Adventure of the Week: A rudimentary guide to camping
July 16, 2015
Steamboat Springs — The paranoia was real. With my camera slung around my neck, I had a lit Tiki torch in one hand and an axe in the other, the blade too dull for it to be used as much more than a club.
My friend and roommate, Devin Patrick Lightheart, walked a few paces in front, a second lit Tiki torch doing little to light our way with our headlamps doing the bulk of the work. Devin's dog, Maggie, walked along, oblivious to our fear of mountain lions and black bears, despite being the size of a large raccoon.
We were at 10,000 feet of elevation in Buffalo Pass, camping under the stars for the first time since either of us moved independently to Colorado a few weeks ago. The reason for our late-night hike through the wilderness was my doing, as the Milky Way shining brightly above was too much for the photographer in me to ignore.
I had camped numerous times in my life, but as a life-long Kansan until recently, those times were few and far between. Also, they didn't require me to make decisions on where to go and force me to fend for myself when dinner became priority. So what I realized as I camped on Buffalo Pass this week — I slept in my car as I don't yet have a tent — was I have a lot to learn (and buy) about camping around Steamboat Springs.
Devin and I were smart enough to bring the necessities: firewood, Tiki torches (seriously, it's a must, and for multiple reasons), headlamps, food, water and maybe a few other beverages of choice. We were only staying one night, and our Buffalo Pass campsite was less than 30 minutes from home, so we only needed the bare essentials.
However, by the time I got home the next morning I hadn't slept — seriously, just buy a tent — all three pairs of socks were wet and muddy (pretty sure I destroyed at least two pairs of shoes hiking through the bog chasing deer with my camera) and just the sight of a bratwurst nauseated me. So all in all, it was a terrific night of camping.
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The most difficult part of my experience came at the beginning, when we were trying to decide on where to camp. I wanted to make a list of places for you, the reader, to go, but as my limited camping experience indicates, I'm not sure I'm the right person to give advice. That's why I went to the U.S. Forest Service office in Steamboat Springs and spoke with Kent Foster, who works primarily on the recreation staff.
With his help, I devised the following cheat sheet on Steamboat camping. It's pretty basic, but unless you're the type who drives a sled dog or cross-country skis three miles to work every day, I'm sure you can make some use of it.
A very basic guide to camping near Steamboat Springs (Tiki torches not included)
Being a beginner camper is more about your mentality than skill. It doesn't take much to learn how to put up a tent or start a fire. However, learning to cope without your basic creature comforts, i.e. plumbing and electricity, can be more of a challenge.
That's why Foster recommended that "beginners" stick to highly developed campsites and state parks, most of which will provide some of those first-world comforts.
"If you are really getting into it, and you want all the creature comforts, I'd say go to a state park," Foster said. "All the developed campgrounds do have toilet facilities, fire rings, picnic tables and such."
The immediate Steamboat Springs area offers three state parks: Steamboat Lake, Pearl Lake and Stagecoach Reservoir. I'm more of the "get away from the crowd" mentality, but having those amenities sure sounded nice at times during my stay on Buffalo Pass.
I prefer to keep away from campgrounds altogether and prefer what is called dispersed camping. There are great sites to camp around the area — ones that don't have immediate neighbors and provide you with a feeling of isolation — beginning with Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass.
"For those that are more experienced and like to rough it more, there are lots of opportunities for dispersed camping," Foster said. "You can drive up to 300 feet off of a road as long as you are not causing resource damage — you are not going through a bog or a wet meadow or destroying vegetation to camp. But up on Buff Pass Road, there are lots of developed or previously used dispersed campsites. We recommend that you use some of those."
The best part about dispersed camping was the lack of a fee — campgrounds usually cost $10, without running water — but you are looking at a total lack of creature comforts.
Dry Lake campground in Buffalo Pass — located about 30 minutes north of downtown Steamboat — is a good starting spot, with plenty of dispersed campsites available as you continue down the single road. Dummont Lake and Meadows are both popular campgrounds on Rabbit Ears Pass, just east of town, with Dummont Lake providing a bit more in the way of resources.
"Meadows campground up in Rabbit Ears Pass, I think, is probably the easiest and closest to town. Then, there is dispersed camping up on Rabbit Ears Pass also," Foster said.
"All of the campgrounds offer something different. It depends on what you are looking for in a campsite," Foster continued. "For example, up on Rabbit Ears Pass in the Meadows campground, which is very close to town, recreational opportunities like hiking and things like that are limited right there. We don't have trails. Dummont Lake up on Rabbit Ears Pass is right there, so if you want to fish, if you want to hike the Continental Divide trail, which is also known as the Wyoming trail, it goes right through the campgrounds."
Foster recommends reading through the Forest Service website at recreation.gov. It has information on all eight of the district’s campsites and even allows users to reserve certain sites, a big plus if traveling from out of state.