Into the WILLderness - Best Free Campsites Colorado
Those willing to make the 6 and 1/2 hour drive from Denver down to the Southwest corner of Colorado will be treated to some of the best views around. And not only are there ample opportunities for free dispersed camping, but they are located just a 5-minute drive from one of, if not THE most popular hike in the entire state.
Now you may be saying, if these campsites are free AND next to an incredibly popular hike, there's no way I'd find a spot. But you'd be wrong ... Because there are over a hundred sites to choose from!
Once you make the turn off US 550 (better known as the Million Dollar Highway) on to County Road 7 you will find the first free dispersed camping area directly to your left. This is the Mineral Creek Dispersed Camping area. The next two campgrounds you will come across are Anvil Campground (where we camped) and Sultan Campground. The final campground you will encounter is the Golden Horn Primitive Campground. Now, even if these campgrounds don't have any available sites, there are multiple opportunities for free camping right along the road! As you will often see cars parked just off to the shoulder and their tents perched about 25 yards down the hill in very secluded little spots along the creek. In the rare occurrence that all FREE campsites are taken, there is a fee-campground at the end of the road (South Mineral Creek Campground), which I believe runs ~ $20 a night. Make sure you bring cash if you choose to go this route, as that is the only form of payment accepted.
Maybe the best part about this incredible campsite is its proximity to Ice Lake Basin. Now this isn't a hike for the faint of heart, as it's a grueling 9.5 mile trek with a little over 3,000 feet of elevation gain ... But let me tell ya, those willing to make that trek, will be rewarded with beauty beyond their wildest dreams.
The first 1,000 feet of elevation is a pretty steady climb up to the first basin. But once you reach that basin you get a nice little break from your strenuous hike whilst enjoying the surrounding landscape of towering ridge lines and endless waterfalls. The second climb is a grueling stretch of switchbacks that lead to the first lake (Ice Lake). However, once you arrive at the second basin, you'll forget all about the challenging steps it took to get there, as the vibrantly blue lake is sure to take your breath away. The second lake (Fuller Lake) is 2 miles away (out-and-back) and roughly 300 additional feet of elevation.
The final climb is a short 1/2 mile trek up a steep path that hugs the mountain side, with 200 feet of elevation gain to the third and final lake (Island Lake). This may be the most impressive lake of all, as there is a perfectly placed little island amongst this majestic masterpiece of water.
Pro Tip: Make sure you follow the All Trails map of this trail that takes you past Island Lake and down a steep scramble back to the first basin, as opposed to doing the out-and-back to Ice Lake. This short cut saves you nearly a mile of backtracking. Just make sure you bring your hiking poles for balance because this way down is STEEP.
For those looking for a less strenuous hike with equal beauty, you can check out South Mineral Creek Falls. They are located just south of the South Mineral Creek Campground and are a short 1 and 1/2 mile hike in.
Also, if you're looking for a great spot to have lunch on your way back home, the Ouray Brewery is just a 50-minute drive back towards Denver. They have a wonderful little roof top bar that overlooks the town of Ouray, touted as the "Switzerland of America." And if you're feeling a little sore after your long hike, Orvis Hot Springs is great place to soak your aching muscles on your way out of town.
I really hope that everyone gets the chance to explore Southwest Colorado, as it is truly a magical place :) Just make sure you leave no trace and respect any sort of fire bans the county has in place, which can be viewed here.