often outfit your site with lanterns, fire rings, a cook stove and basic cooking gear. Hunting is hungry work.
Communication: Many such organizations give you a satellite device to reach them in an emergency, increasing your safety.
Transport: Some businesses transport you to your site by horseback and offer help packing your field-dressed game back once you bag an elk.
Such expeditions often cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Here are a few you might try:
Avalanche Outfitters: Located in Redstone, Colorado, their excursions provide all the goodies. You only need to bring your personal and hunting gear, food and tags. They take care of the rest, escorting you to camp via horseback.
Crazy Horse Outfitters: Another full-service establishment offering full gear other than your hunting and personal items. Your wrangler will help you pack out your animal.
Rocky Mountain Ranches: Don’t picture your typical suburban rancher. Western ranches span for miles and you can head here to hunt elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.
Tips for Camping in the Rockies
Once you’re settled at your campground, what situations might you encounter in the wild? Here’s a quick overview of how to handle common emergencies.
1. Get Your Vehicle Up to Speed
First things first — when traveling in the Rockies, you must properly outfit your vehicle. Given the frequency of extreme winter weather, many regions have chain requirements.
Quality snow tires are musts at a minimum, but ensure they’re up to standard before you invest. Radial and lateral runout from nonconforming tires that aren’t perfectly round cause wobbles, vibrations and shimmies that threaten the control of your vehicle.
A minor inconvenience on side streets quickly becomes a matter of life and death when you have to pass a car headed in the opposite direction on a steep mountain pass with no guard rail.
Furthermore, even folks with top-tier insurance coverage will have a hard time calling for help in areas with no cell reception. Give your vehicle a thorough tune-up before your trip and carry an emergency repair kit containing the following items:
- Spare tires, jack and tire irons
- Flares and reflective triangles
- Jumper cables and a portable battery charger
- Motor oil
- A wrench and socket kit
- Various Phillips and standard screwdrivers
- A multitool
- Flashlight With Mount or headlamp
- Various zip ties and bungee cords
- Work gloves
It helps if you know how to use these items. Look for a crash course in simple auto mechanics, or have a handy buddy show you the ropes before you depart.
2. Keep Your Bearings
Rocky Mountain National Park alone contains 265,807 acres within its 415 miles, and the entire mountain chain stretches nearly seven times that length. That’s a lot of land in which to get lost.
An electronic GPS solves many problems, but these devices are only lifesavers when they function. Get a traditional compass as a backup and learn how to use it. Always tell someone at your home base where you’re going and when you expect to return so they can quickly notify authorities if necessary.
Starvation may seem unlikely, but it’s a bigger threat than you expect. In the middle of winter, make sure you’ve packed more than enough to eat — plus emergency supplies. You can typically find plenty of food in the summer months.
Learn how to forage and test unfamiliar plants, and the forest becomes a veritable supermarket. Increasing your stash with hunting skills is also wise, as meat is a much richer source of life-giving calories than plants.
3. Learn Basic First Aid Techniques
People get hurt in the wild. You might step in a ditch and break an ankle or get severely ill hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital or pharmacy.
Carrying a first aid kit is a must. Include extras of any medications you take daily, perhaps chatting with your doctor about a travel supply to keep on hand if you go camping frequently. It’s also wise to seek certification to know what to do in a medical emergency. You might get basic first aid and CPR training through your workplace or at a community center, or seek wilderness responder certification if you’re a diehard off-grid adventurer.
4. Plan for Wildlife Encounters
You hear activity outside your tent and open the zipper a crack to spy a bear digging through last night’s cookout leavings. What do you do?
Fortunately, wildlife emergencies are relatively rare. However, over 47,000 people each year seek medical treatment after being attacked by wildlife. It’s essential you know what to do when encountering the most dangerous Rocky Mountain critters to increase your chances of survival.
In general, making noise is your best bet. Most animals would much rather avoid humans than approach — they’ve been hunted before.
However, there are some rules for your campsite you should follow:
Keep smelly stuff away: You should keep all food and garbage in airtight containers far away from your sleeping space. If you don’t have a locking container, hang your stuff from a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and five feet from the base of the tree to deter bears.
Set up a perimeter: Forewarned is forearmed. It may sound silly, but stringing some tin cans around your site alerts you from many nighttime approaches.
Keep it clean: Don’t sneak a snack into your tent. Animals have far more powerful noses than humans and they’ll detect that scent of beef jerky on your sleeping bag. Pick up all garbage and put it in a sealed container.
5. Keep Yourself Warm
The Rockies get cold — it’s not unusual for nighttime temperatures to plummet to several bone-chilling degrees below freezing. Unfortunately, climate change has brought unwieldy weather to the western states and you can’t always trust the forecast.
Outfit yourself and bring the right gear. Do you know how to dress in layers? Review the basics:
Base layer: Toss those cotton long johns — they get soaked with sweat and make you colder. Instead, opt for merino wool or a wicking synthetic blend.
Middle layer: This insulating layer protects you from the cold. Opt for cozy, fleece-lined duds or at least consider a vest to keep your vital organs insulated. Many people double up, adding an extra vest.
Top layer: This layer’s job is to protect you from the wind, rain and snow.
Furthermore, please protect your extremities, including your ears and nose — especially if planning to return past sunset. Temperatures drop precipitously and the thinner atmosphere means you feel the lightest breeze like a frozen knife after dark.
Stay Safe at the Best Rocky Mountain Campgrounds
The Rocky Mountains are among the best places to camp. With millions of acres to explore from New Mexico to well into Canada, you’re sure to find the perfect temporary home in nature’s heaven.