Camping in South Park Basin in Colorado
Tucked away among 14,000-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, the South Park Basin of Colorado is designated as a National Heritage Area. The sprawling valley is filled with towering alpine landscapes, recreational trails, and the remains of historic ranches and mining claims.
The Pike National Forest covers large sections of the area, and you’ll find campgrounds and dispersed sites throughout where you can pitch your tent or park your RV for days on end.
National Forest Campgrounds
Most campgrounds run by the National Forest Service in the South Park Basin provide basic amenities such as picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets. Many have RV size limits determined by the narrow mountain roads and limited campground maneuvering spaces between trees and rock. Campgrounds are open, with full services provided, from May through early October, but may open or close earlier or later depending on snowfall.
Off-season camping is available at some sites, but restrooms and other facilities are closed out of season. Reservations are accepted at some campgrounds between Memorial Day and Labor Day through Reserve America. Others are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Access to the statewide Colorado Trail is convenient from the Aspen, Jefferson Creek and Lodgepole campgrounds. All three campgrounds lie within the Jefferson Lake Recreation Area.
You’ll find two campgrounds convenient to the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area on the west side of the South Park Basin. Buffalo Springs Campground is convenient to Highway 285, which runs through the area, but is 3 miles from the wilderness. To camp on the edge of the wilderness, you’ll want to set your tent, or RV of less than 25 feet in length, at Weston Campground.
Camp at a site of your choosing in the Pike National Forest along many trails and recreational areas in the South Park Ranger District. Although national forests generally allow dispersed camping almost anywhere, pine beetle damage to trees has caused a high amount of tree fall, so it’s best to stick to areas recommended for dispersed camping.
You’ll find dispersed camping areas along five trails in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness and more than a dozen trails in the Lost Creek Wilderness. The Colorado Trail and several others running through the South Park Basin also provide dispersed camping for up to 14 days at a time. Use Leave No Trace ethics when camping in the backcountry.
The South Park Basin’s major town, Fairplay, sits just below 10,000 feet above sea level, which is considered high elevation. Some of the mountains surrounding the basin soar above 14,000 feet. If you are from a significantly lower elevation, prepare your body to adapt by drinking lots of water and other hydrating fluids for a few days before you arrive.
Continue doing so until you are sure your body is acclimated, and you may never experience the fatigue, headaches and nausea associated with altitude sickness. Your lowlander lungs will have to work harder, so plan extra time on your hikes and schedule resting times along the way. Remember that dogs get altitude sickness too, and give your pet frequent access to water.
The South Park Basin is home to abundant wildlife. You may hear the bugle of elk or the warbling call of turkeys near your camp, or see them on the edge of a meadow as they melt into the treeline. Deer, moose, fox and coyotes are also common visitors.
More elusive wildlife you’ll not want to attract include bears and mountain lions. Keep a clean camp and store all scented items out of sight in a hard-sided RV with windows and doors closed, or in a wildlife-proof container 100 yards or more from your tent.
Change out of any clothing you have cooked or eaten in before going in your tent at night, and be careful not to get grease or food in your hair. Keep children and pets with you to avoid attacks by mountain lions. Hike in groups of three or more, especially if you are a smaller adult.