Set in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Lake City is a gem of a mountain town. From driving the famous Alpine Loop, to hiking a fourteener, to a relaxing fishing trip,…
Set in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Lake City is a gem of a mountain town. From driving the famous Alpine Loop, to hiking a fourteener, to a relaxing fishing trip, you’re sure to find the perfect outdoor activity here. However, given its remote location and small town vibes, accommodation can be tricky to find in Lake City. Luckily for you, it is easy to plan a free, dispersed camping trip near Lake City, Colorado.
We’ve created this Lake City dispersed camping guide to help you find the perfect campsite for your next visit. You’ll find all the must know information on dispersed camping, maps, and detailed campsite descriptions, all designed to help you plan the perfect Lake City getaway.
Lake City, Colorado Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Basics
- The Best Dispersed Camping Areas Near Lake City, Colorado
The following sections contain all the must know information you need to plan a successful dispersed camping trip near Lake City, Colorado. This includes everything from when to camp to what to bring.
This is the essential info before you head out!
When to Dispersed Camp Near Lake City, Colorado
Lake City and the surrounding mountains are truly the “High Country”. Lake City itself sits at an elevation of 8,600′, and much of the surrounding area is well above 10,000′ above sea level. That means that camping season here starts a bit later and ends a bit earlier than some other parts of the State.
We recommend planning your dispersed camping trip between mid-June and late-September to get the best weather and limit your chances of encountering snow. Those in RVs or trailers will be able to expand this season a bit, but you should certainly be prepared for colder temps and snow during the shoulder season.
What to Bring
Dispersed camping near Lake City can be a remote and rugged experience. Many of the roads are quite rough, and you won’t find many people sharing the campsites with you.
Given that, it is important that you come prepared to be self-sufficient, and while we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tent, sleeping bags, and camp chairs, below are some of our favorite items specifically for dispersed camping near Lake City, Colorado:
- Map: A good map is essential to making sure you are on public land, exploring the area, and learning more about your surroundings. We recommend this National Geographic version for a good overview of the Lake City region.
- Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
- Portable water container – Most of the camping areas included in this guide do not have dependable water access. As such, a portable water container is essential.
- Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
Permits and Fees
One of our favorite things about dispersed camping is the lack of need for any permits or fees to be paid. Dispersed camping near Lake City is no different, and none of the dispersed camping areas in this guide require a permit or have any associated fees.
For the most up to date information on camping in the Lake City area, your best bet is to contact the Gunnison Ranger District office.
Seasonal fire restrictions are becoming more and more common in the Lake City area. The San Juans have been in a deep drought for several years, so it is critical that you obey all fire restrictions.
If you are able to have a campfire, be sure to completely put it out prior to going to sleep or leaving you campground for any amount of time!
- Environmental Impact: The Lake City area is incredibly popular for dispersed camping. As such, it is important to leave your campsite in better condition than you found it. Please always practice Leave No Trace camping.
- Access: We’ve done our best to describe the road conditions you can expect when heading to each of the areas described in this post. Many, though not all, of the campsites included in this guide require 4WD reach them.
Dispersed Camping Near Lake City, Colorado
The following list contains the 8 best dispersed camping areas near Lake City, Colorado.
Our Lake City dispersed camping map below gives an overview of each site’s location with a full description included in the following section. If you’re looking for other dispersed camping opportunities in the San Juans, check out our additional guides below:
Engineer Pass Dispersed Camping
Distance to Lake City: 5.5 miles
Water: No, but may be able to get water from Henson Creek
Engineer Pass connects Lake City with the Ouray, Colorado. This is a famous drive that makes up part of the popular Alpine Loop. Luckily for those looking for dispersed camping near Lake City, the east side of the pass offers ample opportunities for camping right along Henson Creek. Although the entire route requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, you’ll be able to reach several of the dispersed sites on the Lake City side of the pass in lower clearance vehicles.
Dispersed campsites begin to appear about 5 miles from Lake City along County Road 20. Many of the sites are quite private and even have direct river access, perfect for pulling water or doing some fishing. Keep in mind that as you get further from town the road gets much rougher and will require 4WD.
Nellie Creek Trailhead Dispersed Camping
Distance to Lake City: 10 miles
Restrooms: Vault toilet available at trailhead
Water: No, but may be able to get water from Nellie Creek
For those with 4WD and a high-clearance vehicle the road to the Nellie Creek trailhead offers ample opporutnities for dispersed camping near Lake City, Colorado. The roads in this area are rugged, but the views are truly spectacular, making this a rewarding place to spend the night. There are several excellent hikes in the area as well, including Uncompahgre Peak, a 14er.
To get here, head west out of Lake City along CR20 (Engineer Pass) before turning right onto CR23, Nellie Creek Road. Continue on Nellie Creek Road for a few miles before you’ll begin to see some great dispersed campsites appear. You can camp all the way up to the trailhead, where there is a vault toilet available.
Water may be able to be taken from Nellie Creek, but it is best to come prepared with everything you need. The campsites here don’t typically fill up, so you have a good chance of securing a site.
Cebolla Creek Road
Distance to Lake City: 10.5 miles
Cebolla Creek Road is an excellent dispersed camping area located southeast of Lake City. Also known as Forest Service Road 788 or CR50, this well-graded road has miles of dispersed campsites as well as several free USFS run campgrounds. There isn’t much shade along the road and water can be hard to come by, but you’ll enjoy a relatively quiet area with great views.
Getting here is straightforward from Lake City. Simply head south along Highway 149 before turning onto FR 788/Cebolla Creek Road at the Slumgullion Campground. Once past the campground, dispersed camping is allowed for the length of the road.
The road here is passable by most vehicles.
Distance to Lake City: 17 miles
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Water: No, but water may be taken from Cebolla Creek
The Hidden Valley Tent Campground is a small, primitive camping area maintained by the USFS that makes for good free camping near Lake City. The campground itself isn’t much more than a large pull out off of Highway 50, but it does provide a vault toilet and water can be taken from the adjacent Cebolla Creek.
This is a wonderful area to camp in as you’ll be close to several excellent trails, including the Cannibal Plateau Trail, known for its beautiful wildflowers.
To get here from Lake City, take Highway 149 south to CR5, which quickly turns into County Road 50. It’s another 7 miles along CR50/FR 788 to reach the Hidden Valley Tent Campground.
Distance to Lake City: 18 miles
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Water: No, but water may be taken from Cebolla Creek
Another excellent free campground near Lake City is the Spruce Campground, located just up the road from Hidden Valley. This primitive site has a simple vault toilet and several sites designed to accommodate tents and smaller vehicles. Those with RVs or larger rigs will want to look elsewhere.
The Spruce Campground is lightly used so you’ll have a good chance of getting a site, even on busy weekends. Cebolla Creek is adjacent to the campground providing a water source and great fishing.
To get here, follow the directions to Hidden Valley Tent Campground described above and continue along CR50/FR 788 for a few more miles before reaching the Spruce Campground.
Forest Service Road 735
Distance to Lake City: 16 miles
Forest Service Road 735 offers basic, dispersed camping just 16 miles from Lake City, Colorado. This is a uncrowded area that is popular with hunters in the fall and provides access to some beautiful National Forest. The campsite is just a short distance from the highway, just before you enter the trees. It has room for one or two groups at most.
There is no water or services here, and Forest Service Road 735 is best for a quick overnight or basecamp for exploring other areas.
To get here from Lake City, head south along Highway 149 for just under 16 miles. FR 735 will be on the west side of the road and you can camp anywhere along its length.
Distance to Lake City: 27 miles
Rito Hondo Reservoir is a small lake located 27 miles south of Lake City. Free, dispersed camping is permitted near the reservoir, just not directly on the shores. You’ll have access to a bathroom here and may be able to get water from the reservoir – just be sure to filter it!
This is a very quiet area that doesn’t see a ton of campers, so you’re likely to experience some solitude at Rito Hondo. To get here from Lake City, head south out of town on Highway 149 for approximately 24 miles. Turn right onto FR 513 and stay on that for another two miles to the reservoir.
Distance to Lake City: 22 miles
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Although not technically a dispersed camping area, the Big Blue Campground offers a free, US Forest Service run campground near Lake City. This remote and seculed campground has approximately 12 campsites that are all available on a first-come, first served basis. There is a vault toilet here, one of the benefits of this being as established campground.
Getting here from Lake City is fairly straightforward, although a high-clearance vehicle in recommended. Head north out of town along Highway 149 until you reach Forest Service Road 868. Once on FR 868 it is approximately 9 miles until you reach the Big Blue Campground.
Have a great trip!
We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a dispersed camping trip near Lake City, and we know you’ll find the perfect campsite for your upcoming adventure!
Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!
Looking for other great dispersed camping in Colorado? Be sure to check out our other guides below: