As throngs of unschooled campers stampede over treasured natural resources, an increasing number of national forests are transitioning to designated camping
“I think we can make it up there,” said my partner Eric, who’s behind the wheel of his ’96 Ford F-150. His sister Carrie and I look at each other with raised eyebrows. He pushes in the clutch and shifts into reverse. We’re all shoulder to shoulder on the bench seat. A wide, deep untracked layer of snow coats the bumpy, off-camber road we’re about to plow into. It’s the only barricade blocking us from a gorgeous and unoccupied dispersed camp spot beneath a ring of towering Douglas fir.
We’d already driven to the end of Spring Creek Road, which parallels its namesake river in Gunnison National Forest, 30-plus miles from our doorstep in Crested Butte, Colorado, and back. After nearly two hours of roaming around, this was the only unclaimed place we could find. Plan B was to drive up the adjacent Taylor Canyon, which we wagered was chock-full of weekenders, too. Plan C was to head back to the house. Eric shifted into gear and we powered through the snow.
AN EXPLOSION OF CAMPING IN 2020
It was early May 2020 when we camped in Spring Creek. The weekend’s high-volume visitation foreshadowed what would be a record year of adventure travel in Gunnison Valley.
“Visitation completely exploded with flocking RVs, compounds and tents,” said David Ochs, the executive director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), a mountain bike club and nonprofit organization. “The summer backcountry traffic was already growing at a massive unsustainable rate, and with COVID changing the way people live and work, it all compounded.”
The organization was founded in 1983, and maintains more than 450 miles of singletrack in the area. Ochs volunteered with CBMBA for 15 years before being nominated to his role as the nonprofit’s first-ever executive director. He first noticed the growth of out-of-town backcountry traffic and subsequent impacts circa 2013, and started to consider how the valley could manage that impending traffic.
CBMBA’s mission to build trails goes hand-in-hand with preservation and educational outreach. The team had the tools, trailers and boots on the ground to address those burgeoning backcountry issues, Ochs thought. So he launched the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC), CBMBA’s professional trail and stewardship crew program, in 2016.
To tackle projects and secure funding, the crew works alongside federal land managers, the Crested Butte Land Trust, the Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte towns, and private landowners. Last summer, the CBCC decommissioned 105 illicit fire rings and blocked off 31 illegal routes. They also cleaned 342 campsites and collected 910 pounds of trash.
“The trash we’ve found is disgusting and hilarious,” said Ochs. “We’ve found truck toppers, boats, trailers. At least two — sometimes three or four — toilets each year. People bring their own homemade toilet and leave it behind. Grills, sofas, cell phones.”
In 2019, the CBCC pulled on scuba gear and cleaned Lake Irwin for the first time. They pulled out 116 pounds of trash including cans, fishing line and rods, as well as signs, snowmobile parts, plastic cups, goggles, a jack and a decomposing fiberglass boat. More trash was recovered from the water last summer.
Near Crested Butte, several valleys and mountain passes including Washington Gulch Road and Paradise Divide were brutalized by hordes of traffic. Immeasurable vehicle tracks and tents trampled delicate countryside and fields of wildflowers. “Kebler Pass was a disgusting example of this behavior: People cut down trees to make flatter, bigger spots and RV camp compounds,” said Ochs.
Another issue is the human and dog waste, which has elevated the levels of E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria in the Slate River watershed, according to studies completed by the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC).
“Last year, there were lots of newbies who were not familiar with the proper backcountry etiquette and protocol,” Ochs said. “But also, when we see cars literally parked behind ‘no camping’ signs, it’s like, what were you thinking? It was unbelievable to witness ignorance. And in our backyard, where there’s very little enforcement, it’s really easy to go too far, and people went too far.”
The 2020 trampling of precious ecosystems around Crested Butte is reflective of the challenges faced by public lands across the Centennial State and nationwide. Trout Lake, south of Telluride in the San Juan National Forest, was overrun by camps and cars. Photographer Michael Underwood, who is based in the San Juan Mountains, documented shocking crowds that crushed wildflowers, staked tents on fragile earth and left off-road tire tracks below 14,035-foot Handies Peak.
Similar trends were noted near Clear Lake, outside of Silverton. On the Front Range, the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests’ Maxwell Falls, five miles southwest of Evergreen, has a trailhead parking lot for 40 cars: 900 were reported last spring.
Colorado’s 42 state parks experienced record-high visitation from residents and out-of-state tourists with more than 18.3 million visitors, up 23% compared to the year prior. Across the country, the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest likewise experienced record-breaking visitation and new-to-the-outdoors folks with zero Leave No Trace education. In North Carolina, a bald mountain called Max Patch, in Pisgah National Forest, was a mob scene with more than 200 people camping at any given time.
As land managers and conservationists plan ahead, the pivotal question is: Are these new outdoor lovers here to stay? Nearly half of all North American campers either picked up or restarted camping during the pandemic, and 18% will continue to in the future, according to the Kampgrounds of America’s annual 2020 North American Camping Report. They’ve certainly invested in the outdoor equipment, too.
In 2020, the fastest growing outdoor category in the sport specialty e-commerce channel was camping, which grew by more than 50%, reports The NPD Group. By July, RV sales were up nearly 11% over the same month the year prior, reports the RV Industry Association. Rather than trade in units, there was a large slice of first-time RV owners — as high as 80% of customers, up from 25%— according to Wells Fargo analysts in an interview with CNBC. The bookings for Outdoorsy, an RV, camper van and travel trailer rental company, spiked more than 4,500% during the pandemic from March to July.
“This evolution in recreation technology and the ability of motor vehicles and the associated camping equipment has helped people get to places that land managers weren’t expecting them to, and they will continue to moving forward,” said Matt McCombs, Gunnison District Ranger for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. Not to mention, Colorado’s population is estimated to attract 3 million new residents by 2050.
NEW DESIGNATED CAMPING WILL HELP MANAGE CROWDS
The Gunnison Ranger District, led by McCombs, started coordinating a roll-out of designated campsites to replace the dispersed camping several years ago. Dispersed camping is when you set up camp on public lands without human-made boundaries or amenities found at designated campgrounds or campsites. It’s free of cost and non-reservable. But when the backcountry gets crowded, as it did in 2020, campers are incentivized to create more sites without following Leave No Trace principles, according to McCombs.
“Campers punched closer to water and into undisturbed areas, disrupting those areas that serve the community for other purposes like scenic beauty, including amazing wildflower populations, and hosting wildlife habitat, which all hold a lot of value,” said McCombs. “That new footprint attracts other users in the future, and eventually you find that those sites become an aggregate in the drainage.”
The valley’s new designated campsites are backed by the National Forest Foundation and Gunnison County Stewardship Fund, and the CBCC is contracted for labor.
In 2021, the inaugural portion of designated camping near Crested Butte will officially open: the Slate River Road will have 43 campsites and Washington Gulch Road will have 48. Moving forward, all overnighters in those drainages — be it in a van, RV, trailer or tent — can happen only in certified locations, indicated by a post with a camping symbol, site number and a metal fire ring.
“We have to go to a reservation system and maintain an inventory of all the campsites,” said Ochs “That’s the only way we can manage these drainages.”
Two vehicles are allowed per camp and the property can’t go unattended for more than 24 hours. All or some of the designated sites may have an associated fee — to support infrastructure costs like toilet installments — and a reservation system, but an official plan was not determined at print.
This summer, Ochs and the CBCC aim to install the remaining designated campsites in the other drainages including Brush Creek, Kebler Pass, Gothic and Cement Creek roads. In step with Crested Butte, other locations have implemented designated camping in an effort to stave off camper conflicts, environmental impacts and dangerous practices.
Catalyzed by illegal campfires and recreational shooting, as well as issues with trash and human waste, the Colorado’s South Platte Ranger District, of the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, installed designated camping sites that debuted in May 2021.
In the last five or so years, Hartman Rocks Recreation Area on the periphery of Gunnison also transitioned to 50 designated sites, due to an influx of camper-constructed fire rings. The high-use areas of Moab and Sedona added designated camping, too.
CAMPERS: PLAN AHEAD
Before hitting the road, campers should prepare a list of several overnight options to avoid being pigeonholed into illegal or impactful camping. Among those choices, consider designated campsites managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (NPS), as well as campgrounds. Gunnison County alone is home to 1.6 million acres of public lands, so the options are abundant.
“If a visitor wants to be confident that they will have a place to stay in a place they desire, start with a reservable site at a public or private campground,” said McCombs. “Also, have more than one camping opportunity identified in a geographic area. As opposed to saying, ‘I’ll camp in Cement Creek,’ instead say, ‘I’ll camp in the Gunnison Field Office district, and I’ll consider Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park or staying in private RV parks or in a county or city run campground.”
RULES FOR DISPERSED CAMPING
If you do disperse camp in national forest, here are the basic parameters and consequences if those rules go unfollowed:
- For starters, each national forest has its own Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs), which designate how far you can drive off each established road and what type of vehicle is permitted. Creating a new road is prohibited. The citations for neglecting those regulations can be up to $5,000, six months imprisoned or both.
- Dispersed campsites need to be placed at least 100 feet away from water, roads and established trails. To follow Leave No Trace guidelines, set up camp on previously disturbed, durable and flat ground. Zones to avoid include undisturbed meadows, wildflower populations and wildlife habitats. Dispersed camping on pristine surfaces, like in fragile meadows or riparian vegetation, can be cause for a $300 ticket.
- Don’t leave behind any personal property or trash including food scraps. For human waste, check with the ranger office to see if a wag bag is required or if there are nearby public restrooms. Bring a trowel and be prepared to dig a hole (six inches deep) at least 200 feet away from water. After use, refill the hole with loose dirt. As you set up camp, determine where going to the bathroom is off limits. Be prepared with extra trash bags to pack out your waste including toilet paper and pet poop. Ditching unsanitary waste, including toilet paper, warrants a $300 ticket.
- Campfire rings, which are a shallow pit surrounded by rocks, should be reused and need to be at least 100 feet from water and trails. Building an inappropriate fire ring can land a $250 fee. Check for fire restrictions and be prepared to cook meals with a portable stove.
- Disturbing or excavating any prehistoric, historic or archeological resource or artifact is prohibited. Cutting or damaging trees, including carving, is also illegal. A violation could lead to a penalty of $500, six months imprisonment or both.
- Don’t feed wildlife.
- Respect your camp neighbors and wildlife including maintaining the quiet atmosphere (read: no blasting music).
LEAVE CAMPING SPOTS BETTER THAN YOU FOUND THEM
On that Saturday in May, we were able to steer the truck through the snow and set up our tents where previous tents had been. It was a heavenly spot protected by forest above the main roadway. The next day, we spent thirty minutes picking up trash that had been left by the previous groups — including broken glass, cans, plastic and wrappers. Eric grew up attending Boy Scouts of America and I was a camper at the Telluride Academy, where we each learned outdoor etiquette and sustainability practices as kids. I recognize our privilege to receive outdoor education at such a young age and don’t take that ingrained knowledge for granted.
Today, many organizations — including the CBCC, Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests and Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association — promote Leave No Trace guidelines alongside their camping information online, which a portion of campers have access to. To support and educate visitors, the CBCC plans to provide more trailhead support this year.
It can be discouraging to witness the blatant impacts of some outdoor travelers, but the preservation and enjoyment of the wilderness is absolutely worth working together and striving for solutions. I often think about the persistence and resilience of our local organizations like the CBCC. As Ochs said: “The crew’s strong resolve to care for their backyard stems from wanting to see it survive into the future the way we’ve known it to be for years and years.”
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning adventure journalist specializing in outdoor industry news and adventure travel. She grew up on Colorado’s Western Slope, where she first explored mountain slopes byway of foot in her backyard of Telluride, a movement that continues to inspire her curiosity and joy. Crested Butte, Colorado, is home.