Thursday, September 10, 2009

Camping & other activities outside of Leadville, CO, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness

Over the weekend of September 5th; Josh, Rock and I decided we needed to get in another weekend of camping and hiking before it got too cold. We choose the Leadville area in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness which is part of the San Isabel National Forest on County Road 390. (called Chaffe County Road 390 or Clear Creek Canyon Road) We had been planning to hike Mt. Belford one of Colorado's 14ers, and this road was the access road to the trail.

From Leadville drive East (south) on highway 24 for about 20 miles. Pass mile marker 195 on the highway and then turn right or west onto the dirt Chaffe County Road 390.
From Buena Vista drive West (north) on highway 24 for about 14.5 miles and turn left or west onto the dirt Chaffe County Road 390.

Shortly after starting down the road you come up over a hill and overlook Clear Creek Reservoir; which is a large reservoir that the Clear Creek River drains into.
After driving down the road for 2 miles, you will come to a well marked campground just to the west of the reservoir. The campground is free to stay, and there are no picnic tables, just handmade fire rings and a pit toilet in the center of the campground. Pack it in/Pack is out rules and regulations apply in this area. (no garbage cans) The sites were suitable for RV's or tents, with some sites out in the open and others near the trees and river which are more shaded. These are first come first serve spots and the campground was full when we arrived very early on Saturday morning, so we continued on up the road in search of a better site.

Immediately past the campground about .2 miles farther down the road is the Colorado Trail crossing. You can park here and hike the Colorado Trail in either direction.

After about 3 miles the road gets very bumpy in a washboard pattern, but even though the road is annoying, it is still easily traveled even by a car. For the next 3 miles the land is privately owned and there is no camping. There is a sign just past the private land stating the rules and regulations for camping in the area. These campsites are national forest dispersed camping and are designated by a fire ring and often a pull off on the road. There are also small dirt roads that take you to dispersed camping further into the wilderness. Be sure that the road is not too rough that you are not able to get back out again!

Josh and I drove down several of these roads checking out great campsites along the way, but none were the site we wanted, so we continued up 390. At about 7.3 miles up the road, there is a widening of the dirt road with a pull off for vehicles. You can't see the campsite from the road (unless there is someone camping there) but we stopped the car and walked through the wooded aspen and pine trees, which opened up to the most incredible campsite.
A fire ring was out in the open on a flat area, which was on a cliff overlooking Clear Creek. This was not a place for children to camp! The site had 360 degree views of the mountains surrounding us, the changing aspen colors, and the water below. We quickly grabbed the site and started to set up our tent.
Josh noticed right away an old, old mine which was partially constructed directly below us. It appeared to be abandoned mid construction probably due to falling rocks from the cliff we were on. After getting the campsite set up, we continued down county road 390 to check out the other activities in the area.
At 7.7 miles down is the road the Missouri Gulch Trail-head. It is the starting point for hiking Mt. Belford and Oxford, Mt. Peck and the Elkhorn Pass. The trail-head has pit toilets in the parking lot. Backpackers can park here and hike in from the trail-head to camp. The trail here is beautiful but very steep.

Just a little farther down the road after the trail is a pull off for the Vicksburg Museum. The museum is a free, self guided, tour of the old mining town of Vicksburg which once supported 600-700 people in the late 1800s. Many of the houses are still intact and privately owned. It was pretty awesome to walk through this town and see what life might once have been like!

If you continue down the road for the next two miles there are several dispersed campsites which are directly on the river, they are flat enough for RV's and many sites are shaded. Even on Saturday afternoon on Labor Day weekend these sites were not filled up.
Next you will come upon Sheep Gulch trailhead which leads into the Collegiate Peak Wilderness. There are no bathrooms here, and the parking lot is much smaller and less popular than Missouri Gulch.

Continuing down the road you will pass many more dispersed campsites and 4 wheel drive roads which shoot off 390. The road is approximately 13.5 miles long, and at the very end there is a second preserved town of Winfield . Here there is also another free campground. Like the first campground on this road, there are no picnic tables, just fire rings and pit toilets. The camping is partly out in the open, but some sites are shaded and secluded. RV's can make it down the road to this spot which has views of huge mountains surrounding the campground and clear creek river running beside it.
Once you reach the end of the road, there are two 4 wheel drive roads that continue on from 390. Both of these roads are accessible for a short while to cars. However, the road does get rough shortly after. We saw lots of vehicles out for a good drive, 4-wheelers, motorcycles and bikers going up the trails near the end of the road. There is also access to another trail-head leading into the Collegiate Peaks for hikers and backpackers to access Browns Peak, Huron Peak, Middle mountain and lots more!
Throughout the weekend the road was fairly busy, but it wasn't crowded for all of the activities that are available on County Road 390. It is an area worth visiting sometime soon!
Here is the mine below our campsite. The rushing river beside it.

(map centered on Vicksburg, which is near the Missouri Gulch Trailhead, click on map to zoom in and out and to get directions)

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