40.3772° N, 105.5217° W
HERE ARE SOME OF THE BEST PLACES TO CAMP IN AND AROUND THE TOWN OF ESTES PARK, COLORADO.
It is not very surprising that a tourist town like Estes Park would hold dozens (upon dozens) of various hotels within its borders. And also unsurprisingly, there is a wide variety of different styles, prices, and amenities. At the top, you have the world-famous (and slightly infamous) Stanley Hotel - made famous by Steven King in his book, “The Shining.” From there you have lots of cute little lodges that sit along the river, standard motels within walking distance of downtown and even spots that let you rent your own one-room cabin. Stays in Estes Park come in many different sizes and styles.
BUT if you are instead wanting to do something a little different - say spend your evenings out in nature - then maybe consider bunking down in these spots, and really take in the beauty that Estes Park’s outdoors has to offer.
\\ Hike In Campsites
LOOKOUT POINT / POLE HILL
This is probably the most off-the-beaten-path camping spot on the list. In truth, you probably won’t find it on any list or map for that matter. But it’s actually pretty straightforward to get to.
First, park near the trailhead for Pole Hill (you can just Google Pole Hill and find it pretty easily) and then start walking up the rocky, dirt road. Once at the top, you will see other camping spots, maybe with people in them, but keep going. Then turn right at the Y in the road (CR 247) and follow the dirt road through aspen groves, meadows, and up a couple more hills until you get to a clear flat spot near the top. You will see a little side trail heading west up a small hill (there will be logs over the road, but that is okay). Hike up that until you get to the top where you will see a big campsite with a stone fire pit and pretty stellar views of the surrounding mountains.
NORTH FORK CAMPSITES
There are actually a lot of great backcountry campsites in this area - and the best part is that because it is not in the “main” area of RMNP, you will likely have it all to yourself! To get there start at the Dunraven Glade Trailhead near Glen Haven. Hike up the trail, which follows a nice creek and takes you through aspen groves, pinewood forests and open green meadows, until you get to the turn off for the North Fork Trail (on your right). Turn there and you will quickly come across an old cabin with a horse corral out back.
Near there are two great campsites: Silvanmere and Halfway (there is also Happily Lost campsite not too far away as well). Both are great for being alone in the woods, where you will have a higher chance of seeing wild animals instead of people. Both are about 5.6 miles out from the trailhead. Silvanmere has 2 sites available, while Halfway has 1. Both allow wood fires as well.
The North Fork area is also really lush, with wildflowers and lots of trees, as well as having a nice calming river nearby. And if you are feeling like doing a hike while camping out there, then head west towards the Lost Lakes, an awesome picnic spot with beautiful alpine lakes.
Another great site, and one you will likely have to yourself, Thunder Lake is one of the prettiest alpine lakes in all of RMNP. This campsite is 6.8 miles from the Sandbeach-Wild Basin Trailhead and offers 3 individual campsites, a larger group site, and even a stock campsite (with a corral). There is also a patrol cabin up at the lake, though it is not routinely staffed.
This area is another stunning mountain location that offers a high chance of seeing wildlife, including moose, and the feeling of being alone out in nature. Plus the stars are spectacular.
This might be one of the most memorable camping experiences you have: sleeping in the middle of a wide-open boulder field at the foot of Longs Peak, one of the most recognizable mountains in the whole USA. There are 9 campsites available, all marked by clear rock rings, as well as a bathroom, a stream that runs through for water (boil it nice and long), and maybe the best sunrise views in the whole park. To get to camp, you have to hike 6 miles from the trailhead (which should take between 5-8 hours).
One thing to remember is that you will be camping above tree-line at just under 13,000 feet. So bring lots of warm clothes and know what to do in case a storm comes in (lightning is a very real danger).
INSIDER TIP: this is the best camping option if you are planning on hiking to the top of Longs Peak the next day.
\\ The Best Drive In Campsites
If you haven’t noticed by now, we LOVE this area. It is great for hiking, mountain biking, trail running, and ATV-ing (and jeeping, which we haven’t done yet). It is also a nice spot to spend the night. You have two options: park down near the Johnny Park Road entrance, which is pretty large and has about 8-10 spots, or up near the entrance to Pierson Park, which is smaller, about 2 spots, but quieter. Both are really pretty and have big stone fire rings.
If you are looking to sleep in your car, or camp in a tent and not pay any campground fees, then this is a great option. You are about 20 minutes from Estes Park, 10 minutes from the Wild Basin Trailhead (which has awesome hikes), and only about 30 seconds from some stellar trails.
INSIDER TIP: one thing to note about this area is that it does get pretty busy during the weekend - so if you are looking to camp, get there early so you can snag a spot.
\\ The Best Campgrounds
Once you get past the funny name (yes we know it is funny to say) you will actually be really amazed at how great this campsite it. Tucked back behind another campground - Peaceful Valley - this spot is easy to miss. But if you know, you know.
The campground has 41 individual campsites, which can accommodate tents, vans, cars, and RVs, with each having their own fire ring, bear box, and picnic table. But the best thing about this campground is that it sits right at the beginning of some stellar hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as CR 1141 - a popular jeep road.
The farthest camping area from Estes Park, this campground is located in Indian Peaks Wilderness, more specifically the Brainard Lake area. It has 47 campsites, each with its own fire pit, picnic table, and bear box. If you are looking to escape the crowds of Estes Park and RMNP as a whole, then this is a great option. The landscape of the area - lakes, mountain peaks, forests, and trails - are super similar to RMNP, just with a fraction of the people.
Spending the night under the stars is an amazing way to reconnect with nature. And in Estes Park, the Gateway to RMNP, there are plenty of options, from backpacking into the backcountry to driving up to a hidden camp spot, to hanging out around a fire pit surrounded by other campers with the same goals of you: enjoying the great outdoors.