The Crestone Eagle, July 2006:

Five short hike camp spots

by Thomas Cleary

Last month I described a handful of camping locations that can be reached by car. This month I will suggest several ‘front country’ campsites, those that are within a few miles of a trailhead and can be reached with an hour or two of hiking. These sites have the advantages and disadvantages of being easily accessed and pose a special stewardship challenge: they receive high traffic, often from people who either don’t know better, don’t care, or are ill-prepared to practice the 7 principles of Leave No Trace (LNT).

Leave No Trace camping:
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare (bring what you need to lower impact on the land and avoid high use times); 2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (such as impacted camps and trails, mineral or duff soils); 3. Dispose of Waste Properly (pack out your trash, bury human waste 200 feet from surface water, strain your dishwater and wash your body away from water); 4. Leave What You Find (in its natural or historical state); 5. Minimize Campfire Impacts (by carrying a stove and using existing fire rings); 6. Respect Wildlife (by not bothering or feeding them); 7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors (by camping away from trails and maintaining a sense of quiet solitude).

For more information on each of these principles go to I am suggesting front-county camps that I use with my own family because they are used, but not abused. Please help them stay that way.

South Crestone Creek
This is a favorite of mine because of the incredible views. To get to the South Crestone/Willow Creek trailhead, take the dirt road heading east from the Crestone Mart (Galena Ave.) for about two miles, to about 8800’. The trail follows the valley bottom away from the parking lot for about half a mile to a creek crossing and onto the wilderness boundary beyond. Soon the trail begins to switchback its way up a deliciously cool northwest facing conifer forested slope; then the trail reenters a grassy southwest facing hillside.

As the trail switchbacks up this hillside, the views looking south over Chalets II and towards the center of the Valley become startling. The trail crests a ridge at about two miles and 1200’ elevation from the trailhead. It wanders through a small meadow before rejoining the creek. Off the edge of the meadow are potential sites for low impact camping with water access just up the trail. Another quarter mile farther on is a larger meadow with more undeveloped, but potential LNT campsites. Day hike another two miles and 1500’ up to the lake.

Willow Creek
This is another favorite due to its shorter approach. Trailhead directions are described above. The goal is Willow Park about one mile and 1000’ elevation up the trail. The trail heads out of the parking lot and quickly splits away from the South Crestone Creek trail. During the spring the log bridge over S. Crestone Ck. can be unnerving, but the stream is generally easily forded. Up through a meadow and a series of switchbacks, the trail leads you over the crest of a ridge and then angles slightly down towards Willow Park. There are a few established campsites at the east end of the meadow in the aspen trees. To reach them look for an obvious side trail heading down that direction a few hundred yards from the ridge crest. Willow Lake is about 3 miles and 2000 feet higher and provides spectacular vistas along the steep trail.

North Crestone Creek
This trail is a bit longer, probably taking it out of the ‘frontcountry’ category, but I’ll include it because of its ‘basecamp’ potential allowing access to several diverse hikes and peak/pass climbs. To get to this trailhead go north out of Crestone on Alder St. until it curves easton Mica Ave., then north again becoming County Rd 71. Follow it until you reach the campground and the trailhead beyond. The two-track, former mining road heads up the valley bottom through beautiful aspen groves. Stay left at the minor fork at about half a mile. Then, after two switchbacks, passing a spring and a creek crossing, you will reach the trail junction at Three Forks, a total of 2.5 miles and 1300 feet elevation gain from the trailhead. The trail to the right is the Lake Fork, and there are a series of nice camps between a quarter and three quarters of a mile. Hiking options from this basecamp include Venable Pass and Peak, Comanche Pass and Peak, and North Crestone Lake, to name a few.

Deadman Creek via Liberty Road
This trail too is a little longer, but it is mostly flat and even downhill on the way in. Hike it early in the day to avoid the searing heat and carry plenty of water ,as there is none available until Deadman Creek. To get to the trailhead, take Camino Baca Grande, turn right onto Camino Real (Two Trees), turn left onto Camino Del Rey, and follow that back around to the right, rejoining Camino Baca Grande. Go over Cottonwood Creek to the end of the road at a green locked gate. Park and enter with the utmost respect for the nearby residents; camping is not allowed at the trailhead. After squeezing through the gate, the road yields startling views of the southern Sangre de Cristos, the Mt. Blanca Massif, and the Great Sand Dunes, 9 miles away. After half a mile the road enters the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF), but continues to parallel the Great Sand Dunes National Park boundary (GSNP). About three miles from the trailhead (and 500’ elevation loss), you arrive at Deadman Creek. This is a lovely spot with a wide riparian zone of grasses, flowers and shade trees. A sign at the trailhead states that permitted camping is allowed 200’ from Deadman Creek and 100’ from roads or trails. Technically, between the RGNF boundary sign and the Liberty townsite, camping above the road or in the mountains is NFS and does not require a permit. To camp on the downstream, Park side of the road, a permit is required. Call the GSNP visitor center for more information on exact boundary locations and permit requirements, 719-378-6399.

Big Meadows
This hike is a much farther drive than the other backyard campspots listed. I include it because it is the easiest hike of the bunch! For the drive, go 11 miles west of South Fork on Hwy. 160 to Forest Service Rd. 410, turn right and go 2 miles to a fork in the road; the left fork goes to a nice campground; the right fork goes up to the boatramp and parking for the trailhead. The main trail follows around the right (northeast) side of the lake to the inlet. However, there is a trail along the left side accessed over the bridge or from the campground. The head of the lake is a short, flat mile with nice undeveloped camping spots in the trees.

When I was there, about 2 years ago, there were no established fire rings. Please disperse your use rather than establishing a permanent camp by creating a fire ring. Nice forested hiking trails continue up the South Fork of the Rio Grande and its headwater tributaries from the camp.

Get out there and responsibly use our public lands. We are better advocates for things we know and love.