Free Dispersed Camping Near Lake City, CO 

Dispersed camping near Lake City is by far the best way to experience this unique and mysterious high-elevation resort. Featuring the most significant number of historic heritage sites per capita anywhere in the world, Lake City is a must-visit if you’re a history buff.

Or, if you like catching record-size tarpon and hogfish.

To clarify what I mean by most cool, old-timey, notable heritage buildings per Lake City resident, here’s a curious piece of math:

350 permanent residents / 200 historic heritage structures = ¾ of a City Laker per a historic site! So, imagine an Old West tavern or a well-preserved prospecting mine and then a Lake City resident minus a leg next to it, and you get the picture of what this place is all about. Actually, don’t imagine that; that’s weird.

Anyway, you get the idea – this place is full of history, but its immense Coloradoan story-telling potential is not all this place is known for.

Below, I will delve deeper into the topic of dispersed or wild camping, discuss the best time of the year to come here, some essential consideration factors, and seven of my favorite dispersed campgrounds in the area.

Overview of Free Dispersed Camping Near Lake City

Engineer Pass near Lake City

Brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout – wherever there is a high-altitude setting and conditions seemingly inhospitable for other fish, you’ll find trout. 

Besides catching the aforementioned omnipresent fish, the part of Colorado around Lake City offers many other fantastic outdoor exploration opportunities. Starting from a dispersed campsite that you can use as a base camp, you can add amazing entries like hiking, mountain biking, and nature viewing to your bucket list. 

A quick recommendation for motoring enthusiasts before I continue: Another way to acquaint yourself with this region’s gorgeous nature would be to complete the famous Alpine Loop. This scenic drive takes 4 to 6 hours to complete, and the 63 miles of looped road you’ll be looking to tackle are mostly off-road dirt mountainous byways.

Best Dispersed Campgrounds Near Lake City

Situated in Hinsdale, the most lonesome and the most remote county in the United States, Lake City, Colorado, is a place that is a perfect opportunity for winter sports and nature-viewing, as well as miles upon square miles of wide-open woodland areas perfect for dispersed camping. 

Camping near Lake City can be characterized as high-altitude, perfect for nature-viewing, featuring many prospecting mining pits and other essential structures that miners of yesteryear couldn’t do without (notably, taverns and whiskey-serving saloons). 

Below, I’m listing my favorite dispersed campgrounds near Lake City, Colorado – a place that you don’t want to miss out on if you’re a fan of Old West camping amidst forests full of bears, wolverines, and bloodthirsty killer squirrels. 

RV-ers will probably find accessing many of these sites reasonably challenging, and some of the entries I’m including are 4×4-exclusive. That said, if you want to test your driving skills on one of the lonesome Colorado mountain roads, taking your recreational vehicle for a spin on a mission to find the perfect dispersed camping spot near Lake City can be an adventure of a lifetime! 

Cebolla Creek Road 

Cebolla Creek dispersed camping area in the summer
Photo by Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
  • Distance to Lake City: 10.5 miles 
  • Toilets: No 
  • Water availability: No (you can extract some from the creek if you have the means to treat it) 
  • Visitor frequency: Low 
  • Map

Featuring almost no shade along what is an otherwise scenic forest service road, Cebolla Creek Road is a place that offers no amenities, no protection from the sun or the elements, but the rather impressive surrounding nature more than makes up for it. 

What makes this roadside elongated campground so special would be the road condition, which is passable for most vehicles – including large RV rigs, trucks towing trailers, rockstar tour coaches, you name it. 

The traffic noise is a potential factor that can hamper your fun since the sites are close to the road. The noise pollution tends to be heavier during the weekend. During the work days, the stay is considerably more pleasant, as visitor frequency at this campground is generally low. 

If you’re looking for a private, quiet, dispersed camping experience and plan to visit the Lake City general area onboard a vehicle such as a car or an RV, Cebolla Creek Road can be just the place for you.

Nellie Creek Trailhead

San Juan Mountains near Nellie Creek
  • Distance to Lake City: 10 miles  
  • Toilets: Vault toilets (at the trailhead) 
  • Water availability: No (you can fetch some from the creek, though, if you have a filtration contraption) 
  • Visitor frequency: Medium 
  • Map 

If you are a proud owner of a mighty 4×4 off-roader that uses as much Diesel as a coach but can tackle whatever is thrown at it, taking it for a test drive up and down Nellie Creek can give you a once-in-a-lifetime outdoors. 

Even with an all-wheel-drive Japanese marvel of a pickup, getting to Nellie Creek trailhead will pose a proper challenge unless you have the extensive off-roading experience to fall back on. The roads leading to this famous hiking trailhead are winding, narrow, and often rough. Not to mention that weather at high rural Colorado San Juan mountain altitudes tends to be unpredictable, even during summer. 

Speaking of hiking, the Nellie Trailhead represents a major local attraction. 

The challenging hiking trail that starts at Nellie leads you around the winding byways and mountain passes that lead to Uncompahgre Peak, one of the famous 14-ers. The views you get surrounding are astounding and are well worth the hike. 

Regarding amenities, there is a vault toilet at the trailhead but not at the nearby campground, where you will pitch a tent or park your RV. Other than this solitary toilet, there are no other facilities. 

Unless you have a water filter, fetching water from Nellie Creek is not a good idea. Carrying all of your supplies with you would be the best overall course of action.

Hidden Valley Tent Campground 

Cannibal Plateau near Hidden Valley Tent Campground
Photo by John Sowell via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Distance to Lake City: 17 miles 
  • Toilets: Vault toilets 
  • Water availability: No (you can extract some from the nearby Cebolla Creek, though)
  • Visitor frequency: Medium 
  • Map 

Do you like hidden, secretive locations? 

Do you also like verdant valleys in an otherwise mountainous, high-elevation region? 

Do you like camping in a tent and roasting sausages and marshmallows over a small but mighty ring of fire in rural Colorado? 

If the answer is a triple ‘YES,’ have I got a campground for you? 

You will be able to find Hidden Valley Tent Campground on a map. If you look at it from a satellite, it looks like a relatively simple roadside clearing – a sizable pullout from Highway 50. This place is naturally RV-friendly, which makes this USFS campground one of the rare ones in the broader region around Lake City, Co, that doesn’t require a 4×4 Jeep with a winch in front of it to spend a night or two. 

In addition to being a perfect place to pitch a tent, Hidden Valley Campground is a hiker’s mecca. There are several significant trails nearby, most notably Cannibal Plateau Trail, a treacherous pathway notorious for its – wildflowers. You probably expected ‘cannibalism’ or some breathtaking murder story, but it’s just pretty flowers. I know – I’m just as confused as you.

The campground is a little small, but it has a vault toilet. There nearby Cebolla Creek can be used as a water source, but filtering the water first is a strong recommendation.

While Hidden Valley Campground is a gem in Lake City, if you’re up for a change of scenery, consider dispersed camping near Fort Collins. This alternative gives you a chance to escape the beaten path and embrace the wilderness. Just a drive away, it offers a different kind of Colorado magic, with its lush forests and open meadows, waiting to be your next camping backdrop. Remember, while established campsites have their charm, there’s nothing quite like finding your own perfect spot amid nature’s serenity.

Big Blue Campground 

  • Distance to Lake City: 22 miles 
  • Toilets: Vault toilets 
  • Water availability: No 
  • Visitor frequency: Low 
  • Map

Technically, Big Blue Campground is not a primitive campground per se. Its most prominent and only point of differentiation would be the solitary vault toilet. The authority in charge of the campground is the USFS.

Entrance to this campground is free, so you don’t have to worry about obtaining permits or getting prodded in the ribcage with the barrel of a state trooper’s shotgun in the middle of the night. There are around 12 campsites at this campground, and they are first-come, first-served.

Given the relatively long distance from Lake City (at least in comparison to some other campgrounds on this list), Big Blue is a rather low-frequency kind of place, so finding a spot, in all likelihood, will be fine. As a result, you get a fair bit of privacy and seclusion.

If you like fishing, you’ll be glad to hear that brook trout is in the nearby creek, too.

One of the only downsides to this place is the access, which, although reasonably straightforward when you look at the trajectory from Lake City on a map, could be better at times. Only owners of SUVs and trucks should attempt to reach this place.

When to Camp Near Lake City, Colorado 

Fog near Lake City, Colorado

Pitching a tent in one of the forest service road pullouts in rural, alpine-like Colorado, sitting around a fire, roasting marshmallows, and enduring someone playing the Wonderwall on acoustic guitar on a Miami beach are two different things.

For starters, the window of opportunity where you can camp in mountainous Colorado without getting frostbite, raccoon bite, or bear edge, so to speak, is considerably smaller than many other destinations in the US. The reason for this is the sheer altitude of Lake City sits at. 

The small, historical settlement sits pretty in a chilly place at a whopping 8,600 feet, while some surrounding hillocks and dispersed campgrounds go as high as 10,000 feet. The said window of opportunity starts in mid-June and ends in late September. However, the rapidly changing and quite unpredictable weather can sometimes thwart the plans of even the most well-prepared campers. 

Those plucky enough to brave the serpentine viaducts and high-altitude passes of rural Colorado onboard an RV or a Japanese off-roader can expand their camping season by a week or two on either end of the June – September spectrum. Still, warm clothes and additional equipment such as heaters and extra supplies will be necessary to pull off an off-season camping trip in these parts.

Permits & Fees 

San Juan Mountains near Lake City, Colorado

Do you like NOT having to pay for stuff? 

Fancy enjoying some of the most spectacular views in the United States of America from the comfort (well, depending on how cold it is outside, but sure, comfort) of your tent or RV, having spent zero dollars obtaining forest service permits and paying fees that make you wonder if you’ve been duped by a guy who stole a USFS uniform? 

Well, if the answer is an enthusiastic and resounding ‘YES,’ dispersed camping around Lake City, Colorado, is the place for you. 

Diesel in your tank and your foldable furniture in your rucksack, rural Colorado welcomes anyone plucky enough to endure its chilly weather, potentially grumpy local animals (most notably thieving raccoons), and the general sparsity of oxygen at its high elevations. 

On the off-chance that the rules of camping engagement, so to speak, have changed for some dispersed campgrounds around Lake City, the guy to talk to is called Chad and works as a supervisor for the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests

Fires & Other Considerations

Having suffered several-year-long bouts of drought that left the woodland-rich San Juan mountains a somewhat unstable place in terms of wildfire potential, the local authorities fear anything that can spark a forest fire – from teenagers fidgeting with lighters and fireworks to irresponsible campers forgetting to put out campfires after they’ve left. 

At high altitudes, winds and other elements can be pretty unpredictable, and what is a seemingly innocent-looking dying ember in your fire circle can spell death for acres upon acres of beautiful San Juan woodland and many critters that call this place home. 

So, unless you want to carry on your consciousness puppy-eyed baby squirrels, raccoons, opossums, bear cubs, wolverine pups, and featherless innocent birds, be extra careful when campfires are in question. 

To learn more about the risk factors and the current situation on the ground regarding fires, you can check out the official Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management website. 

Other important considerations: 4×4 off-roaders have a clear advantage over regular cars and especially large and clunky RVs. That said, if you plan your trip thoroughly enough, you can have a great time arriving here onboard a sedan or, indeed, an RV.

Last but not least, the beauty of this region is often spoiled by littering tourists who need to be more appreciative of the wonders of nature. To avoid getting the unflattering etiquette of being one of these annoying people who throw crisps bags by the roadside, the local authorities strongly recommend you follow the seven Leave No Trace camping principles.

Where to Next?

Whether you like to hike, drive along scenic mountainous roads, or fish; Lake City is one of the best destinations in rural Colorado. Well-known for its remoteness and unique natural beauty, the broader area around Lake City is almost entirely uninhabited, making nature here the same way it was when first miners started arriving in the area looking for gold.

For those seeking a different flavor of Colorado’s wilderness, dispersed camping near Breckenridge is an enticing alternative. Just a few hours’ drive from Lake City, these campsites offer a raw, untouched experience, reminiscent of the early gold-seeking days. Nestled amidst towering pines and with the backdrop of majestic peaks, it’s a haven for adventurers who crave solitude. Plus, the proximity to Breckenridge town means you’re never too far from modern comforts, should you need them.

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