Colorado

7 Rad Campgrounds in San Juan National Forest, Colorado

san juan national forest camping
Little Molas Lake. Photo: Robert Bohrer / Shutterstock

It’s no secret that San Juan National Forest houses one of the best mountain ranges (of the same name) in Colorado. Outdoor enthusiasts have long kept a special place in their hearts for the San Juans.

And there’s good reason for it. The San Juan National Forest includes 13 of Colorado’s fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet above sea level) across its 1.8 million-acre expanse. If climbing fourteeners isn’t really your jam, though, there are also 314 thirteeners. That’s not a typo: there are more than 300 high-altitude mountains in this forest.

It also encompasses four designated wilderness areas, dozens of alpine lakes, and several mountain towns. In 2012, President Obama added to San Juan’s list of magnificent places and established Chimney Rock National Monument: Colorado’s version of Machu Picchu.

So it’s no wonder that Colorado’s second-largest national forest attracts visitors from both far and wide. So in order to have the best possible adventure, you’ll need a good basecamp. There are over 30 official campground in the San Juan National Forest scattered within the forest boundary and dozens of free, dispersed camping options. Make sure to check with the local ranger district on the status of their campsites as many might be closed due to fire activity at any given time.

Since San Juan National Forest covers a large area, you’ll want to plan out your adventures first before choosing a place to rest your head. Grab a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card and an interagency pass before heading out so you can snag some discounts on fees.

Regardless of the activities you’ve got planned, here’s a quick run-down of the best campgrounds in San Juan National Forest.

Related Read: 10 Epic Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park

1. South Mineral Campground

south mineral campground colorado
Photo: Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Sleep in close proximity to the-famed Ice Lake Basin hikes

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, RV, car camping
  • RV hookups: No

When most hikers talk about San Juan National Forest, they’re likely wanting to hike to the popular Ice and Island alpine lakes. Both have become increasingly trendy due to social media. These two lakes are the most-trafficked trails in the entire forest, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get there.

Over the course of 3.5 miles, you climb the equivalent of two Empire State Buildings. In fact, that exact comparison is even pointed out at the trailhead. But if these hikes are the ones you’re after, make sure to snag a campsite at South Mineral Campground. It’s first-come, first-serve, so get there early if you’re heading out on a weekend because they fill up fast. This may be the most popular campground in San Juan National Forest.

If the campground is at capacity, there are other dispersed camping sites along Forest Road 585 at Anvil, Bear, and Sultan camping areas. Or if you’re feeling like more adventure, backpack to the Ice Lake Basin and set up camp. Just remember to stay 100 feet from a water source and always Leave No Trace.

Related read: 12 Epic Airbnb Campsites Around the U.S.

2. Little Molas Campground

Campgrounds in San Juan Forest
Little Molas Lake. Photo: Hal Bergman / iStock

Why you should camp here: For easy access to the Colorado Trail

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, RV, car camping
  • RV hookups: No

This primitive campground at Little Molas Lake has some unbeatable views of the San Juans. It has just 10 campsites, all of which are non-reservable as it’s a dispersed camping spot. If you want to hop on the Colorado Trail, the trailhead for the final section is at Little Molas Lake.

To reach the turn for the campground, you’ll travel along the Million Dollar Highway, one of the most stunning drives in all of Colorado. The mile-long, unpaved road to the campground is passable for most low-clearance vehicles, so there’s no need to rent an SUV.

Although its increasing in popularity, Little Molas Lake is still a place to find some solitude. Bring your fishing pole since Colorado Parks and Wildlife stock the lake with native cutthroat trout.

3. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground

Why you should camp here: Ideal campground near the San Juan National Forest for large RVs and families.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, RV, car camping
  • RV hookups: Yes

Although technically not in San Juan National Forest, the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground made the list anyway. In Ridgway State Park (on the northern border of the national forest), this developed campground is ideal for those who like a little more luxury when it comes to roughin’ it. Most campsites have full RV electric, water, and sewer hookups and the grounds include shower and laundry facilities.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife went exclusively to online reservations so you must book your site in advance. Activities are varied in the park and include a swimming beach, playground, fishing spots, picnic sites, hiking trails, and a marina.

4. Town Park Campground

 

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Why you should camp here: Closest campground near the charming (and expensive) town of Telluride.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, RV, car camping
  • RV hookups: No

This campground is the only one in central Telluride (although there are more Forest Service campgrounds in the area.) What makes Town Park Campground stand out from the rest is its proximity to all the amenities of downtown Telluride.

Need a beer? Head to the Smuggler-Union Brewery and Restaurant. Need some new outdoor gear? Pick up whatever you might need for your next adventure at Jagged Edge Mountain Gear. You can walk or bike nearly everywhere.

Or maybe take a ride on the free gondola to Telluride Mountain Village to visit those shops and restaurants. Or head on out to the many hikes in the area. No matter what you’re after, it’s only a few blocks from the campground. Book early because this place sells out fast, especially during the town’s many summer events and festivals.

5. Haviland Lake Campground

Campgrounds in San Juan Forest
Haviland Lake. Photo: Ryan Felsted / Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Catch your own dinner and enjoy a lakeview meal.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, RV, car camping
  • RV hookups: Yes

Haviland Lake Campground is on the shores of – you guessed it – Haviland Lake, where fishing is prolific. Even if you’re cursed by the fishing gods and have never caught a fish in your life, your luck will probably change if you grab your rod and fish here.

If you want to work your legs a bit more, head out on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to access the best backpacking trails in the Chicago Basin area. This is definitely one of the best campgrounds in  San Juan National Forest, but it also appears on many lists of the best lakeside camping spots in the state, too. Book here.

6. Cayton Campground

Campgrounds in San Juan Forest
Lizard Head Wilderness. Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Pitch your tent here for the best access to Lizard Head Wilderness.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tent, RV, car camping
  • RV hookups: Yes

Ready to climb one of the three fourteeners in Lizard Head Wilderness? Choose from El Diente Peak, Mount Wilson, or Wilson Peak (or do all three in one go!) Whichever you pick, Cayton Campground gives the best access to the trailheads named for the rock formation said to look like a lizard’s head.

The sites along this San Juan National Forest campground are well-shaded and perfect for those hot, high-altitude summers. RVers will really love this spot since 11 reservable sites have electrical hookups (there’s five more that are non-reservable.) Book here.

7. Jersey Jim Lookout

 

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Why you should camp here: Get a literal 360-degree view from your sleeping bag

  • Reservations accepted: Yes, required
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: fire lookout
  • RV hookups: No

Not everyone is cut out for sleeping in the dirt, which is totally cool. For those wanting a bit more luxury (though honestly, not that much more), look no further than the Jersey Jim Lookout. It was originally built as a US Forest Service fire lookout and used from the 1940s to the 1970s. It even still has a map in the center of the room to please your inner cartographer. It was supposed to be demolished in 1991 but was saved by the Jersey Jim Foundation, a non-profit organization that now operates and maintains the tower.

You’ll still have to bring everything you’d need to camp in the backcountry, except a tent. There is no water on-site but a water pump is available from a hand pump four miles before the Tower on Forest Road #561 (so fill up there!) This small bit of history can be reserved the old-school way by calling 970-533-7060 between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Mountain Time, starting the first business day of March. Often, the entire season is booked within a few days, so call as early as possible.

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