Dispersed Camping – Elk Creek

There have been times in life when I have made decisions I regret. A recent bicycle accident is the most fresh on my memory. Giving up one of the best dispersed campsites right here in this barely-read blog will surely be another one of them. Yet, this spot is far enough off the beaten path most of you won’t make the long arduous drive to even get there. If you do, know there is very little to no backup plan should this spot be taken. Therefore, you must be sure of yourself. You must be a little crazy. And you better get there on a weekday that isn’t a Friday.

Worth the long drive.

From the hustle and bustle of Denver, CO, one must prepare for a long winding drive through high mountains, wide western valleys, picturesque flood-irrigated ranches so expansive the black Angus in the distance are nothing but tiny black dots on the mountainside, and tiny mountain villages that you think must empty out in the winter since there are no services. But they don’t. People up here are tough. Kremmling, CO is one of these nice little towns to stretch the legs and grab groceries or drinks you may have forgotten in the rush of packing for this camping trip. The Kremmling Mercantile overlooks the Colorado River where its banks are being grazed by quarter horses and a few ornery looking goats, and they have everything you could possibly need.

Kremmling Mercantile. Liquor store attached for your convenience.

After winding slowly over Rabbit Ears pass and down the brake-smoking road into Steamboat Springs, the modest homes most of the way up become log home mansions, and it suddenly feels as though you are in a very ritzy Switzerland. Yet there is a distinct Western feel to this town much like Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And like Jackson, there’s an opulence that says these are second or even third homes. There are some working ranches here, and the real cowboys driving through town in their beat up feed trucks look suspiciously out of place. The coexistence of the cow punchers and the well-to-do city slickers makes for an even more interesting scene as you walk down main street between shops and restaurants. But I have a feeling even the farmers and ranchers up here own rental properties in town to help float the ranch note.


Once through town, the Elk River valley opens up for miles before you come upon the lazy “town” of Clark, CO. This is the last place to get supplies before you step off the edge of the world. And the Clark Store is adorable. You can fill up on pizza, ice cream, groceries, and grab a sixer of the oh-so-delicious Yampa Valley Butcherknife pilsner as you head out the door.

For cooling the insides and calming the nerves.

The winding road up the Elk River leads to a sprawling flat plane with the river on the south and mountains to the north. The asphalt abruptly turns to washboard gravel and dust, and this is where the adventure begins. Note the rough road on the right labeled 400 in the typical brown and white National Forest Service signage. To get down this road, you better have high clearance or magic on your side. The actual site is down an even harrier road off to the right which you’ll really have to keep an eye out for. Once back there, you’ll find a few spots that are all very appealing. Trees, river, privacy, firewood, wildlife, places to poop in privacy. Serenity.

The Sweet Spot.

The last spot on the road is the best which is where we ended up. There are several fire rings and hopefully you find yourself here when there is no fire ban.

Davis all tent putting out the vibe.

Fly fishing in the creek is an experience. I figured at this elevation we’d catch a bunch of brook trout but they seem to be further up the creek. This stretch of creek surprisingly holds browns, cutthroat, and rainbows. The grand slam is definitely achievable here if you are a decent fisherman.

Fat Colorado River Cutthroat.

The best part of Colorado is our public lands. But note that the further you get towards Clark, the more prone you are to run into private land. Try to be respectful and not get yelled at.

Aggressive rainbow on dries.

Hiking this area is also excellent. The Zirkel Circle is popular, and a good long trek. The ladies hiked up to Gilpin Lake where wildflowers abound and the lake is crystal clear and the deepest turquoise blue.

Wildflowers on the trail up to Gilpin Lake.

The lake itself is about a 6 mile round trip hike and Mary Helen said it was one of her prettiest hikes she’s ever done. And she’s done a few.

The creek this late in the summer is perfect for kids activities like tubing and building sandcastles and forts on the banks. But it is so cold it will take your breath away should you decide to make the plunge. They didn’t seem to mind and stayed in the water all day until shriveled.

Tubing until exhausted.

This site is also an amazing jumping off point for the whole area as well. One afternoon we headed to Pearl Lake State Park for some chilling out, paddle boarding, and fishing, of course. Steamboat Lake State Park is also right there and much larger. Pearl Lake is on the small side, but even when it’s crowded, there’s more than enough room for everyone to spread out.

Pearl Lake and an idiot on a SUP.

To get here, drive through Steamboat and north on 129 Elk River Road until you get to Clark. A little after the store take a right on 64 at Glen Eden which isn’t really a town at all. Follow the road until it turns to gravel. Look on the right for 400 and take that about a quarter mile until you see a tiny turn-off on the right, and start looking. Oh, and you’re welcome!

Ned trying to catch chipmunks.

Published by willbarch78

I grew up in the middle of nowhere Texas. The nearest Walmart was a full two hours away. My family still runs a ranch back home that I grew up on, but at some point in my treasured youth I hung up the idea of becoming a cowboy, and pursued my passion for architecture. Today I still find myself trying to fit in to a life that has treated me with the average ups and downs one can expect after a certain number of years. My wife and I moved to Denver after attending Texas Tech School of Architecture in Lubbock as we needed a grade change from the Llano Estacado. We camp with our three growing girls all summer and into the fall while I write and create and fly fish to maintain sanity. Life is moving fast as our careers and children progress in all areas, so being outdoors with each other keeps us mostly grounded.

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