When done right, winter camping is a great way to see the hidden world of snow and ice from the cozy comfort of a sturdy shelter. Sitting beside a blazing fire pit under a clear, star-filled sky while sipping a hot drink is a memorable way to spend a winter evening. While there is no winter camping available in the city of Boulder, an hour’s drive from the city opens up several areas that are fine locations to give this unique experience a try. In Colorado,"winter camping" is often done in early to middle spring, when the high country still has winter conditions but there is more daylight and warmer temps—though there are hardy campers out there in the heart of January as well.
It's critical to plan ahead. It’s important to have the proper gear, the correct mindset, and the toughness to crawl out of a toasty-warm sleeping bag in sub-zero temperatures when nature calls. But if you’ve ever wondered what it's like to wake up in a world of freshly fallen snow in the peace and solitude of the wilderness, winter camping may just strike a chord with you.
It’s a good idea to start off modestly—car camping in a safe, easy to reach wilderness area is a good way to see if you’re up for more challenging backcountry camping.
A quick note on fire pits: make sure to only use downed wood. It’s helpful to bring along firestarters and dry wood from home. You may decide to try a snow cave or use a 4-season tent; both are fun but have certain learning curves. When you're ready for a night out in the winter wilderness, here are five great places for winter camping near Boulder that are perfect to hone your skills.
1. Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Many first-time winter campers visit Brainard Lake Recreation Area. The drive is only about 50 minutes from Boulder via Left Hand Canyon. Winter weekends can be busy with lots of day use from snowshoers and skiers. Not surprisingly, the area clears out as the sun begins to set, enhancing the pristine ambiance of the wilderness. Campers have the option of finding a spot in the woods a few hundred feet from the winter trailhead to pitch a tent or build a snow cave. Skiers, snowshoers, and fat bikers can travel farther along the access road to the lake area itself. Note that the Pawnee Campground at the lake is closed for the winter, so seek sheltered spots just west of the lake. Backcountry permits are not required in the winter and early spring. Normally restricted areas are open for camping from December 1st - April 30th. For more information, visit the Indian Peaks backcountry website.
2. East Portal / Moffat Tunnel
Just over an hour from Boulder, the East Portal/Moffat Tunnel out of Rollinsville is a popular day hike destination, especially on weekends. But it's also a good place to try out your winter camping skills. Set up basecamp for a day or two of snowshoeing, skiing, and even ice climbing. A good camping area is reached about 10 minutes from the parking lot by following the main trail past the tunnel edifice, then staying straight when the main, signed trail goes right (there will likely be a hikers’ trail that leads up to an ice climbing area on the left). Follow this secondary trail into the sheltered woods and look for a flat spot along the small creek. There’s also the option to park and camp up the less-visited Moffat Tunnel Road, roughly a half-mile before the main Moffat Tunnel parking area.
3. Mammoth Gulch
Mammoth Gulch is located near the barely-there town of Tolland via the same access road to East Portal/Moffat Tunnel out of Rollinsville. Parking is allowed overnight at the base of the road, just be sure your vehicle is well off the main road (here’s a map where the Mammoth Gulch Road, also known as County Road 4-N, begins). What’s nice about Mammoth Gulch is the quick access to good winter camping spots. On the left side of the road, scamper up the short, steep slopes and find a spot in the trees to dig out a platform or snow cave. Head about a half mile up the road for even better spots tucked away in the trees. The drive is roughly an hour from Boulder, and you’re almost guaranteed to have the place to yourself, even on weekends. Hiking up the road 2.5 miles offers incredible, open views of James Peak and the James Peak Wilderness.
4. Herman Gulch
Herman Gulch is another popular day use area in the winter, thanks to its easy access of I-70 (Exit 218). This area is more suited for those with winter backcountry experience. Cold weather camping is best done by skiing / snowshoeing in roughly 1 - 2 miles on the Herman Gulch Trail, where the terrain flattens out and campsites are easier to pinpoint. Winter campers should avoid the obvious avalanche terrain where slides have cut open swaths into the mountainside. From the same trailhead, the Watrous Gulch Trail is a far-less traveled option, with the flat terrain coming around 1 mile in. Note that Watrous Gulch is also an avalanche prone area, so it’s better to set up your camp lower on the trail and save touring until middle to late spring, when snow conditions are safer.
5. Peaceful Valley / Camp Dick Campgrounds
While off-season camping isn’t allowed at either of these campgrounds, the access road off Peak-to-Peak Highway is a good parking area for winter adventures. The walk past the camp areas is along a mostly flat road for roughly 1 mile. Once past Camp Dick, the flat, accommodating valley is a great place to pitch your tent by Middle St. Vrain Creek. Ski tours and snowshoeing in this area is nice for those who prefer mellow terrain. A hiking trail parallels FS Road 1141 (you can tour along either, though the road will be quicker for skiers) leading to the Buchanan Pass Trailhead, where impressive views of the windswept Indian Peaks await.