Colorado

7 Best Spots for Free Camping Near Boulder, Colorado

by Sarah Lamagna
Updated June 04, 2021

free camping near boulder colorado
Photo: Drew Alfred, Shutterstock

With over 100,000 inhabitants, it’s hard to imagine that you’d ever be able to find solitude near Boulder.

And that’s a valid fear if you head to the more popular places to hike and camp like Brainard Lake Recreation Area. There are, though, some great places to find a bit of peace and quiet far from the city but still close enough to humanity to pick up a few cold beers on the way. The list below of the best free camping near Boulder has a great mix of hidden gems and popular spots for a quick weekend getaway.

All the spots below for free camping near Boulder have zero camping cost, but you might want to grab an interagency pass before heading out on your adventures to get in the parks. That pass is accepted at all national parks and many other publicly-managed lands including the touristy Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Also make sure to purchase a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card and download the AllTrails and COTREX apps. Many of the dispersed camping areas across Colorado are covered in snow even in June, so make sure to check the road status of forest service roads before heading out. Many roads that previously allowed dispersed camping are no longer active to help repair the ecosystems after recent wildfires.

Leave No Trace and Wildfires

Colorado is known for serious wildfires including the devastating ones of 2020. Boulder and the surrounding areas were some of the most affected areas that year. This means it’s extra important to practice Leave No Trace principles when camping especially when it comes to wildfire safety.

1. Kingston Peak Road

kingston peak free camping
Photo: Marilyn D. Lambertz, Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: It’s the closest you can camp to Colorado’s only glacier.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, car camping
  • RV hookups: No

Colorado residents and visitors alike know all about the glacier in the small town of Alice just southwest of Boulder. It might come as a surprise to some that St. Mary’s Glacier is actually not a glacier at all. Instead, it’s a semi-permanent snowfield, which essentially means it doesn’t move or shape the landscape like a glacier does.

The closest place to disperse camp is along Kingston Peak Road in Arapahoe National Forest. If you hike up to the lake, bring your sled to glissade down the mountainside, which is usually covered in snow. If you want a bigger adventure, you can also access James Peak, a 13er, from here.

2. West Magnolia

west magnolia dispersed camping boulder co
Photo: Drew Alfred, Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: High-alpine views for miles and miles.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, car camping, small pop-ups
  • RV hookups: No

Pro tip: stock up on all the essentials in the small town of Nederland and ride the Carousel of Happiness.

To get to this marvelous, dispersed camping area, take the scenic Peak-to-Peak highway. Travelers from around the world head up here during the autumn to catch glimpses of the gorgeous golden sea of aspens, and the sights from your tent if you camp at West Magnolia are just as striking. There are 22 designated dispersed camping sites marked by number. You cannot camp anywhere else outside of those designated spots to protect the landscape.

If you decide to head up to this area prior to June, you might find that the road to the campsites are closed due to snow. But don’t turn around: you can still walk in to the campsites if you so choose. Your car-camping excursion just became a backpacking one!

3. Caribou Townsite

caribou colorado free camping
Photo: Craig Mills, Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Stand in the same spot Elton John did while recording his album Caribou.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, car camping
  • RV hookups: No

High-clearance and 4WD vehicles are highly recommended to get to these sites for off-the-beaten free camping near Boulder. Camping is only allowed at the 11 designated campsites along Forest Road 505.

The real reason to camp here is to visit the ghost town of Caribou. Back in the late 1800s, this area was full of people mining for silver. Unfortunately, soon after, silver became unprofitable, so people abandoned the town. There are still some structures in the area including an old mine shaft and mechanical pulley.

An even more fun fact, though, is that this road once housed a recording studio called Caribou Ranch. Legends like Elton John, The Beach Boys, Chicago, and Earth, Wind, and Fire all recorded songs and albums there. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the recording studio in 1985.

4. Buckingham Campground

indian peaks wilderness colorado
Photo: Brian Wolski, Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Unbeatable access to Fourth of July trailhead

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent
  • RV hookups: No

There are only ten tent-only sites at Buckingham Campground. Due to the popularity of the Fourth of July trailhead, these sites fill up fast on weekends, so the recommendation is to go during the week. Unlike most Forest Service land where you can camp for two weeks, you can only camp here for up to four consecutive nights.

But this dispersed camping area has the best access to all the trails heading out from the Fourth of July Trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. You can access some of the best hikes Colorado has to offer from this point. The The Arapahoe Pass and Lake Dorothy Trail is a favorite for massive views and high alpine lakes. Or you can climb two 13ers, including South Arapaho Peak or “Old Baldy”.

5. Forest Road 192.1 & 252.1

chief mountain colorado
Photo: Brian Wolski, Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Perfect basecamp for adventures in all the locals’ favorite areas.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: tent
  • RV hookups: No

While everyone else is heading up Route 103 to summit Mount Evans, you can turn off on US Forest Road 192.1. There are several dispersed camping areas along this road, plus more further up on US Forest Road 252.1. These sits give great access to some of the best training hikes for any 14ers you might want to summit later on your trip. Both Squaw Mountain and Chief Mountain are favorite hikes with locals, although they’re increasing in popularity — time to go now before they get overrun.

6. Forest Road 794.1

echo lake park colorado
Photo: Faina Gurevich, Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Closest dispersed camping to Echo Lake Trailhead

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: tent
  • RV hookups: No

If you can snag a spot along US Forest Road 794.1, it’s akin to a wining lottery ticket – you might just be the luckiest person in the world. Seriously: these dispersed camping sites are highly coveted as they’re the closest to the Echo Lake trailhead, where you can hike to Chicago Lakes or Resthouse Meadows. Echo Lake Park is also the start of the climb up Mount Evans Scenic Byway, perfect for travelers who would rather drive up a 14’er than walk up.

By the way, if camping isn’t adventurous enough for you, try backpacking in the Chicago Lakes Basin.

7. Gross Reservoir Campground

Gross Reservoir - Free Camping Boulder Colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: No need to bring dinner: just catch it at the lake.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, car camping
  • RV hookups: No

It might only be 30 minutes from Boulder, but Gross Reservoir Campground seems a world away. This hidden alpine lake is the ideal spot for free camping near Boulder if all you need to be happy is a fishing rod and a hammock. You’ll need a high-profile, four-wheel drive vehicle to reach the campsites. It’s truly primitive here: no toilets and no water, so be sure to bring plenty to drink (and maybe a water filter) with you/

If you aren’t comfortable with being totally away from amenities, you can go to the nearby Forsythe Canyon trailhead to find a vault toilet. Just make sure to B.Y.O.T.P. (bring your own toilet paper.) Forsythe Canyon Trailhead is the start of many great hikes, including one to a waterfall.

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