When done right, winter camping is a great way to see the hidden world of snow and ice from the cozy comforts of a sturdy shelter, not to mention the appeal of fire pits, crystal-clear, star-filled skies, access to secluded wilderness areas, warm meals, and plenty of adventure potential. But when it's done wrong, there’s a good chance you could go home with a few less toes.
That's why it's critical to plan properly. 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, like right outside of your car in a safe wilderness area. If you'll be building a fire, use only downed wood. Give yourself a little advantage by bringing a Duraflame-type, long-burning log to help fuel the flames. You may decide to try a snow cave or use a 4-season tent; both are fun but have a certain learning curve. Finally, 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 like the Brainard Lake area to test their skills. While it’s possible to set up camp close to the lake itself (about a 2-mile walk in), you can go a few feet into the woods out of the winter parking lot for essentially the same experience. And as a bonus, you’ll have easy access to civilized bathrooms. There’s usually enough to snow to build a snow cave. The ride is only about 50 minutes from Boulder via Left Hand Canyon. First-timers often construct their camp in the morning, enjoy a day out snowshoeing or skiing, then come back to camp in the afternoon to prepare for the night ahead.
2. Mammoth Gulch
Mammoth Gulch is located in the barely-there town of Tolland and is reached via the same access road to East Portal/Moffat Tunnel. What’s nice about Mammoth Gulch is you only have to travel a few hundred feet up the road to find nice camp 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. On the right side of the road are a few primitive campsites good for tent camping, but they aren’t totally sheltered by the wind. 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.
3. East Portal / Moffat Tunnel
Just over an hour from Boulder, the East Portal/Moffat Tunnel area is a popular day hike destination, especially on weekends. But it's also a good place to try out your winter camping skills by setting 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 the little ice climbing area). Follow this secondary trail into the sheltered woods and look for a flat spot along the small creek. The creek doesn't fully freeze most years, providing a nifty water source below the snow and ice. There’s lot of downed wood for fires as well.
4. Hessie Trailhead
Want to beat ski traffic to Eldora Mountain Resort? Hessie Trailhead, a little more than an hour from Boulder, is just outside of the tiny town of Eldora, with lots of great places to set up camp right from the parking lot. Hike a few hundred feet into the woods for a bit of privacy, where there’s plenty of snow and lots of downed wood. A fun weekend of camping could involve snowshoeing or backcountry skiing on your first day, then waking up and heading to the creature comforts of the Eldora Mountain Resort.
5. Magnolia Road
If you’re aiming to tent camp, pick from plenty of great little spots along the eastern side of Magnolia Road (starting from where the road goes from pavement to dirt), the nearest of which is only about 30 minutes from Boulder. There’s also the option of heading up to the end of the road (where it intersects with Peak-to-Peak Highway) and finding a good camping spot in the West Magnolia trail system. The national forest here is spacious, with several 4x4 roads that grant easy access to flat, sheltered areas. For added convenience, set up shop in the trailhead parking lots themselves.