There are a laundry list of reason to live in Boulder — community, culture, a thriving business scene. Among many other reasons, we all share a love of the outdoors and want nothing more than to spend as much time as possible outside. So we move to Boulder, where the wilderness is right in our backyard.
It being mid-summer right now, we’re entering into prime camping season in the foothills and I’m sure you’re aching to get some quality camp weekends in and you’ve no shortage of campground options around Boulder.
Maybe it’s because I’m a cheapskate or maybe it’s because I was raised on backwoods camping, but I really dislike paying for camping spots. I love finding free dispersed campsites near those campgrounds, but not in them. They always seem to be bigger, more private, and better spread out so you aren’t bothering neighbors if you’re up late.
Here are a few great free camping areas within a 2-hour drive of Boulder that I love going to in the summer.
Just outside of Nederland sits the West Magnolia Trailhead, which is surrounded by 22 free, dispersed sites. They all sit on an 8-mile stretch of forest road and you can set up camp within 50 feet of the campground markers. This place is perfect for a quick jaunt out of town to set up for one or two nights of camping. Of note is the heavy presence of the U.S. Forest Service, who has been patrolling this area more heavily in the past couple of years due to an uptick in campers failing to pack out their trash.
To get to this area, turn off Highway 7 at the sign for the Boy Scout Camp, which is County Road 96. It’s all dirt roads from there. The sites are suited for tents or adventurous RVers, but since they’re dispersed sites, there are no amenities available. Be responsible and pack out your trash (even better, if the previous camper left trash, then pick up that as well and leave the place better than the way you found it). While there are spots all along the mile stretch of road, before you settle on a site, drive all the way to the reservoir since there are sites with beautiful views right there and the trailhead is right around the corner.
Yes, yes, yes, I know Rainbow Lakes is a paid campground and it’s almost always full. But that’s fine, because you aren’t going here to camp in their paid spots. On the road to the campground, look left and look right, because there are dispersed sites all over the place and they are some of my favorite spots in Colorado.
Just an hour south of Denver, I camped here for the first time last summer and I kind of feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of great camping trips from previous summers by not going here sooner. The campground/fishing area is pricey and they patrol to make sure you’ve paid before you do anything around the gorgeous lake, but the dispersed camping on the dirt road leading up to the campground has some of the largest, well-spaced camp sites I’ve seen this close to civilization (some people can still get cell service in the camp sites). I went with a group of 12 and we had space for 5 tents and enough room between neighbors that our boisterous bunch wasn’t bothering anyone.
Taking off for the weekend is easy in Boulder, as you can see! A couple reminders, from one camper to another: pay attention to and obey the fire bans. They’re there for a reason. Respect the landscape and pack it in, pack it out, or—when applicable—burn it. Leave our beautiful mountains just as gorgeous as you found them.