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Go & Do: Satisfy last minute camping fix before season ends

Head up the Flat Tops to catch the colors

Meadow Lake is located 35 miles north of New Castle via the Buford-New Castle Road in a popular area for fishing, hunting and OHV riding. The campground also provides an easy staging area for accessing numerous non-motorized trails in the southwest Flat Tops.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A light breeze chatters through an iridescent sea of turning leaves. It playfully catches vapor rising from a tin cup bearing freshly pressed coffee.

Out beyond the horizon, a rising sun appears to bathe a chilly alpine meadow with every new inch.

It’s a picture-perfect Colorado morning— and not one soul in sight.



“Honestly my favorite part of camping this time of year is making hot coffee and watching the sunrise,” Connor Halbert, a sales associate with Glenwood Springs Factory Outdoor Outlet, said. “I love camping in fall time.”

Summer camping for 2021 is nearing its end. Many official campsites are starting to winterize and close down before fall takes full effect and it’s eventually time to break out the skis.



Aspen leaves begin to change along the New Castle - Buford Road (county road 245) headed toward Meadow Lake.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

But the closing of the season is accepted as a blessing in disguise for many folks around the Western Slope. The crowds of visitors have receded, leaving trails, campsites and wilderness areas primed for solo exploration.

“Right now, there’s less people out,” Halbert said. “The touristy action is dying down. It’s really just the locals here in town, so it’s a lot easier to find camp spots.”

Halbert hails from Portland, Oregon but is no stranger to navigating the high-country terrain abundantly offered by Garfield County this time of year. When Colorado’s foliage emerges, Halbert’s usually traversing 4 Mile Road near Sunlight Mountain or Prince Creek down in Carbondale.

And though nature deprives most campers of modern amenities, Halbert comes well-prepared.

There are two established campgrounds near Meadow Lake called Meadow Lake Campground which offers 10 campsites and Meadow Ridge Campground that offers 20 campsites, all of which are first come, first served.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“I like to bring a hammock — that’s usually one of my favorite things to bring,” she said. “Otherwise, bring a Crazy Creek chair, blankets, a sleeping bag and a good thermos.”

Sweet spots are littered throughout the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. The Flat Tops in particular provide some of the most majestic and sparsely populated treats in solitude.

White River National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Lynn Lockwood said it’s a prime time to head up to these distinct alpine paradises.

“Up by Sweetwater and Deep Lake, those are great options if you have someone that doesn’t necessarily want the campground experience,” she said. “For last-minute camping, there won’t be reservations.”

This late into the season, campers need not worry over places being fully booked. Instead, their only problem is wishing they could stay longer.

“I spoke with someone at the Eagle Holy Cross Ranger District and they’re saying that the colors of the scrub and the oak brush in those lower elevations are really pretty right now,” Lockwood said.

When it comes to dispersed camping opportunities, however, there are some general rules of thumb to follow.

“The best thing for people who would like to go dispersed camping would be to either go on the website (FS.USDA.gov/whiteriver) or check in with the Ranger District and get a motor vehicle use map,” Lockwood said. “On those maps, there are little dots that designate all the roads that have available dispersed camping, so that helps people make sure that they are in the right place.”

When embarking upon a dispersed camping trip, campers are eligible to set up shop at least 300 feet off any given road or trail, provided they’re not doing any damage to any resource and approach, Lockwood said.

The Redstone campground offers 37 campsites on the Crystal River, restroom facilities and camping units for autos, tents, campers and RVs
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Meanwhile, it’s preferred people use a site that’s already impacted, Lockwood said. Many of these places could have trampled grass or short-stem dirt trails leading to the site.

“People will know if others have been there,” Lockwood said. “That’s a good place to use.”

People should also note camping is encouraged at least 100 feet away from any lake, stream or trail, Lockwood said.

Bear in mind, this time of year comes equipped with a number of challenging elements. First off, weather warps into an even more fickle and bipolar beast than usual in the Rocky Mountains.

A camp spot at Redstone campground south of Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

It’s not uncommon for temperatures to greet campers with 80-degree heat when pitching their tents only to drop down to single digits — and follow that up with snow, Lockwood said.

“Keep your head on,” she said. “If you are going back on some of these roads that are not gravel, make sure that you know that you can get out. Just because you can get in doesn’t mean that the road will be in good shape for you to leave.

“If we get some rain, make sure that the roads are not getting wet, muddy and slippery, so that you’re not getting yourself stuck in a situation,” she added.

Scenes of red cliffs and signs of fall sit above the Redstone campground south of Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

It’s also not uncommon to see wildlife — in particular, bears. Lockwood said to keep food storage locked up, generally in compartments found in the interior of your vehicle.

In addition, it’s muzzle-loader hunting season, so expect hunting activity.

There’s one last thing to expect, however: there are no fire restrictions this time of year. So expect to find the perfect spot, enjoy the view and stay toasty into the night.

“September is one of my favorite months. The air is crisp and clean. Generally there aren’t as many insects and the scenery is as good as it gets with the colors,” Lockwood said. “It’s a beautiful time of the year to get out.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com


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