“Dispersed Camping” is a concept that is often foreign to those living in large metropolitan areas. It is camping without a campground. There are no numbered spots. There are no amenities such as outlets, washrooms, and an office that sells water and wood. It’s just people plopping their tents down wherever they can. It is the purest, and most rugged form of camping.
Colorado has an almost limitless supply of places where people can literally just find a spot and set up camp.
Spots for dispersed camping are usually found in National Forests, which cover nearly half the state. Specific details about which spots allow dispersed camping can be hard to find online, as each section of the National Forest system maps out their area differently. However, every section of National Forest has a significant amount of area where one can just set up camp. Many of these spots even have fire pits already set up by previous campers!
During periods of heightened fire danger, it is common to for counties to issue fire bans or fire restrictions to limit the risk of wildfires. With fire being a major component of the camping experience, the status of these fire restrictions should be considered when planning any summertime mountain adventure that involves camping.
Colorado map of county fire restrictions as of July 14, 2017
There is, perhaps, no better place to start a Rocky Mountain adventure than Leadville, Colorado, which sits at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet in the central part of Lake County, a county where there happened to not be a fire ban in mid-July 2017.
Spawned from the mid-19th Century Gold rush, and rich with old west history, the town, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, is tucked away between mountains that rise several thousand feet higher in every direction.
This includes the Sawatch Range to the immidiate West and South, where Colorado’s two tallest peaks; Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, sit.
Only five miles to the west of town is Turquoise Lake.
Expansive, beautiful, and protected by steep hills and dense forests, the lake stretches west, into the Mount Massive Wilderness, where densely packed trees and rugged terrain create a feeling of seclusion and wonder.
Wandering through the wilderness, trees partially conceal the tall mountain peaks. Like a well made movie preview, they reveal some, but not all, of what lays ahead for anyone wandering through the woods, whether on trail or off.
Around every curve, the wilderness reveals what had been hidden between the trees.
Streams reveal the source of the water that drains into Turqouise Lake below.
Flowers of all colors pop out, tickling multiple senses, making the experience more vivid, more full.
After roughly 90 minutes of hiking on the Highline Trail, which starts only a few miles west of Turquoise Lake, the trail climbs above the forest.
Just below 12,00 feet, the trees disappear. Mountain ranges, are once again seen in every direction. The ground is surprisingly green grass, making the scene reminiscent of The Sound of Music.
At these elevations, with an atmosphere roughly 30% less thick than it is at sea level, the sun commands somewhat of a decieving presence, particularly in the months of June and July.
Less deterred by the atmosphere, direct sunlight at these elevations can create an almost tropical feeling of warmth at temperatures that barely top out above 60F (16C), temperatures where some at sea level, under cloudy skies, would still be wearing jackets.
Wandering through the dense pine forests that make up the Mount Massive wilderness, especially as daytime gradually faded into evening, it is easy to imagine being truly lost in the Rocky Mountains.
Away from day-to-day life, hustle, drama and the like, I could not help but worry about the future. As soon as I got to the west side of Turquoise Lake (away from town) all cell signals disappeared. How long will this be the case? Are they working on connecting the whole world with Wi-Fi? If so, where will people go, to escape? To not be tempted to check their work email? Or see what was posted on social media?
The way I see it, people give up the conveniences of modern life to go on trips like this one for three reasons:
- Despite the fact that there is more physical labor (setting up tents, cooking, etc.), it is less stressful. There are a ton of modern life concerns that disappear in the woods (social status, money, etc.).
- It feels much less structured. Sure, there are patterns, but there is no calendar with a list of meetings, tasks, things to do. There are no set eating hours and itineraries.
- It feels more human. This is quite possibly the most significant one of all. Work and the digital age has a somewhat robotic of feel to it. We are expected to perform. We are often asked to follow sets of procedures. Emotions are not supposed to be shown. There are even places where people are expected to refrain from laughing and too much “socializing”.
If we ever get to the point where there is no place on Earth without data, WiFi, or some kind of connection to our normal stresses and responsibilities, I sure hope we have found another way in which to periodically disconnect. Or, at the very least, that most people’s attitudes about things such as mental health days, and expectations regarding work availability and how we set our priorities in life, will have changed.