But what sites have I found over the years I remember? Which ones stand out as ones I refer to as the campsites I consider approaching perfection?
With the exception of a campsite from the Appalachian Trail, none of these campsites were listed in a guidebook. The established campsites were obviously listed on some resource or another, but I typically found the sites initially by using my usual methods for finding a good spot to hike, backpack, camp, or ski. Or sometimes it was happenstance, and I was just tired!
Here are some places that I refer to as my “happy places.” Places that I remember fondly. And places that will always be the highlight of my time spent in the outdoors.
- Colorado Trail in the La Garita range
It was towards the end of my journey on The Colorado Trail. A fall day and the hours were growing short. I needed to make camp. And quickly.
I found a spot at the cusp of treeline but still reasonably sheltered in the krummholz. As I was settling in for the night, I saw and heard a bull elk bugling on the ridgeline above. A herd of female elk then ran extremely close to where I was camped. I had this scene all to myself. No elk jams as found in some national parks. No crowds of people. Just me, the herd of elk, and an intense fall sunset over the Colorado Rockies.
- Jo – Mary Lake in Maine
My 1998 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) was five months spent in the outdoors that really did change my life. Before I hiked the AT, I did not envision a life outside of my native Rhode Island.
After the AT? I moved to Colorado, learned to ski, went through the slot canyons of Utah, delighted in the New Mexico sunsets, and learned to see where a map would take me.
But all those events are because of following that first white blaze in the spring of 1998.
And one those most memorable moments from those five months was a quiet campsite on the shores of Jo-Mary Lake in one those rarely found remote places on the AT.
That site in Maine still epitomizes everything I seek in the backcountry. A twenty-four-year-old version of me wrote what the forty-two-year-old version still loves about the outdoors and wild places:
“The wind is a slight breeze, and the sun is reflecting on the lake with a soft, orange glow. I am writing this journal entry by the water, listening to the gentle sounds of the waves lapping at the shore. A place that lends itself to contemplation. This place and moment is best enjoyed in silence. Nature is doing all the talking that needs to be done for tonight.”
- Off-trail lake in the Rawahs
It should have been busy. And difficult to find a secluded campsite.
Fourth of July weekend in the Colorado Front Range area?
Busy as hell. Even in 2010.
But I was able to find a little slice of wildness by hiking off-trail and using my map to find what looked to be a good campsite.
I was in a cirque. And I woke up to see the mountainside covered with the remnants of the past season’s snow.
That morning I sat in the sun, sipped my morning coffee, and simply enjoyed the small piece of the Rocky Mountains I had all to myself.
- A canyon in the Pine Ridge of Nebraska
One of my absolute favorite weekends was the time a past partner and I went to the Nebraska Panhandle.
A so-called boring place, we saw striking rock formations, the wonder of experiencing a wide open space, and found a delightful and secluded canyon in the Pine Ridge escarpment.
The cottonwoods were blazing and lush in the canyon bottom. A small stream gave a pleasant chill in the fall night air. And the stars above rivaled anything I’ve seen in Utah with its lack of light pollution.
Let people find the High Plains boring. Keeps the place a bit more wild. 🙂
- Red Desert, Wyoming
Another campsite in an allegedly dull area: The Sagebrush Sea of the Red Desert.
The hoodoos and badlands were reminiscent of other more well-known places.
But it was the campsite we found off a BLM road that stood out. The sunset over the sagebrush and the bird concerto while sitting in our camp chairs overlooking a wild space reminded me of the site in Maine.
Not because of the scenery. Lush, lake filled, and heavily wooded, Maine was obviously nothing like the Red Desert.
But rather the stillness, the quiet, and having such a place to ourselves.
Everything I seek out of the wilderness was again found in a single location.
- Mitchell Lake winter backpack
Mitchell Lake in the summer is an ultra-easy family hike. Nearly flat, about two miles one way, and with enticing views of the Continental Divide. In the winter? A multi-mile ski or snowshoe with a heavier pack. Some minor navigation challenges once past the wilderness boundary as well. But what is a classic family hike becomes a relaxing winter overnighter. And it has always been me or my friends only when there.
- Chaco Canyon over Christmas week
Chaco Canyon in the winter was an amazing time to see this unique place. With the right equipment and clothing , the winter landscape was something to be enjoyed and not endured. The mixture of history, cultural importance and the grand scenery in the winter light made me love this place. And want to return again.
- Undisclosed place – Indian Peaks Wilderness
Be it solo or with friends, there is a campsite in the heart of the Indians Peaks Wilderness that is off-trail and never has people. My buddy d-low and I discovered it by accident one evening. And we both have frequently gone back to the site.
The site itself is pleasant, flat, comfortable, and sheltered. But not necessarily breathtaking. It is just a location I’ve stayed at quite a few times over the years. And have some great memories with friends. What more do I need?
- Hovenweep National Monument
An unexpected gem of a place. Hovenweep is another Puebloan site. This particular place is located in a remote section of the Utah/Colorado border. If Mesa Verde is the welcoming national park everyone sees and Chaco is the remote, mysterious and awe-inspiring place, then Hovenweep is the corner bar with good food and a good beer menu. A welcoming, laid back, and an area not known as well as other locations.
But looking over to Sleeping Ute Mountain and walking near Ruin Canyon of the light of the nearly full moon? Well, that makes the place among my baker’s dozen of favorites.
- Wild Rivers Recreation Area – Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument
You leave on a Friday night and get to a campsite late. The tent is pitched in a campground with no other people. You both wake up overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge in the early morning light. At night both of you are entranced by the colors of the New Mexico sunset. On Sunday, you leave camp early and head to nearby Taos. Historical art is enjoyed. And you walk the streets of a favorite town. Scrumptious food slathered with green chile is consumed. A cold beer is enjoyed under the cottonwoods of a local brew pub. You don’t want to leave. And it is tempting to call in sick Monday. Is there anything better?
- BLM land near Dinosaur National Monument
Another holiday weekend. All the campsites are full in the national monument that your fossil enthusiast partner wants to see. What to do? Your backcountry atlas is consulted. The friendly rangers confirm that the neighboring BLM land is indeed open to dispersed camping. One ranger even reveals to you her favorite spot. The truck is packed with water, food, chairs, table, and the other accouterments of a self-contained dispersed car camp. A free site is found in the sagebrush away from all others. As the sun slowly sets, a slight breeze picks up, and the smell of sage wafts through the air. Time to make dinner, relax, and feel how lucky it is to have all these wonderful outdoor experiences.
- Great Sand Dunes over Thanksgiving
As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy winter car camping. This type of camping combines many aspects of what I enjoy about hut trips but with fewer complications, logistics and with a bit more of a backcountry feel more akin to backpacking.
And one of the most memorable of these winter car camping trips was to the Great Sand Dunes over Thanksgiving weekend.
The campground was nearly deserted. The few people there also appreciated the quiet and low-key feel of a national park in early winter.
We were camped at the edge of the dunes and in the pines. The sun gave off that memorable winter light. The snow-covered dunes and sand reflected that evening light.
A scene that will always have a permanent place in my top outdoor memories.
- Franconia Ridge – first solo backpack
But I was hooked. Any free weekends were spent backpacking.
When I could not grab a friend one weekend, I went solo.
Something apparently people consider foolish and perhaps dangerous even today.
I simply did not know any better. Going out do something on your own? Seemed reasonable to me. Still does.
No route was found pre-made. The internet as we know it today was in nascent form. Instead, a route was just plotted out on a map within my mileage abilities…if a bit steeper than I realized! Topo line contour knowledge would come later. 🙂
It was on the first solo trip where I truly realized how much I enjoyed backpacking. I was camped on a ridge, looking out to one of the most famous sets of mountains in the United States, a slight breeze was blowing, the sun was setting.
I was happy.
And knew that I found something that has defined a good portion of my life over the years: The enjoyment of the outdoors.