RVs are made for summer camping but when temperatures soar things can get uncomfortable. If you want to beat the heat this summer, one of the best places to get away is in the shade of Colorado’s mile high mountains.
Although world-famous camping attractions like Rocky Mountain National Park remain the destination of choice for many summer campers, if you crave an exceptional, uncrowded outdoor experience above 8,000 feet, point your rig to the breathtaking beauty of Lake City, located in the San Juan Mountains along Highway 149, between the rustic communities of Gunnison and Creede.
The Alpine Loop, a world famous 4×4 trail, connects three great historic towns, Lake City, Ouray and Silverton. Traverse the rugged Continental Divide on an old time mining path that takes courageous off-roaders as high as 12,800 feet above sea level.
Spend a day or an entire weekend jeeping the loop as you step into preserved mining ghost camps, picnic in lush meadows carpeted with native wildflowers and grab photo ops at every turn.
TIP: Don’t have a jeep? Rent an off-road vehicle in Lake City, the best place in the San Juans to start your Alpine Loop excursion.
A Magical Drive on the Silver Thread Byway
Dubbed the Silver Thread National Scenic Byway, Highway 149 is a spectacular 128-mile adventure through verdant alpine forests, dramatic alpine vistas and rugged geologic outcroppings where elk, moose and bighorn sheep call home. Whether you boondock on public lands or hook up in any of the half-dozen private RV parks in the area, you’ll have the privilege of resting your head alongside clear mountain lakes and productive trout fishing waters where afternoon temperatures rarely rise above 70 degrees – even in July.
TIP: Save your brakes, start your journey in Gunnison and travel south on Highway 149 till you reach your destination of Lake City. Doing so allows you to gradually ascend into the heart of the region’s best attractions, instead of smoking your brakes on the southbound downhill side of Slumgullion Pass, Colorado’s steepest stretch of paved highway.
Stock Up on Provisions in Gunnison
Your first task before escaping the wrath of summer is to stick it out just a bit longer for a pit stop in the small, outdoorsy community of Gunnison, the area’s only real commercial center located on Highway 50, about four hours west of Denver and one hour east of Grand Junction.
Time your arrival just right and you can catch the Saturday Farmer’s Market for ripe summer produce, then stock the rest of your RV pantry at the nearby City Market grocery store. But don’t leave with a hungry stomach; make time to stop for a pint of microbrew at The Gunnison Brewery, which serves up tasty pub grub outside on a dog-friendly dining patio.
TIP: Get all of your urgent phone calls and Internet activities done in Gunnison; cell service is spotty along 149 and non-existent in many places.
After leaving Gunnison you’ll meander along gently curving highway and sage brush country that gradually assumes the characteristics of a rugged Rocky Mountain byway.
Watch for surprise hairpin turns and sharp descents that will test your brakes and your reflexes.
As you slip into the high canyon walls carved out by the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, you’ll be tempted to cast your line in this world-class fishing stream dotted with pullouts and public access points for anglers. But don’t get too distracted yet, since deer love to graze along the shady stretches.
Your Lake City Base Camp
Few places get more remote than Lake City. With a year-round population of about less than 1,000 people courageous enough to live at an altitude of 8,671′ above sea level, the town still looks much as it did when it served as a supply town and smelting center for the hoards of prospectors that came for the area’s rich mineral deposits.
Founded in 1875, Lake City is what’s known as a “frontier town.” Few miles of roads per person and vast expanses of land area located far from those roads make the region nearly as remote as Alaska.
But whatever you forgot to bring on your Lake City camping adventure, the local merchants have got you covered with everything from gourmet cheeses and healthy groceries at The High Country Market to fly fishing gear at The Sportsman Outdoors and Fly Shop. In addition, a growing number of local restaurants and gift shops cater to summer visitors by offering a comfortably sophisticated respite from rural life.
TIP: Be smart about getting used to high altitude. Learn how to avoid altitude sickness.
Jump Off into the San Juans
Once you venture beyond the boundaries of Lake City, you’ll find that the mountains are just as unforgiving as they were when prospectors arrived in the late 1860s. The four national wilderness areas are prime for wildlife encounters, backcountry 4×4 accidents and unexpected severe weather storms which catch many by surprise.
Be prepared for a thrilling but safe adventure as you explore the youngest segment of the Rocky Mountains, by stopping at the Lake City Visitor Center where staff can explain the latest on current road conditions and give you free insider knowledge about the area, like where cell phones will and won’t work.
Adjacent to the Visitor Center is the US National Forest Service station where you can find detailed information about open public lands, great boondocking spots at the 19 or so USFS campgrounds in Hinsdale County, as well as current fishing and hunting regulations in the 12,000 square mile San Juans, which are about as big as Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts combined.
Where to Camp in Lake City
Whether you’re ready to conquer one of the five “Fourteener” mountain peaks (those over 14,000′ above sea level) , or enjoy a leisurely horseback trail ride, Lake City is the best jumping-off point for your Silver Thread adventures.
Park your rig at any of the five privately-owned RV parks around town, most of which are set in pretty forest surroundings and convenient to historic Main Street, meandering walking trails and prized fishing spots.
If you would rather rough it without RV hookups, Lake City’s namesake, Lake San Cristobal has gorgeous lakefront campsites operated by the county. As the second biggest natural lake in Colorado, this angler’s paradise was formed eons ago by a massive earthflow called the Slumgullion Slide, which blocked the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and created a spectacular setting for modern boaters and campers.
Although it has an isolated feel, Lake San Cristobal is located just two miles from the heart of Lake City, making it a convenient home base but still far away enough to feel removed from civilization. For more information, contact Hinsdale County at 970-944-2225
TIP: July is peak season in Lake City and RV parks fill quickly. Call well in advance for reservations.
Lake City, Colorado Highlights
- All-American Fourth of July Celebration
- Horseback riding at Vickers Ranch
- Live performances at the Moseley Arts Center
- Underground tours of The Hard Tack Mine
- Country jams at the Backyard
INSIDER TIP: If you’ve got other places to go camping during summer, bring your RV during Autumn instead. Lake City is a world-famous destination for Autumn leaf-peepers and each year the thick aspen forests that tower above the community put on dazzling technicolor show of flaming orange and red hues during the early weeks of September.
The Best RV Camping in Colorado
Few places in the United States offer all of the ingredients for a perfect summer RV camping destination, but Lake City has them all:
- Cool temperatures with sunny skies
- Lush forests teeming with big game wildlife
- Productive fishing waters
- Solitude and remoteness
- Endless options for public and private campgrounds
- Rich history and modern amenities when you need them
Don’t spend any more time researching the best places to go camping during the long hot summer. Pack your rig and head to the San Juan Mountains, where you’ll find everything you need for that unforgettable summer RVing adventure.