The Best Dispersed Camping Near Buena Vista, CO

When it comes to the mountain towns in the U.S. state of Colorado, Buena Vista is undoubtedly one of the best. Not only does this place have cool vibes and great beer, but it’s also an ideal location for those in love with the Great Outdoors. 

From here, it’s easy to just head out and explore the breathtaking wilderness, including the beautiful Arkansas River and the stunning Collegiate Peaks. 

In fact, the region that surrounds this town is filled with amazing camping spots, particularly for folks who appreciate the solitude and freedom that is typically associated with dispersed camping. 

Whether you’re looking for a remote mountain lake camping spot or just a place where you’ll be able to set up your tent while staying close to the city, Buena Vista has it. 

In this article, I’ll provide all the necessary information about Buena Vista’s 8 finest dispersed camping areas and also give you some general advice on when you should go to these places and what you should bring there. 

Map of Dispersed Campgrounds near Buena Vista

You can easily find the locations of the best dispersed campgrounds near Buena Vista using this map.

Buena Vista Dispersed Camping – The Overview 

Before moving on to the locations themselves, I think it’s vital that we go over some of the dispersed camping basics first. In this part of the article, I’ll try to provide all the necessary information one may need in order to plan a successful camping trip near Buena Vista, Colorado. 

This includes the gear you’ll need for such an exploit, the best time to go there, as well as some important info on pets, fires, fees, and permits. Make sure to read all of this before heading out. 

When is the Best Time to Camp Near Buena Vista?

Moon over Buena Vista

The answer to this question is a simple one – you will want to embark on your dispersed camping adventure between June and October. 

Due to snow, a lot of the roads leading to the campsites situated at high elevations become completely impassable all the way until June. That is not to say that you can’t camp in this area at all before June – you can, but only at lower elevations. 

In my opinion, the months of June, July, and August provide the best conditions for dispersed camping near Buena Vista. However, an important thing to mention here is that, during this part of the year, afternoon thunderstorms are common. And if you’re camping at higher elevations, they can be quite dangerous as well. 

Autumn is also a great time to camp near Buena Vista – the region is not as crowded and the nature looks breathtaking (mostly due to the colourful foliage). But, as always, there’s a catch – the nights can be very chilly. Also, there’s a possibility of having to deal with snow, particularly as you enter the month of October.

If you are interested in other camping locations in the US, check out our post on the Best Dispersed Camping Near Flagstaff as well.  And, if you are interested in other dispersed camping spots in Colorado, check out our post on the best dispersed camping areas near Silverton.

What Should I Pack for Dispersed Camping Near Buena Vista?

Camper SUV in Buena Vista

Your preparations for a Buena Vista dispersed camping escapade are not over once you’ve selected a camping area that suits your needs. Making sure that you have all the necessary gear for such a trip is just as important – it’s the only way to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience in the backcountry. 

You probably already have the essentials – a quality tent, a comfortable (and warm) sleeping bag, and a couple of camp chairs. Here are some other items you may want to consider packing for your Buena Vista dispersed camping trip: 

  • Portable toilet – Some folks prefer to use this convenient, clean, and private option even if there are restroom facilities near the campgrounds. Don’t forget to pack a sufficient amount of toilet paper!
  • Portable water containers – This one is a no-brainer. A lot of the dispersed camping spots I’ll describe down below have no access to water, so you’ll want to bring plenty of it in quality portable containers. If you need water bottle recommendations, check out our Hydro Flask vs Klean Kanteen comparison.
  • Portable camping stove – The best camping trip is the one with delicious cooked meals. A portable stove is a classic piece of camping gear that will help you make them without too much effort. 
  • Bug spray – Although a fantastic experience, dispersed camping during hot summer time months comes with a disadvantage – having to deal with pesky mosquitoes. Fortunately, solving this issue is as easy as packing a quality bug spray. 
  • Cooler – Another issue you’ll probably have to deal with is keeping your food and drinks cold. In the hot afternoon sun, water becomes lukewarm and undrinkable while the food goes bad. Get rid of this problem by getting yourself a good cooler. 

Permits and Fees Required for Dispersed Camping Near Buena Vista

Family hiking in Colorado

At the time of writing, camping in any of the dispersed camping areas listed in this article required no permits of any sort. 

However, an important thing to mention here is that dispersed camping grows in popularity with each passing day, so you never know whether the authorities will implement a permit system to one location or another. 

Therefore, it’s never a bad idea to check with the local field office – or just do a quick online search – before heading out. 

As for the fees, they’re not something you’ll have to worry about when it comes to camping near Buena Vista. They are not required to camp in any of the areas listed in this article. 

What Should I Know About Seasonal Fires Near Buena Vista?

In the backcountry around Buena Vista, seasonal fire bans and fire restrictions are very common. For that matter, it is very important that you find out everything about the latest fire restrictions before you get there. 

The best place to inform yourself on this matter is this website. Here, you will find an exhaustive list of places – including BLM and USFS areas – in the state of Colorado and the current fire restrictions taking place in them. 

Another thing worth pointing out here is that you can also find out everything about the fire restrictions in the area you’re planning to camp in by contacting the appropriate field office. 

Are Pets Welcome at Buena Vista Dispersed Camping Areas?

Dog near Buena Vista

You should have no trouble bringing pets to any of the dispersed camping spots listed in this article.

However, even though pets are allowed in these areas, they need to be kept under close control at all times, i.e. they have to be leashed. This is even more important if the area you’ll be camping in has a lot of wildlife. 

Lastly, make sure to keep your animals protected from extremely hot/cold temperatures and pack the waste they leave behind. Remember – your goal is to leave no trace at all, whether these traces are made by you, your family/friends, or your pets. 

Other Important Considerations 

Kayaking on Cottonwood Lake
  • Access – First of all, keep in mind that not all of the camping spots I’ll describe down below can be reached by low-clearance cars. 

You will have to exercise extreme caution while navigating bumpy dirt roads around Buena Vista. If the idea of driving down a particular rugged-looking dirt road makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t do it. 

  • Cell phone service – Those planning to do some dispersed camping near Buena Vista should be aware that reception is often spotty at best. 

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to approach this issue is to just assume you won’t have service at all and prepare yourself accordingly. This means letting others know where you’re going, downloading high-quality maps, etc. 

  • Elevation – This is an extremely important consideration. Folks interested in dispersed camping near Buena Vista should know that a lot of campgrounds in the vicinity of this town are situated at altitudes of 9,000 feet or higher. 

In other words, you will have to come here well-prepared – get yourself some warm clothes, a sturdy tent, lots of water, and everything else required for a safe and enjoyable camping experience. 

  • First-come, first-served – Every single dispersed campsite on this list works on the “first-come, first-served” principle. In other words, those who arrive at these places first can take the best spots for themselves – it’s as simple as that. 

During summer weekends, a lot of these locations fill up very quickly. If you’re planning to camp near Buena Vista during a summer weekend, you’ll have to get to your desired spot on a Thursday/Friday morning in order to secure it. 

  • Leave no trace – To make it easier for others to enjoy these places and to ensure that they stay open for dispersed camping, make sure to follow the “leave no trace” principles. This means giving your best to leave the camping spot in the exact way you found it. 

Also, a word of advice – the best way to prevent wild animals, such as bears, from “paying a visit” to your camp is by simply storing all scented items inside your car. 

The Best Areas for Dispersed Camping Near Buena Vista

Buena Vista in autumn

Now that we’ve covered the dispersed camping basics, let’s take a closer look at the 8 greatest dispersed camping spots near this city. Besides describing every location, I’ll give my best to inform you on how to reach each one of them in the easiest way possible: 

Baldwin Lake 

  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: Potable water is not available, but you can filter some from the lakes
  • Restrooms: No 
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 23 miles 

Despite its name, this place actually consists of two lakes instead of one. These are stunning alpine lakes situated just below Mt. Antero, one of the state’s “fourteeners” (mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet). 

While it’s certainly a phenomenal area for dispersed camping, reaching it is all but easy, unfortunately. Not only is the road that leads here exceptionally rough, but it’s also completely covered by snow all the way until June. Do not attempt reaching Baldwin Lake if you don’t have a well-equipped 4WD vehicle or an ATV. 

To get to these breathtaking alpine lakes, you will have to head south from Buena Vista to the town of Nathrop. From there, you’ll have to get on County Road 162 and drive west until you get to the Forest Service Road 277. 

Once there, take a left and drive up the road for a few more minutes. Before reaching Baldwin Lake itself, you’ll pass next to a meadow with a couple of amazing camping spots. If you’d rather pitch your tent next to one of the lakes, make sure to do so at least 100 to 150 feet away from the water. 

Elephant Rock & Turtle Rock Campsites 

  • Crowds: Busy
  • Water: No
  • Restrooms: Turtle Rock Campsite has vault toilets 
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 3 miles 

Located on BLM (Bureau for Land Management) land, Elephant Rock Campsite and Turtle Rock Campsite are two primitive campgrounds that are incredibly popular with outdoor enthusiasts. While it’s true that they provide a more classical camping experience rather than a genuinely dispersed one, they have breathtaking views and are, of course, completely free to camp on. 

Out of these two campgrounds, Elephant Rock is the smaller one. It’s a phenomenal choice for folks interested in rafting, as it is situated right next to the Arkansas River. It has 10 camping spots in total. 

The Turtle Rock Campsite, on the other hand, has more than 20 camping spots and also features vault toilets. You can stay at either of these two places for a maximum of two weeks. One of the reasons why they’re so popular is due to their close proximity to Buena Vista, although reaching them can be quite difficult with low-clearance vehicles – the dirt roads that lead here are quite rugged. 

To get to the Turtle Rock Campsite, get out of the town by using Colorado Avenue (which will become Co Rd 471 once you leave Buena Vista). After that, switch to Co Rd 375 – it’s going to be on your right – and keep driving for about a mile. To reach the Elephant Rock Campsite, on the other hand, leave the town in the same way and just keep driving on Co Rd 371 for some three miles. You will notice the campgrounds on the left side. 

Clear Creek Lake

Clear Creek, Colorado
  • Crowds: Busy
  • Water: Potable water is not available, but you can filter some from Clear Creek 
  • Restrooms: There is a vault toilet near the lake 
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 17 miles 

Located between Buena Vista and Leadville, Clear Creek Lake is an extremely popular fishing and boating destination. This place provides unparalleled views and is a great spot to visit even if you’re not interested in either of these activities. Also, wildlife is abundant here – there are blue jays, hummingbirds, moles, ground squirrels, chipmunks, mountain goats, and deer. 

A primitive campsite that is located next to this lake has about two dozen spots for camping, with enough space for RVs. However, due to the fact that this place can get quite crowded, those seeking peace and quiet may want to check out the dispersed sites situated along the lake. 

And to reach these, you will have to keep driving on Co Rd 390 for a couple more miles. Keep in mind that there are quite a few private properties around here, and camping on them is not allowed. So, pay close attention to signs along the road while driving. 

As I mentioned above, this whole area has tons of great fishing and boating opportunities. 4WD off-roading and trekking are also possible, as well as ghost town tourism. The roads that lead to Clear Creek Lake campsites can be quite rough sometimes, but you should have no major trouble navigating them with your regular passenger vehicle. 

If you need a tent for your camping trip, check out our Coleman Hampton Family Tent review.

Cottonwood Pass

Farmland near Buena Vista
  • Crowds: Moderate
  • Water: Creek access at the sites on the side of the road 
  • Restrooms: No
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 6-10 miles 

Due to its proximity to the Cottonwood Hot Springs, as well as the town of Buena Vista itself, the Cottonwood Pass is a favourite spot of many dispersed-camping enthusiasts. This is the highest (12,119 ft) crossing of the Continental Divide in the country and one that offers breathtaking views of the mountain scenery. 

The dispersed camping area is situated right next to a plethora of trekking paths, including the famous Colorado Trail. Although a lot of the individual campsites located here lack complete privacy, I can assure you that the region feels very remote and peaceful. Here, you won’t have to worry about noise or being disturbed by other campers. 

How does one reach the Cottonwood Pass? It is actually quite simple – all you have to do is head west via Main Street and then switch to State Highway 306. Keep driving for around 5 miles more and, once you enter the San Isabel National Forest, you should see camping sites on both sides of the road. 

Another thing worth mentioning here is that additional camping sites are available in the Gunnison National Forest, which is on the other side of the pass. Fortunately, the road that leads there is paved and easily accommodates most vehicles. 

Fore more camping spots in Colorado, check out our post on the best dispersed camping near Telluride and our guide to dispersed camping at Red Feather Lakes.

North Cottonwood Road 

Cottonwood Lake near Buena Vista Colorado
  • Crowds: Moderate
  • Water: No
  • Restrooms: No
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 7-10 miles 

While it has no water access or any kind of restroom facilities, this particular dispersed camping area is, in my opinion, the one that easily checks almost all of the “perfect camping destination” boxes. It is quiet, it provides spectacular sights, it can be accessed by most types of vehicles, and lastly, it is close to both Buena Vista and many trailheads. 

From here, you’ll be able to easily hop on the famous Colorado Trail or use the North Cottonwood Trail to get into the astounding Collegiate Peaks Wilderness (CPW). Covering almost 170,000 acres of land, the CPW has loads of places worth paying a visit to, like the Texas Creek, the Red Mountain Creek, the Browns Pass, or the Magdalena trails. As always, make sure to follow the “leave no trace” principles while exploring the area. 

To get to the North Cottonwood Road from Buena Vista, you will have to drive west on County Road 306 for less than 3 miles and then switch over to County Road 361. From there, drive north for a bit over 2 miles and then take a left on County Road 365. All of this can be done in under 20 minutes. 

Once you’ve reached the aforementioned County Road 365, you just have to keep driving until you reach the North Cottonwood Trailhead. Along the road that leads to this trailhead, you will see several dispersed camping areas – set up your tent in the one that suits you the most.

While the beauty of Buena Vista’s wilderness is undeniable, adventurers shouldn’t miss the wonders offered by the free campgrounds near Steamboat Springs. Nestled amidst aspen groves and alpine landscapes, it’s a worthy side trip for those tracing the vast expanse of Colorado. The richness of Steamboat’s terrain complements the experiences near Buena Vista, giving travelers a broader taste of the state’s natural splendors.

Brown’s Creek Trail 

Cart near Buena Vista, Colorado
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No
  • Restrooms: Yes, at the trailhead 
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 18 miles 

Next up on my list of the finest dispersed camping areas near Buena Vista is Brown’s Creek Trail. This particular trail is held in high regard by all outdoor enthusiasts who ever spent some time on it – the place is as pretty as a picture due to its wide-open views of waterfalls and pine forests. 

Camping nearby gives quick and easy access to this amazing trail and allows those in love with nature to have a genuinely great time. To reach Brown’s Creek Trail, you will have to head south from Buena Vista to the town of Nathrop. From there, you will need to head west via County Road 270, after which you’ll have to turn on to Forest Road 272. 

Once there, keep driving for around 6 miles and turn left every time there’s a fork in the road. Before reaching the trailhead, you will notice a couple of dispersed sites on both sides of the road. And due to the fact that the road becomes rougher and narrower after the trailhead, these sites can be a good option for larger vehicles. Keep in mind that they’re not as scenic, though. 

To reach the truly breathtaking sites, you’ll need to get past the trailhead and keep going south. Pitching at the actual trailhead is not allowed, so keep that in mind. Also, make sure to park your vehicle only on bare areas as well as to camp only on established campgrounds – it’s the only way to minimise the negative impact on the environment in this busy area. 

Read our guide to dispersed camping near Colorado Springs as well.

Hancock Lakes 

  • Crowds: Moderate
  • Water: Potable water is not available, but you can filter some from the lakes 
  • Restrooms: No
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 27 miles 

Only a 2.5 hour drive from the state’s capital, Hancock Lakes is one of the best free camping sites near Denver.

Both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs are bound to have a great time at dispersed camping sites near the Hancock Lakes. On the way to this area, you’ll be passing right next to one of the most famous ghost towns in the state – St. Elmo. Other noteworthy places in the region include the Alpine Tunnel – a remnant of the long-gone Denver Pacific Railroad – as well as the abandoned mining town of Hancock. 

To get to Hancock Lakes from Buena Vista, you’ll have to leave the town from the southern side via Highway 385. Once you get close to Nathrop, turn west onto County Road 162 and keep driving for some 15 miles. Upon reaching Forest Road 295, turn south and you’ll quickly reach the abandoned town of Hancock. 

You can either choose to camp at the dispersed campgrounds here or keep going towards the aforementioned Alpine Tunnel and pitch your tent somewhere along the way. If you’ve decided to camp at the Hancock Lakes themselves, keep in mind that setting up a tent is not allowed within 100 feet of the shoreline. Also, you must park your vehicle in the parking zone and then carry all of your gear to the camping spot. 

An important thing to point out here is that the road can become quite rough as you’re getting closer to the lakes. The final stretch of the road should be attempted only by the 4WD vehicles. And finally, prepare yourself for extreme weather – this dispersed camping area is at a high elevation. 

Pomeroy Lakes 

Summit Lake Park Colorado
Photo by MattWright via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: Potable water is not available, but you can filter some from the lakes
  • Restrooms: No 
  • Distance to Buena Vista: 25 miles 

Folks willing to put in a bit of additional effort are guaranteed to be richly rewarded upon reaching this location. Out of all the dispersed camping areas on my list, this one is probably the hardest one to reach. The road that leads here – County Road 297 – is extremely rough and can be traversed only by 4WD vehicles. 

In addition, those wishing to pitch their tents right next to the lakes must walk from the parking area to the shoreline. The length of this final stretch is one-quarter of a mile, so nothing too difficult. And, as I already said, the reward at the end is a very rich one – unmatched tranquillity and pristine beauty only the breathtaking Pomeroy Lakes can deliver. 

How to reach this place from Buena Vista? Use Highway 285 to get out of the town from its southern side and drive all the way to Nathrop. Once you get close to it, look for County Road 162 and take a right turn. 

Follow this road for some 15 miles until you reach Forest Road 295, where you will have to turn left and drive to this road’s intersection with Forest Road 297 (which is about 3 miles away). There, take a left turn once again and follow the road until you get to the parking zone. Just like in the case of Hancock Lakes, camping within 100 feet of the shoreline is not allowed.

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