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8 Colorado camping destinations a short drive away

A waterfall on the north side of Guanella Pass near Georgetown Tuesday, October 8, 2002. Mark Reis photo

Awake from your dreams of sunlight bathing the wildflowers, sparkling waters beneath majestic peaks, small plumes of smoke rising to the stars. It's time to make camping plans.

We know you're eager to get away, and that's why we keep your drive time close to two hours with the following recommendations. Sure, far-flung adventures can be had in every corner of the state. But might we remind you of the beauty of Colorado Springs, where quality escapes await quite near.

And might we remind you of wilderness ethics: Take only photographs; leave only footprints. It's a shame the trend Pikes Peak District Ranger Oscar Martinez is noticing: "Concepts like 'pack in and pack out,' that doesn't seem to be resonating with a lot of folks," he says.

For the bold, we include a few fairly close options for backcountry camping. And now we impart our final reminder: Know before you go. Have the right gear, including a first aid kit and clothing to avoid hypothermia, check weather conditions, know how to avoid flash floods and know how to build a fire.

Mueller State Park

A tent is tucked into the trees in the Peak View campground at Mueller State Park Wednesday, April 24, 2002. Mark Reis photo

Among all 42 Colorado state parks, one of the biggest and most highly regarded is less than an hour's drive away. Prime tent-pitching spots are all around the Woodland Park area, from Rampart Range's dispersed options to beloved sites such as the Crags Campground, Painted Rocks Campground and Eleven Mile Canyon farther west. But Mueller State Park is a go-to for 55 miles of trail, potential for wildlife sightings and guaranteed serenity. The meadows flow to glorious Pikes Peak vistas.

Details: Park entrance $7, 132 sites with nightly fees, $20 for tents, $26 for RVs, three cabins for reservations. Make reservations and find more information at:

Near: Divide

Alvarado Campground

Treat yourself to 10,000 feet. Your site will push that elevation at this hiking destination beside the Sangre de Cristo wilderness. Below you is the Wet Mountain Valley, and above you are 14,000-foot summits and alpine lakes waiting to be reached. A series of foot paths web from the nearby Rainbow Trail, which welcomes ATVs and motorbikes.

Details: Campground without water as of June 1. 51 sites, with some for RVs and horses. $18 a night. Call 877-444-6777 for reservations and find more information at:

Near: Westcliffe

Whitestar Campground

Behold Colorado's largest natural glacial lakes and some of its highest peaks. Twin Lakes Reservoir sits at the base of 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, backed by its brother, Mount Massive. Anglers flock to the trout-teeming waters, also enjoyed by boaters. The campground is a base for 14er baggers and cyclists drawn to the Continental Divide Trail that passes through. We know we're building this list on the basis of limited drive time, but while you're here - especially if the fall colors are popping - you'd best take Independence Pass to Aspen too.

Details: 66 sites, first-come, first-served basis. $20 a night. More information by calling 719-486-0749.

Near: Twin Lakes, Leadville

Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Enter the backcountry escape of choice for many Denverites. Yes, the proximity to the metro area means crowds, but you should have no problem enjoying the unique wilderness kept by this park's 12,000 acres. Primitive camping is an option. Great explorations can be had on foot or bike through the rock-walled woods, where ponds are stocked for fishing. Along the Raccoon Trail's 2.5-mile loop, take in sweeping panoramas of the Continental Divide.

Details: 20 backcountry tent sites, with permit required from visitor center. Aspen Meadow campground has 35 tent sites. RVs in Reverend's Ridge, with 97 sites. Nightly fees: $12 for backcountry sites, $20 for tents, $26 for RVs. Park entrance $7. Cabins, yurts and a four-bedroom guest house also available. Make reservations by calling 1-800-678-2267 or 303-470-1144. More information at:

Near: Golden

Guanella Pass Campground

Veer off one of Colorado's scenic byways and stay a while. This high-altitude retreat offers a classic Rocky Mountain experience - which is why its limited sites are in high demand. Spots also are limited at a few other campgrounds spotting Guanella Pass. Dispersed options, however, are plentiful around the byway that climbs above 11,600 feet. Have a four-wheel drive and be prepared for adventure through the Mount Evans Wilderness Area, with plenty of opportunities for fishing and sightseeing.

Details: Campground expected to open June 9. 18 sites for $19 a night. For reservations, call 801-226-3564.

Near: Georgetown

And here's what we recommend for those seeking something wilder nearby:

Lost Creek Wilderness

Storm clouds move into the Lost Creek Wilderness Area Sunday, July 5, 2009, bringing with them more rain. The recent rains have made for a lush green summer in the wilderness area with many wildflowers. (Christian Murdock, The Gazette)

In Colorado Springs, we're spoiled to have this backcountry dreamscape less than two hours away. It demands to be experienced over multiple days. So strap on the backpack and pick one of the many loops through the valleys with eye-catching granite formations and elevations above 12,400 feet.

Getting there: Reach the Goose Creek Trail from Woodland Park by going north on Colorado 67 to Deckers. Turn left on County Road 126 and then left on County Road 211 after 3 miles. Follow signs to Goose Creek Campground and continue past the campground to park near the trailhead.

Lakes of the Clouds

Embark into the Sangre de Cristo wilderness, gaining steady elevation as you log nearly 5 miles to three alpine lakes surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks. There's plenty of room along the shores to feel secluded in paradise.

Getting there: In Westcliffe, go west on Hermit Road, which becomes dirt as you follow Custer County Road 172. You'll need a four-wheel drive. Follow signs to the Gibson Creek Trail, on which you'll start your hike. Turn right when you come to the Rainbow Trail and follow a short distance to the Swift Creek Trail, which leads to the lakes.

Buffalo Peaks Wilderness

PHoto by Jerilee Bennett-Friday, July 28, 2000- Llama trekkers Marlice Van Zandt hikes through the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area. The wilderness area in the PIke National Forest already has a roadban. President Clinton proposes to put a roadban on other areas in the Pike National Forest in Colorado.

A 12-mile loop takes you through rolling meadows overlooked by a pair of mighty mountains. With the short drive from town, some make a day of it. But in this lesser-trafficked wilderness, why not take advantage of a peaceful overnight?

Getting there: Head west on U.S. 24 through Hartsel, turning right on Colorado 9 and continuing to U.S. 285. Turn left and go 3.5 miles on County Road 5. After 7 miles, stay right onto Weston Pass Road. Trailhead emerges on the left in 3 miles. Many prefer the counter-clockwise trip, ascending on Rough and Tumbling Trail and coming down Rich Creek Trail.

Storm clouds move into the Lost Creek Wilderness Area Sunday, July 5, 2009, bringing with them more rain. The recent rains have made for a lush green summer in the wilderness area with many wildflowers. (Christian Murdock, The Gazette)Share this photo

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