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Guide to Free Dispersed Camping Buena Vista, CO

Buena Vista is one of Colorado’s most loved mountain towns, with cool vibes, excellent beer, and an outstanding location. Situated in the central part of the state, the town allows outdoor visitors to easily access some of the region’s most breathtaking natural sights, such as the majestic Arkansas River or the spectacular Collegiate Peaks. 

Moreover, Buena Vista’s wilderness is dotted with superb camping locations, particularly for folks who value the solitude and freedom that comes with wild – also known as “dispersed” – camping. 

Whether you’d like to pitch your tent next to a pristine alpine lake or somewhere close to town, you’re bound to find a great camping spot near Buena Vista.

In this guide, I’ll provide all the crucial information necessary for safe and enjoyable camping in this part of Colorado and tell you everything you need to know about the region’s best dispersed campsites. Let’s dive right into it! 

Buena Vista Dispersed Camping – The Best Camping Areas 

In the following paragraphs, I’ll look closely at some of the best dispersed campsites in this part of Colorado. Here’s everything you need to know about their location, amenities, as well as overall atmosphere: 

County Road 390 (Clear Creek Reservoir)

Clear Creek Reservoir
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No, but you can filter some from the creek 
  • Restrooms: A vault toilet is available 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 17 miles 

Situated about halfway between Buena Vista and Leadville, Clear Creek Reservoir is a magnificent body of water with many excellent dispersed campsites. 

You will have two options: stay at a basic campground or pitch your tent right next to the lake. About half a mile west of the lake, the campground features 20 spacious sites that easily accommodate recreational vehicles. 

If you find the campground full – or if you’re seeking privacy and solitude – head back east and find a suitable spot on the reservoir’s shoreline. Pay special attention to signage while searching for a place to park your RV/pitch a tent. Keep in mind that many private properties are here, and camping at these is forbidden. 

One of the best things about this particular region is that it provides outdoor enthusiasts with many 4WD, fishing, and hiking opportunities. If you’re a history buff, you’ll appreciate that some cool ghost towns are also in the area. 

The road leading to the primitive campground mentioned above can be rough at times. You shouldn’t have much trouble reaching it with your passenger vehicle, though – be cautious and take it slow. 

Highway 306 (Cottonwood Pass)

Cottonwood Pass
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: Southern sites have access to the creek 
  • Restrooms: No 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 6-10 miles 

Next is a dispersed camping area held in high regard by locals and outside visitors. The best thing about Cottonwood Pass is its location – it is close to Cottonwood Hot Springs and downtown Buena Vista. 

But that’s not all: the mountainous scenery of this area is breathtaking. If you’re a veteran hiker, look no further than Cottonwood Pass. Here, you’ll be able to tackle the famous Colorado Trail and soak up its beautiful sights. 

While most dispersed sites here don’t offer much privacy, the entire area feels remote, tranquil, and peaceful. If you like the feeling of being “out there,” you’ll love the Cottonwood Pass. 

To reach this fabulous region, drive down Buena Vista’s Main St. until you reach State Highway 306. Keep going for about 5 miles, and once you pass the hot springs and enter a wooded area (San Isabel National Forest), you’ll start noticing dispersed campsites on both sides of the road. 

The last two things worth mentioning here are that the road is paved and easily accommodates most vehicles and that the campers can also stay at sites in the Gunnison National Forest, which is on the other side of the pass. 

Baldwin Lake

Mount Antero
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No, but you can filter some from the lakes 
  • Restrooms: No 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 23 miles 

Located next to Mount Antero – one of Colorado’s highest summits – Lake Baldwin consists of two pristine alpine lakes. This is undoubtedly one of the best options for those looking for a genuinely great wild camping area. 

However, reaching this place is all but easy. A big part of the road leading to Baldwin Lake is pretty rough, and it also holds snow until late Spring. Don’t try to traverse this road if you don’t own a vehicle suitable for such escapades. 

If you do have a capable SUV, on the other hand, head west from the town of Nathrop by following County Road 162. You’ll need to keep driving until you reach Forest Road 277, i.e., for some 12 miles. Once there, take a left and keep moving up the hill for a couple more miles. 

You will have two options. The first is to set up camp in a meadow you’ll encounter before reaching the lakes. The second is to camp on the shoreline, where you’ll have to park your vehicle and pitch a tent at least 100 feet away from the water. 

Elephant Rock & Turtle Rock Campsites

rock turtle campsite
  • Map
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No
  • Restrooms: Turtle Rock Campsite has a vault toilet 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 3 miles 

This is an excellent option if you don’t want to camp too far from Buena Vista. Situated only 3 miles north of the town, Elephant Rock and Turtle Rock are basic campsites on a Bureau for Land Management property. 

While it’s true that neither of these two places is a dispersed campground in the true sense of that term, both of them are free and provide visitors with unforgettable views of Colorado’s wilderness. Outdoor enthusiasts can stay up to two weeks at either campsite. 

The smaller of the two options – Elephant Rock Campsite – features ten camping spots. As such, it offers more privacy and solitude than its larger cousin. It’s a perfect choice for rafters, as it’s adjacent to the pristine Arkansas River.  

Located just down the road from the Elephant Rock Campsite, the Turtle Rock Campsite has more than double the sites and features a vault toilet. You will, however, have to bring your toilet paper. 

To reach the former campsite from the town, follow Colorado Ave (which later becomes County Road 371) north of Buena Vista for about three miles. You will notice the Elephant Rock Campsite on your left. 

To get to the Turtle Rock Campsite, on the other hand, take County Road 371 north of Buena Vista and then take a right on County Road 375. You will notice the campground on your left side after about a mile of driving. 

An important thing to mention here is that reaching either of these two campsites means dealing with some rough backcountry roads. If you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle, you may want to consider staying at some other dispersed campsite. 

County Road 365 (North Cottonwood Road) 

country road 365
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 7-10 miles 

Here we have a place that has pretty much everything a wild camping zone needs to have. Not only is North Cottonwood Road quiet and picturesque, but it’s also accessible to passenger vehicles and close to hiking trailheads and town. 

By using the North Cottonwood Trail, you can easily enter and explore the incredible Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. You can also hop on the famous Colorado Trail from here. It’s a particularly excellent option for dispersed campers who’d like to engage in some hiking while staying in the Buena Vista area. 

You’ll have to drive down County Road 306 west of Buena Vista for about 2.5 miles to reach North Cottonwood Road. Then, you’ll have to take a right on County Road 361, keep driving north for about the same distance and then take a left on County Road 365. 

Once on this road, keep driving west until you reach the North Cottonwood Trailhead (you should see it after about 4 miles). There, you’ll be able to choose a dispersed camping spot that best fits your needs and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. 

Forest Road 272 (Brown’s Creek Trail) 

Brown Creek Lake
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Yes 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 18 miles 

Both locals and outside visitors praise the Brown’s Creek Trail – it’s one of the most charming camping zones in the entire region. This place has wide-open views, gorgeous waterfalls, and towering pine forests. 

Besides fully immersing campers in Colorado’s stunning landscape, this wild camping zone makes it easy to embark on an unforgettable day or multi-day hike. The only drawback of Brown’s Creek Trail is that it has no water access or restrooms, but that’s not something a true dispersed camper expects. 

To reach this lovely area, take Highway 285 south of Buena Vista and keep driving past the town of Nathrop. Once you get to County Road 270, head west until it becomes Forest Road 272. Keep moving and take a left whenever the road forks. 

This well-maintained backcountry road will take you to the trailhead. You’ll have two options – to set up camp before or after the trailhead. The dispersed campsites before the trailhead are spacious enough for larger recreational vehicles but aren’t as scenic. 

On the other hand, the ones located after the trailhead provide visitors with extraordinary views. However, reaching them is trickier as the road gets more rugged and narrower past the trailhead. To get to these dispersed campsites, keep driving south past the trailhead (if you have a capable vehicle, that is). 

Since Brown’s Creek Trail is a high-use camping zone, all those who come here are expected to do their best to minimize environmental degradation. Pack out your trash, park your vehicle only in bare, compacted areas, and don’t set up camp outside established sites. Also, remember that camping at the trailhead itself is strictly forbidden. 

Alpine Tunnel / Hancock Lakes 

Hancock Lakes
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No, but you can filter some from the stream or lake 
  • Restrooms: No 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 27 miles 

Both nature lovers and history buffs will greatly appreciate what this dispersed camping area offers. 

While driving up to Hancock Lakes, you’ll go through one of the state’s most well-known ghost towns – St. Elmo. After that, you’ll have a chance to see the remains of Hancock, a once-booming mining town. The Alpine Tunnel also deserves a quick visit – it’s a historical remnant of the Pacific, South Park, and Denver railroad. 

To reach this area from Buena Vista, drive south from the town on Highway 285. After about 7 miles, near the town of Nathrop, you’ll have to turn west on County Road 162. Keep driving west until you reach the point where County Road 162 intersects with FR 295, and then follow that road until you reach Hancock (it’s about 5 miles south of the intersection). 

Once there, you will have two options – setting up a camp right there near the townsite of Hancock or continuing up the road until you reach the Alpine Tunnel mentioned above. While driving, keep an eye out for extra camping spots situated along the route. 

There is also a third option – wild camping at the Hancock Lakes. To reach the lakes, keep driving past the Alpine Tunnel trailhead for about a mile. To pitch a tent near the lakes, you’ll need to leave your vehicle in the parking zone and carry the equipment to the camping spot. Remember that setting up a camp within 100 feet of the shoreline is not allowed. 

Another thing worth pointing out here is that the road leading up to Hancock Lakes is quite rough. In fact, you should not attempt to traverse the road’s final stretch without a 4×4 vehicle. And finally, make sure to arrive there fully prepared for extreme weather – this dispersed camping zone is situated at a very high elevation. 

Fourmile Travel Management Area

Fourmile Travel Management Area
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No
  • How Far From Buena Vista: Varies 

Made up of 100,000 acres of BLM and Forest Service lands, the Fourmile Travel Management Area is yet another excellent wild camping destination in the vicinity of Buena Vista. 

There are plenty of superb dispersed campsites in this zone, including the Elephant Rock and Turtle Rock campgrounds described above. If you don’t want to stay at either of these two places, you’ll find myriad other options throughout the area. 

Some of the best places include Shield’s Gulch (County Road 305/305A), Dorman’s Delight (County Road 376A), and County Road 376. 

An important thing to mention here is that some of these roads can be accessed only by 4×4 vehicles. However, some of them can also be traversed by passenger vehicles, despite their roughness. Take a good look at the map provided above and plan accordingly. 

I should also point out that the Fourmile Travel Management Area can get pretty crowded during the peak camping season. But still, it is quite spacious, and those seeking solitude should have no trouble finding it. Also, don’t forget that you won’t be able to camp at the area’s trailheads. 

County Road 297 (Pomeroy Lakes)

County Road 297 (Pomeroy Lakes)
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No, but you can filter some from the lakes 
  • Restrooms: No 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 25 miles 

If you have a capable high-clearance car and don’t mind tackling tricky roads, you’ll have a great time camping at Pomeroy Lakes. County Road 297, which leads to this area, is rough and can be traversed only by 4WD and OHV vehicles. 

In addition, you’ll have to walk for about ¼ of a mile after parking your car in the parking zone if you want to set up camp near the lake. In any case, you’ll be richly rewarded for your effort – the tranquillity and pristine beauty of the Pomeroy Lakes are pretty hard to forget. 

To reach this majestic area, head south from Buena Vista on Highway 285. After about 7 miles of driving, near Nathrop, you’ll need to turn west on Chalk Creek Drive (County Road 162). Keep driving until you reach the intersection with FR 295, turn left and keep going until the next intersection, where you’ll need to take another left and drive down Forest Road 297. 

This will take you to the parking zone of the Pomeroy Lakes area. Make sure to bring everything you’ll need for high-elevation weather conditions, and remember to set up camp at least 100 feet away from the shoreline. 

Forest Road 252 (Blanks Gulch Trailhead / Mount Shavano & Tabeguache Peak)

Mount Shavano
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No, but you can filter some from the stream 
  • Restrooms: Yes 
  • How Far From Buena Vista: 32 miles 

The last Buena Vista dispersed camping area on my list is a real treat for those who love hiking. It provides easy access to two of the state’s most magnificent 14ers and the nationwide famous Colorado Trail. 

Forest Road 252 offers numerous dispersed camping opportunities, from camping spots on cow pastures to peaceful streamside sites. 

To reach this area from Buena Vista, use County Road 285 and head south until you reach County Road 240. There, turn west and then switch over to County Road 250, which you’ll need to follow until it forks. Once it does, take a left turn, and start looking for suitable dispersed campsites. 

If you find all the campsites situated before the trailhead full, keep driving and keep an eye out for other places where you could stay on the left side of the road. Remember that this is a bustling area; its streamside camping spots fill up quickly, especially on weekends. Arrive there early in the day to secure a good site.

For more camping spots in Colorado, check out our guide to dispersed camping near Silverton.

FAQs About Camping in Buena Vista

In this part of the article, you’ll learn when is the best time to camp near Buena Vista and what you should pack for your camping trip. I’ll also take a quick look at other important considerations, such as pets, permits, and fire restrictions. 

When Should I Camp Near Buena Vista? 

The best time for wild camping in this part of Colorado is from June to October. Trying to engage in dispersed camping before that period is rarely a good idea.

Most roads leading to wild camping zones situated at high elevations are practically impassable until late Spring. As you can already guess, heavy snowfall is the culprit behind this issue. It’s also worth pointing out that wintertime camping near Buena Vista requires a lot more preparation.

On the other hand, staying at camping zones located at lower elevations is typically possible throughout most of May. 

The Summer months – June, July, and August – provide outdoor enthusiasts with the best possible conditions for dispersed camping near this charming town. However, those staying in the high mountains need to be extra careful due to Summer thunderstorms, which are very common in the area and can be pretty dangerous. 

Camping near Buena Vista in the Autumn is a good option as well. Not only will you enjoy the region’s breathtaking foliage, but you won’t have to deal with crowds. You will, however, have to deal with chilly nights and perhaps even snowfall (particularly if you stay in the area after September). 

What Should I Pack For My Camping Trip? 

Once you’ve determined which of Buena Vista’s dispersed campsites best fits your needs, you’ll have the critical job of preparing and packing the right gear – which you can get for cheap if you know how to find discounts – for your camping trip. 

I’m going to jump over the essentials, such as the sleeping bag or a tent – as you probably already have those – and take a look at some other pieces of equipment you may want to consider packing for your Buena Vista outdoor adventure: 

  • Portable toilet – Some campers prefer using this convenient, private, and clean option even if there are vault toilets at their campsite. Remember to pack some toilet paper as well! 
  • Portable water container – When a particular campsite doesn’t have a water access point, this equipment can be a lifesaver. And when it does, the container can save you from frequent trips to the tap. 
  • Portable camping stove – The best dispersed camping adventures are the ones spiced up with delicious campsite meals. A portable stove will help you prepare toothsome lunches and dinners right there in the wild. 
  • Portable cooler – Nobody likes drinking lukewarm water, soda, or beer on a hot day in the backcountry. Solve this issue by packing a portable but capable camping cooler. 
  • Bug spray – If you plan to camp in Buena Vista’s vicinity during the peak season, you’ll want to pack a quality insect repellent. Nothing can ruin a camping trip like a pack of bloodthirsty mosquitoes! 

What About Fees and Permits? 

At the moment of writing this guide, camping at any of the dispersed campsites I’ve described below required no permits. 

An important thing to mention here is that this outdoor activity is getting more and more popular each year. You never know where or when a permit system might be put into effect. Therefore, it’s never a bad idea to check with the local ranger district – or do an online search – before heading out. 

You won’t have to pay a fee to pitch a tent or park your RV at any of the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands mentioned in this guide. 

Can I Build a Campfire? 

Seasonal fire bans and restrictions are common in Colorado – the same applies to the backcountry surrounding Buena Vista. 

Therefore, outdoor enthusiasts who’d like to camp in this area must check for the latest bans and restrictions before arriving. The best place to do so is this website. Here, you’ll find an exhaustive list of places in Colorado – including BLM and USFS areas – and their current fire restrictions. 

Remember that you can also give a call to a ranger district responsible for the region in which you’re planning to camp. 

Can I Bring a Pet? 

Fortunately for all those outdoor enthusiasts who often take their four-legged friends on camping trips, pets are permitted at all campsites described in this guide. 

However, since the wilderness surrounding Buena Vista is teeming with wildlife, you’ll have to keep your furry companion under control at all times, i.e., you’ll have to keep your pet leashed. 

Also, don’t forget to protect your animal from ticks and extreme temperatures and pack out its waste. 

Other Essential Considerations 

Here are a couple of additional considerations you’ll want to keep in mind before heading out on your Buena Vista camping trip: 

Pitch your tent only on durable surfaces, be considerate of other campers, leave whatever you find, minimize campfire impacts, and properly dispose of waste. 

  • To avoid attracting wildlife – such as bears – make sure to store your provisions in portable, hard-sided food lockers; store garbage and other scented items in your vehicle. 
  • All the wild camping zones described in this article operate on a good old-fashioned, first-come, first-served basis. This results in them filling up quickly, particularly during the peak camping season. 

To secure a good site for a weekend camping trip, you may need to arrive at the Buena Vista campsite of your choice early on a Friday or possibly even Thursday morning. 

  • Regarding access, remember that not all of the wild camping zones mentioned in this article can be accessed without a high-clearance vehicle. Do not attempt to drive where you don’t feel comfortable, and exercise extreme caution while navigating rough backcountry roads. 
  • The cell phone reception is spotty at best in most of the dispersed camping areas in Buena Vista’s vicinity. The best course of action would be to hope for the worst and plan your camping trip accordingly. 

In other words, let other people know where you’re headed and when you will be back, and also download all the required maps in advance. 

  • Another vital thing to remember is that many of Buena Vista’s dispersed campsites are high up in the mountains. Some of these places are located at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. 

Be prepared for the elements, pack warm clothes, bring a durable tent, and stay hydrated. 

The Takeaway 

Now that you know everything there is to know about dispersed camping in the Buena Vista area, all that’s left to do is to pack the gear and head to the campsite of your choice.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Colorado’s wild beauty through dispersed camping, check out our article on the best Silverton dispersed camping areas.

About the author
Leslie Gilmour

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