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5 easy-hike camp sites in our backyard
Note: This story, written by former reporter Dave Philipps, was first published June 8, 2007 in the Out There section of The Gazette.
It's Friday. The weekend is supposed to be gorgeous. The mountains are calling.
But so is yard work, laundry, repairs around the house, and social events you should go to just to be nice.
That’s life. The steep, rugged terrain of the Rockies is nothing compared with the mountain of errands modern life can pile on.
Even so, it is possible to steal away for a night under the stars, as long as you keep it simple, keep it short, and keep time in the car to a minimum.
You don’t have to endure days of planning and packing to get that intangible wilderness tonic that John Muir said can "wash your spirit clean."
Colorado Springs has a million acres of public land at its back door, with camp spots just beyond the city streets. Many can be reached in less than an hour.
Of course, you have to be choosy. There is a small but active local faction that uses public lands to get drunk, tear around off-road, dump broken household appliances, fire semiautomatic weapons — and sometimes do all four at once.
You don’t want to camp near these guys.
When Bill Houghton, a longtime local hiker who works at Mountain Chalet downtown, was asked for recommendations on quick overnights, he said: "One caveat. Many of the areas in close proximity to Pikes Peak are becoming grossly overused. Frostys Park (west of Mount Rosa) is one example. It is too close to population and suffers the impact of 4-by-4 outlaws. The area is frequently trashed."
The once-pristine meadow in Frostys Park is marred by deep tire ruts. Its camp sites are littered with broken glass.
Other sites that are tranquil by day attract rowdy late-night visitors.
The trick, many local hikers say, is to get away from roads. Outlaws don’t like to walk.
Any backpacker who gets at least a mile from the nearest road should have a quiet night.
Jon Teisher, a local backpacker who likes to sneak away to a little-visited summit above Manitou Springs, said he has never seen anyone else there.
That’s the type of spot you only share with your closest friends.
"It only takes me about an hour to get there. I don’t have to plan. I can just go on a whim, and if the weather gets real bad it’s easy to bail," he said.
Teisher keeps it simple. He packs a sleeping bag and pad, a little food, and maybe a few cold bottles of Fat Tire.
At the summit, Teisher can see Pikes Peak’s solitary light in the west and the sparkling grid of Colorado Springs in the east.
"It’s really an amazing spot," he said. "I’m hoping to get up there again soon."
FIVE FAST AND EASY GETAWAYS
Round trip: 3 miles
Once a mecca for Jeepers, this valley now has a sturdy metal gate that keeps the motors at bay. Just over a mile past the gate, the gradually climbing road enters a string of aspen meadows along Little Fountain Creek.
To get there: Drive up Old Stage Road, west of The Broadmoor hotel, for just over 6.5 miles. Turn left on Forest Road 371 at the sign for Emerald Valley Ranch. Continue another half-mile to a pass where the road drops into Emerald Valley, then a quarter of a mile and look for a pull-off on the right. Park here, or, if you have a high-clearance vehicle, continue another half-mile to a small parking area at a Y intersection.
The walk: Hike down the road, veering right at the intersection. Cross through a gate and follow a Jeep road up the bottom of the valley for just over a mile until you reach an obvious meadow.
Round trip: 2 to 6 miles
North Cheyenne Canon is a city park that doesn’t allow camping, but it provides access to dozens of hidden camp spots in the Pike National Forest. Seven Bridges is the easiest to reach.
To get there. Drive west on Cheyenne Boulevard to the base of the mountains. Veer right onto North Cheyenne Canyon Road and drive 3.2 miles to a dirt parking lot at the top of the canyon, just after the pavement ends.
The walk: Head west through a gate on Gold Camp Road, which is closed to cars. In just under a mile, the road makes a broad turn to the southeast. Here, just after crossing over North Cheyenne Creek, continue west on the Seven Bridges Trail. This canyon has a few spots at the start of the trail that would be enough for an impromptu overnight, especially on a weeknight, when foot traffic is light. The choice spots, though, lay two miles and 1,500 vertical feet up the trail, where the canyon widens to a gladed former homestead called Jones Park.
Round trip: 3 miles
This hideaway on the lesser-visited west side of Pikes Peak has a waterfall, extensive meadows and endless hiking.
To get there: Drive U.S. Highway 24 west to Divide. Turn left and drive south on Colorado Highway 67. Drive 8 miles to a closed railroad tunnel on the left. The trailhead is just past the tunnel.
The walk: Hike up a steep start through thick forest. In less than a mile, it eases and enters a broad, grassy park where, legend says, horse thieves used to hide hot stock.
Set up camp at a number of established sites in the meadow, then follow signs to Horsethief Falls. Bring a good sleeping bag. The meadow is at 10,100 feet, so it gets chilly at night.
Round trip: 7 miles
The 250-foot cascade of St. Marys Falls draws plenty of day hikers to this forested canyon, but few overnighters. Take advantage of having one of the city’s best trails all to yourself. There are limited camping spots below the falls, but the real treasure is a meadow just above.
To get there: Follow trailhead directions above for Seven Bridges.
The walk: Go west through a gate from the parking lot. Walk Gold Camp road just over a mile to a collapsed train tunnel. Take a trail left over the tunnel and follow it into a canyon leading west. About two miles from the tunnel, look for a sign pointing left to St. Marys Falls. Take a short detour to the falls, or continue right up a series of switchbacks. At the top of the climb, the trail passes a granite outcrop. A few hundred yards past the outcrop, it contours along the side of a lush, grassy valley. Drop into the valley and find a camp spot.
Mount Rosa’s North Ridge
Round trip: 6.5 miles (less with a four-wheel-drive vehicle)
This camp spot takes a little more effort. There is no stream, so hikers will have to pack water in. And there is little cover, so don’t plan on weathering a storm here. But the extra work is worth it. This high, open ridge is simply one of the most gorgeous spots in world. Many people in the region have a deep affection for it that borders on spiritual.
To get there: From west of The Broadmoor hotel, drive up Old Stage Road to Gold Camp Road approximately 12.5 miles to Forest Road 379. Cars should park here. Trucks can travel north on 379 for another 1.5 miles to a large meadow called Frostys Park.
The trail is slightly tricky to find at first. Head northeast (right) at a Y in the meadow that is closed to vehicles. In about a quarter-mile, look for a cairn, or stack of rocks, on the right marking a faint trail through an old campsite. The trail contours through thick woods, crosses a stream, and then begins a long, steady climb to Rosa’s stunning north ridge. Find a campsite on this broad, open ridge. It tends to be more sheltered on the north end.
The walk: Save the short hike south to the summit for sunset or sunrise.
WHERE YOU CAN CAMP
Anywhere in the national forest unless it is specifically restricted (usually to protect watershed or habitat). Forest managers recommend camping at least 300 feet from any trail or stream and using no-impact camping techniques.
WHERE YOU CAN’T CAMP
City parks, including those that don’t look like parks, such as North Cheyenne Canon and Red Rock Canyon and Blodgett open spaces.
City watershed property, which is usually posted as "No Trespassing."
- Don’t let your overnight damage our public lands.
- Camp in established sites; don’t make new ones.
- Near the city, there are plenty of packed-down tent spots with fire rings.
- Tread lightly.
- Don’t dig a flat tent platform, cut down trees, or leave other permanent marks.
- Pack it in, pack it out.
- Leave no trash, food waste, or any other evidence that you spent a night in the woods, so the next campers can enjoy a pristine site.
- Skip the fire; campfire coals can last for years, marring a site long after the embers die, and it's too easy to spark a forest fire.
- For a cleaner, safer option, light a few tea candles, or pick a site with a view of the city lights.
- Don’t just leave no trace, erase other people’s traces.