All the Best Camping in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado
Teddy Roosevelt created the San Juan National Forest in 1905, sources say, because it’s downright stunning. These days, ski slopes dust powder all winter long, steam trains pull tourists through mountain valleys that are stuff of legends, and locals eternally continue the impossible debate over which is more beautiful, a columbine in spring or the aspens in autumn. There’s no better way to experience the San Juan Mountains than via the main road which cuts through it all.
They call it the Million Dollar Highway, presumably because if you crash over the precipice lining one side of the oft-broken, always gorgeous road as it winds from Durango (one of Colorado’s most authentic towns) to Silverton (an ex-mining cowboy style tourist trap) and then on to Ouray (something in between the two), the payout to whoever’s name is on your life insurance is going to be that large.
Luckily for any white knucklers out there, the route is full of national forest and private RV parks to pull over, get some rest, and give it a shot come morning.
Let’s take a trip north from Durango on the Million Dollar Highway, officially known as US 550 if you’re looking at a map.
The Best Camping in Durango, Colorado
Durango is home to a host of RV parks, but the real beauty of the area shines through with the sun’s rays between tall ponderosa pines and Douglas firs in the town’s surrounding national forest. Durango is a quintessential Colorado destination; it has multiple breweries, tons of mountain biking, rafting and climbing, ample natural food stores and a Main Street lined with local jewelry and clothings shops, plus restaurants boasting nearly all the culinary wonders this world has to offer.
The Best RV Parks in Durango, Colorado
If you’re dead set on having hookups, or just like the amenities private RV parks offer, Durango has a nice variety to choose from. United Campground of Durango is as close to town as you can get, and it’s the last stop for the trolley that serves as the primary transportation around the downtown area. They offer full hookups, hot showers, laundry, a pool — your typical RV park amenities, but the best part of this park is perhaps the antique steam engine locomotive, which hauls tourists from Durango to Silverton and back on an all day tour of one of the most stunning valleys you’ll ever ride a train through. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad passes immediately behind United, but doesn’t run at night so you won’t have to worry about the whistle’s blow come bedtime.
A little west of town there’s an RV park by the name of Lightner Creek Campground with a real summer camp vibe, and I mean that in the best way possible, where families flock to play in the river and swim in the pool. It’s a short drive to town and otherwise one of the more beautiful private parks you’ll find in the area.
In both cases: don’t expect cell service, expect nothing from the WiFi, and you just might be pleasantly surprised.
West of town, a KOA offers up the typical Kampground of America experience while being the only RV park with truly reliable cell service, and not ten minutes from Durango proper. Meanwhile, heading north from Durango on US 550, Alpen Rose RV Park is the first place available after leaving town. It tends to attract more of a retiree crowd than families and young people, but serves as a decent layover on your way north if you had too much fun in Durango to go any further.
It’s difficult to say which of these is the absolute best RV park in Durango. The Durango KOA (not to be confused with Durango KOA North) is a great all around park, while Lightner Creek has the most vibe for your family’s dollar. If you’re more interested in the breweries and nightlife of Durango, you can’t beat United Campground of Durango (the city has a small local cab service, too, if you don’t make the last trolley.) Then again, if you’re really into being in downtown Durango and don’t care about the quality of your actual site, there’s a patch of gravel with a few spots — reservations required and you have to call during normal business hours — an easy walk from town at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Free National Forest Camping Near Durango, Colorado
Depending on your elevation, national forest camping in the Durango area can involve thick gamble oaks surrounding wide open spaces, such as east of town at Madden Peak; dry, ponderosa pine needle-laden or juniper scrub forest camping in oil field BLM land like Durfield and Sauls Creek (both closed December through April); or elevated aspen and fir shade along the river at Old Lime Creek Road (do not go beyond the lakes if approaching from the south and in anything larger than a truck camper–this road turns extremely narrow and harrowing).
Those are only a smattering of the available free camping options in the larger Durango area, and we have yet to find one that truly disappoints.
The Best Camping in Silverton, Colorado
Silverton is a blast, but you won’t be the only one crowding the streets of a town that’s all about the steam train and mining vibes which once served as the area’s livelihood…and still does. These days they’re not hauling ore from deep in the ground but serving tourists eager to drive their Jeeps across the mountain passes or dress up in 1870’s garb and have a fun family photo to take back home come the snowfall.
While there are RV parks directly in town, Red Mountain Motel & RV Park being the most centrally located, the real beauty of this area lives in the forested mountain camping west of town. There are a handful of places you can make your spot, nearly all of them without charge — some a bit more organized and some more or less free-for-alls — but for the biggest views check out Golden Horn Camping Area, perfect for the most rugged of Sportsmobiles or largest of Class As alike.
The Best Camping in Ouray, Colorado
Technically, Ouray is north of the San Juan National Forest, but it’s still a quintessential part of this drive, and some might say the most impressive of the entire stretch. In fact, nine out of ten optometrists lose their medical license when it’s revealed that their patients disagree that Ouray — nicknamed the Switzerland of America — is the most beautiful place in Southwest Colorado.
The narrow canyon, which the town mostly fills, doesn’t allow for a ton of camping options. Fortunately, not everything worth doing needs to weigh a ton. 4J+1+1 (an RV park, not a formula for some type of two-wheel Jeep) is directly inside this incredibly quaint, walkable town, while Ouray RV Park & Cabins is less than a mile north of town, most of which distance can be walked on a hiking trail. Just a bit further, and higher up the mountain, Ampitheatre Campground — part of Uncompahgre National Forest, but still a paid campground at $13 per night — gives you that more rugged experience, including picnic tables and vault toilets.
Note that cell service in all of Ouray is in and out, but more so at Ampitheatre Campground than the other two parks.
These campgrounds and the towns they surround are only a sliver of what the San Juan region of Southwestern Colorado offers, though. From Durango, head west to discover the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park or east to the visually different but equally gorgeous US 160 to explore the forests and mountains lining more delightful small towns like Pagosa Springs and Alamosa, Colorado, then go all the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Beyond Ouray, Ridgway, Colorado is worth a stop in and of itself, and serves as the fork in the road where one can continue on to luxurious Telluride to the west or destinations like Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Crested Butte further north. Regardless of which direction you head, if you’re starting in Durango, it’s all good times for miles to come.