Family car-camping in the Rockies

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of June 5-11, 1997
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Kayaking vacations near Seattle
Family car-camping in the Rockies
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Do-it-yourself trips to Nepal

Family car-camping in the Rockies
Question: My family (me, my wife, and two sons ages 11 and 7) is thinking about a car-camping trip in the Rockies this summer. My wife and I backpacked in Wyoming when we were much younger, and now want to share the beauty of the high country with our sons. Any recommendations for tent camping in the high country that does not involve getting away from the car? We would, of course, prefer the kind of solitude that comes with backpacking, but realize that compromises have to be made. The states we have in mind are Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Bill Somerville
Baltimore, MD
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: If this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your boys to see the West, you may want to consider touring the old standbys such as the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park. From Baltimore, it's a straight Interstate shot almost all the way to Jackson, Wyoming, which would be the ideal spot to start your Western adventure. But because I'm assuming you already know about this option, I'd like to recommend an entirely different itinerary.

Southern Colorado, near Durango, has all of the Rocky Mountain ambiance, but even better, it borders the Southwest and such attractions as Mesa Verde National Park. Consider making your car-camping headquarters at Vallecito Reservoir, approximately 25 miles east of Durango off Colorado 160 (exit at the town of Bayfield). Nestled at the base of the San Juan Mountains, Vallecito Lake is the perfect car-camping haven, with four or five Forest Service campgrounds and a number of cabins-for-rent ringing the lake. Each campground has a spectacular view of 14,000-foot peaks, and access to Vallecito, which is packed with trout and northern pike.

There are a number of outfits that offer horse-packing trips into the mountains, or you can just hike into the 465,000-acre San Juan National Forest on foot. After a few days, you may want a dose of civilization, so you can drive to Durango and either head north on Colorado 550 — one of the most scenic drives in America — to Ouray, a quaint little mining town known for ice climbing in winter and wildflowers in the summer. Or continue west on Colorado 160 approximately 40 miles to Mesa Verde National Park. For more information on the Vallecito area, call the Vallecito Lake Chamber of Commerce at 970-884-9782. Forest Service campgrounds cost $8 per night. For more information, call 970-884-1400.

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