There may be no more spectacular place to camp in Colorado than the Boulderfield at Longs Peak, a waypoint on the most commonly traveled route to the iconic mountain’s 14,259-foot summit.
A vast sweep of rocks located at 12,760 feet, the Boulderfield offers stunning views of a sheer, 900-foot wall on the mountain’s east face called the Diamond, which turns brilliant orange with the rising sun. A short hike away is the famous Keyhole, a gap in a massive ridge that serves as the gateway to the last 1,000 vertical feet of the climb to Longs’ summit. The Keyhole is also a breathtaking, above-timberline vantage point for sunsets perched above a steep drop-off.
There’s just one problem: Camping there is extremely limited and requires a permit that is difficult to obtain because of high demand.
Actually, securing a place to camp anywhere in America’s third-busiest national park is a challenge, so now is the time to start thinking about making summer reservations. The park’s five traditional campgrounds, with a total of 570 campsites, are full almost every night from Memorial Day through the end of summer.
RELATED: Five Colorado campgrounds you should reserve right now
There also are 267 sites in 120 small, designated backcountry camping areas spread throughout the park that require permits issued through the park’s wilderness office. The Boulderfield is one of those areas, and it has only nine precious tent sites.
We’ve pulled together guidelines for securing reservations in the park — the process for traditional campgrounds differs from the procedure for backcountry sites — as well as for national forests in Colorado and our state parks. All of this information is available on relevant websites, but the details can be overwhelming, so we’ve tried to extract the highlights and make it all understandable.
Rocky Mountain National Park
There are two different kinds of camping in the park — traditional campgrounds and wilderness camping — and they have two very different sets of rules.
For traditional campgrounds in the summer season that begins May 21, sites may be reserved six months in advance at three areas — Aspenglen (52 sites), Glacier Basin (150 sites) and Moraine Park (244 sites) — on the east side of the park. Two other campgrounds are strictly first-come, first-served: Longs Peak (26 sites) on the east side of the park and Timber Creek (98 sites) on the west side.
“The front-country campgrounds that are the reservable ones — Aspenglen, Moraine Park and Glacier Basin — are basically 98 percent full from May until the end of September,” said Hallie Groff, who supervises the park’s campgrounds, entrance stations and visitor transportation services. “People are online at that six-month mark, making their reservations. People come to the park expecting that they can just walk up and get a reservation at the campground kiosk — which is not impossible, because sometimes people have cancellations — but most likely you’re not going to walk up to the kiosk and get a site. It’s probably going to be full.”
Camping fees are $30 per night. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov, or by calling 877-444-6777. Refunds are given for cancellations up to 24 hours in advance of the reservation.
For wilderness camping, the key date is March 1. Reservations can be made that day beginning at 8 a.m. MST, either online or in person at the park’s Wilderness Office, which is located adjacent to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Competition for prime wilderness spots is bound to be fierce.
“In the ’90s, everybody lined up at the front door starting at 3 o’clock in the morning, and there were tents, lawn chairs, sleeping bags,” said Barry Sweet, a specialist in the Wilderness Office. “The line went from the Wilderness Office halfway up to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Then one day in the ’90s, it was 13 degrees. We let everybody in the door and decided we were going to go to a random draw system the next year. Everybody comes in, they can arrive right at 8 o’clock, there’s no advantage to getting there any earlier. They write their names on a slip of paper, we put it in a ranger hat and have a random draw. Then everybody gets in according to a random draw.”
Still, you want to act fast when it’s your time to make a reservation. Whether reserving online or in person, it’s a good idea to have a list of second, third and fourth choices.
“We are simultaneously, one for one, processing a visitor at the front desk and an online reservation request,” Sweet said. “We tell people to make sure they’ve got backup choices right there because if we find (the first choice is), instantly we kick it to your second choice. There are a number of computers running, and anyone could be processing that same request at the same time. That’s why speed is of the essence.”
RELATED: What to do in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter
The park’s website has a page with details on all the wilderness camping areas. Included in that list is distance in miles from the trailhead, the site elevation, the elevation gain from the trailhead and the average date over the past 20 years when that site became snow-free. That date for the Boulderfield, for example, is June 19. It was much later last summer, though.
The fee structure for wilderness sites differs from the traditional campgrounds. You will be charged an “administrative fee” of $30 for a wilderness permit, which is non-refundable and cannot be exchanged. With that permit, you can camp from one to seven nights.
Two more guidelines to keep in mind regarding wilderness camping: No open fires (but stoves are permitted), and hard-sided storage containers are required for food. (You don’t want to be sent back to Estes Park to buy one because you didn’t know about the regulation.)
“It’s made a significant difference when it comes to wildlife getting food, whether it’s bears or marmots or a variety of other wildlife species,” said the park’s public information officer, Kyle Patterson.
Much of the above applies to camping in other national parks.
There are three different categories of camping in national forests: traditional camping, dispersed camping and backpacking. They not only have different sets of rules in each category, but they also vary from forest to forest, of which there are 11 in Colorado.
Traditional campgrounds with tent pads, covered grills and parking spots generally are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Some can be reserved in advance, while others are first-come, first-served. Reservations can be made through recreation.gov, the same website where national park reservations are made. Generally speaking, campgrounds that offer reservations set aside a third of their sites for first-come, first-served visitors, and those sites cannot be reserved.
“Each campground has its own rules for how (far) in advance you can make a booking,” said Vanessa Lacayo, press officer for the forest service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office. “Many sites allow the public to book up to six months in advance for individual sites and up to 12 months for group sites.
“On each campground page on recreation.gov, check the ‘Season Dates’ at the top of the ‘Overview’ tab to understand how far ahead you can book a campsite. Look for the line, ‘Currently campsite availability is released through … .’ When researching sites, a reservation date will show as ‘Unavailable’ if it is beyond the booking window. At a minimum, reservations must be made at least five days before your intended stay.”
For most sites, the fees to camp range from $8 to $30 per night, depending on the location and amenities it offers. Group sites are more expensive. In addition to the camping fee, there is a $9 reservation fee, which is non-refundable.
The forest service has an interactive map of Colorado that allows you to click on any of the national forests in the state for a list of campgrounds there. Clicking through that list, you can find descriptions and important information for each campground.
The second category in national forests is dispersed camping. Those areas have no picnic tables, drinking water or toilets; trash cans usually aren’t available, either. They can be in designated or non-designated areas, as determined by the local ranger district, and cannot be reserved. The forest service has an interactive map that allows you to click on national forests in Colorado for a list of dispersed camping areas.
There is also an interactive map for backpacking, but this one is a list of trails in each forest where you can hike and spend the night in the wild. You can click on specific trails for descriptions and important information. The forest service recommends that overnight backpacking trips should be undertaken only by experienced backpackers.
“Dispersed and backpacking is generally free to the public,” Lacayo said. “The rare exception would be if limited amenities have been added.”
Colorado state parks
Starting this year, Colorado state parks no longer require the minimum three-day advance window to make a camping reservation. This means you can make your reservation on your date of arrival, for example. Reservations may be made up to six months in advance, but must be made before occupying a site. Keep in mind that you can’t count on good cellphone coverage at all state parks, so it’s better to plan ahead or call the park to inquire about cell coverage in their area.
Colorado state parks have more than 4,000 campsites. You can make reservations online or by phone (800-244-5613). The website gives you a means to search campgrounds and check availability for the dates you want to camp, in addition to descriptions of amenities in those campgrounds. For more details on each of 41 state parks, go to the home page for Colorado Parks & Wildlife and see each park’s homepage for activities, conditions, facilities and particulars unique for that park.
Camping fees will vary by the park and time of year. Basic campgrounds go for $22-$28 per night. Fees for sites with electrical connections or full hookups for RVs are higher. Fees for primitive campgrounds are $14-$18. Keep in mind camping fees do not include park entrance fees, so if you don’t have an annual pass, you will be charged for entry to the park.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.