Camping Near Ouray, Colorado

When my husband and I learned that we would have a few days to ourselves without the kids, we knew that we wanted to spend the time camping and exploring a new area of the wilderness. We love camping with our kids, however it is nice to enjoy the relative quiet of camping on our own every so often. A few years ago we visited Ouray, Colorado and really enjoyed the mountains surrounding the town. We had gone on a few hikes and enjoyed a waterfall and a small stream, but felt we had barely scratched the surface of what the area offers. We eagerly anticipated four days of camping and exploring the San Juan Mountains in the Uncompahgre National Forest.

We researched the area and found a few campground options (Amphitheater, Angel Creek and Thistledown) that would allow us to be close to all we wanted to see as well as not being far from the town of Ouray. While a few sites can be reserved at the Amphitheater campground, those were taken and the only option for the three campgrounds were to get a site the day we arrived. Fortunately, with plenty of National Forest land, even if we could not find a site at a campground, we would easily find a place to pitch our tent. During our visit we planned to climb the 14,150 foot Mount Sneffels and it was good to know the trailhead for the hike was less than eight miles from the campgrounds.

With the car packed, marveling at how easy it is to pack for a camping trip for just the two of us, we were off.

Getting There

My husband and I love jumping into creeks, rivers and waterfalls. So it was no real surprise that we could not make it to Ouray without stopping. We made it through the city of Durango and were about 20 miles or so out of town about to head into the mountains when we both noticed a beautiful creek from the road. Despite our eagerness to get to Ouray, neither of us wanted to pass up a dip in this creek. My husband pulled over and parked, and we made our way down a rather steep trail to the water below. The beautiful creek offered several pools we were able to easily access and while the water was chilly, it felt great after three hours in the car. We floated around the pools for a bit (one of which offered a current that took you in a circle) until the chill of the water told us it was time to get moving. Back in the car we were close to giddy having had a taste of the adventure to come.

The road to Ouray from the creek we jumped into curves through beautiful mountains. We spotted a few deer grazing off the road as we continued our journey past Silverton to the town of Ouray. While both of us were craving some coffee, we decided to check out the Amphitheater campground to see if there were any sites available. The campground is in the mountains and overlooks the town. It is a beautiful area and while the sites are relatively close together, effort was definitely made to allow for some privacy. Unfortunately all of the sites were taken and so we moved on. While my husband and I typically prefer more primitive camping, the Amphitheater campground is certainly a good option, particularly when the kids are with us.

Finding a Campsite

After getting our coffee in Ouray we continued to seek out camping accommodations. We took a forest service road north of town into the wilderness and found plenty of options for a place to pitch a tent. We enjoyed checking out the possible sites and loved that a small creek ran down past some of the sites. We sat for a bit and watched the creek, enjoying the sounds it made as the water flowed down the mountain.

While we knew we had options for pitching our tent, I preferred a campground so we would not have to worry about hanging our food from a tree to keep it from bears. Next stop; Angel Creek Campground. While the campground only has eight sites, we got lucky. Site number three was available. We parked at the site and looked around at the scenery. The campground bordered another creek and you could hear the sound of the water flowing from where we stood. Awesome. Aspen trees were all over the campground and we were treated to the rustling of the Aspen leaves in the wind in conjunction with the sound of the creek. More than satisfied, we paid $10 a night for site number three and pitched our tent. Let the adventure begin!

Starting to Explore the Area

Once our tent was up and our bedding set, we were ready to do some exploring. Before leaving the campground we decided to check out the creek that flowed past the campground. Not surprisingly, the water was chilly, though the temperature did not stop us from getting all the way in and letting the water cascade over us. We then headed down a forest service road from the Angel Creek campground toward Yankee Boy Basin. After driving for a few miles on winding, rough dirt road, we encountered a fork in the road; to the right was Yankee Boy Basin and to the left Governor Basin. As we planned to drive to Yankee Boy Basin for our Mount Sneffels hike the next day, we chose the fork to the left.

We were not sure how the road to Governor Basin would be. We were able to get a few miles down the road when we encountered a creek flowing over the road. My husband got out of the car to see if it looked like it was possible to cross. He determined that attempting to cross the creek to continue on the road would not be a good idea. Fortunately there was a place to pull the car off to the side of the road and park. We got out and decided to follow the creek a bit up into the mountains. We had no real expectations as to what we were going to see; the creek itself was beautiful and that would have been enough.

We packed some snacks into our backpack and started to follow the creek. We were not able to follow it for long, and worked our way up the side of the hill next to it. We encountered what appeared to be an old road and followed it for a way. Up ahead we could see a small waterfall to the right of us and a larger waterfall straight ahead. The waterfalls looked amazing, particularly set against a backdrop of colorful wildflowers. We walked up to the larger waterfall, determined to walk up the hillside next to it for a bit. We wound up walking through the wildflowers to a beautiful spot along the waterfall. The view was spectacular. Of course we had to get into the water, which was colder than the water by our campsite. We were so enamored by the scenery that we almost missed the fact that a giant raincloud had formed over us. Once we noticed, we headed down the hillside quickly and worked our way back to our car. It was a nice, surprising side trip.

A Snow Cave

On our way down the mountain we spotted a giant mound of packed snow resting on the river. We pulled over to take a look and it appeared that the snow had fallen down from another part of the mountain, creating a sort of snow cave. We made our way down to the river where we could not resist jumping in the pool of water next to the snow. Neither of us had ever experienced such a thing. We were amused that as we worked our way up the steep slope from the river that a passing car slowed down to see if we were okay. We were more than okay. We felt great.

Back at our campsite we prepared a hearty meal in preparation for hiking Mount Sneffels the next day. We were not stressing about our attempt; we really were not sure what to expect. In fact we did noteven know how close we would be able to get to the trailhead due to the rough road. We enjoyed our meal and relaxed in front of a nice campfire. We talked about the hike; according to our research, the hike would either be six miles round trip if we parked at the lower parking area, or 2.5 miles round trip from the upper parking area. We were not sure whether our car would make it to the upper parking area. Our plan was to do the best we could. If we made it to the top than great. If not, we would have an idea of the hike’s difficulty and would try again another time.

We gazed at the stars and enjoyed the sound of the creek flowing by our campsite. The weather felt perfect; cool without being cold. Tired from the day’s activities and eager for more fun in the morning, we went to bed early.

Attempting Mount Sneffels

In the morning I woke up early, eager to begin our Mount Sneffels hike. After enjoying a few cups of coffee while overlooking the creek, I got my husband out of bed. While one could not call our heading out of the campsite at 8:30 am an early start, for us it was pretty good. Leaving the campground, we headed in the direction we did the day prior, only instead of heading left to Governor Basin, we headed right to Yankee Boy Basin. Once we headed up the road it was not long before we were concerned for our car. My husband got out once to check on the terrain of the road and determined we could keep going. At least for a little bit until we encountered another difficult part of the road. It looked very questionable for our car and so we decided to pull off to the side, park and walk from there. As far as we could tell, we had not yet arrived at even the lower parking area, meaning that we had quite a hike ahead of us.

Normally, a six mile round trip hike would sound like a breeze. But the hike to Mount Sneffels from the lower parking area (which it turned out we were about a half mile from) is very steep. First we had to follow the road to the upper parking area. The incline was difficult enough but add in the rocky terrain and walking to the trailhead was slow-going. It was the sort of hike where you feel like you will never actually get there. Fortunately, the scenery was phenomenal. We walked among wildflowers of all different colors and the views of the mountains seemed endless. We caught glimpses of tiny streams and a great looking waterfall. And catching site of a deer while we made our way along was a real treat.

Eventually we arrived at the trailhead to ascend Mount Sneffels. We were both excited to encounter an actual trail rather than continuing to walk up a dirt road. Unfortunately, the trail itself was no less challenging. A significant portion of it was made up of a rock slide, meaning that we were hiking on top of piles of rocks. It was definitely not easy going. We turned a corner at one point and could see numerous people working their way up or down the mountain to the peak. The rocky trail continued up a steep incline. I was less concerned with the way up than the way down, which I knew would be a struggle. My husband looked up, cringed and said he was perfectly happy to not continue the hike. He knew that descending the mountain would be rough on his knees and he did not want to be miserable the next day.

While I really wanted to get to the peak, I was not sure that I wanted to experience the downhill part on my own. While he took a break I continued up the trail a little bit. Taking it slowly, I made progress up the mountain. However I turned around after ten minutes, knowing that the way down would likely take me even longer. I was glad that I did turn around. Working my way down was difficult and slow. I was relieved to finally make it back to my husband. While we did not make it to the peak, it was the highest elevation either of us had reached and we were rewarded with some amazing views. And we even sighted a few marmots!

Heading down the Mountain

After a snack the two of us worked our way down the trail and then down the rough road. It was slow-going on the way down but still faster than the way up. We caught sight of a beautiful lake below us as well as a waterfall. There was a trail to the waterfall and of course we could not resist taking the trail the short distance to the waterfall. The two of us got right into the waterfall despite the very cold water. We got out our water filter and refilled our water bottles. The cool water tasted great!

We continued our trek down, enjoying the wildflowers and mountain views. As we finally approached the car, I reminded my husband that I had seen what appeared to be a creek not far from where we parked. With the last of our energy, we went to check it out.

Our extra effort was rewarded not only with a creek but a creek with multiple waterfalls. My husband eagerly got into a large pool of the upper waterfall, while I got into a pool made by a lower waterfall. I let the water cascade down my back and it felt great! We were so busy having fun that we barely noticed the sun going in. Wet and cold, but happy with our hike and waterfall adventure, we moved quickly to the car where we had dry clothes waiting.

Time to Rest

We managed to get the car turned around and worked our way down the mountain and back to our campsite. We were hungry and ate with enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, we were also tired. We relaxed by the campfire and headed to bed relatively early for us.

We woke up the next morning to a wet campsite and remembered the rain that we heard coming down through the night. Fortunately our tent kept the rain out and we were completely dry. We were amazed that we were not sore from our uphill hike the day prior. We relaxed at the campsite, in no hurry to get moving. While we were not sore, we were certainly tired. While we rested, we debating what to do before heading home later that day. We decided to check out Bear Creek Trail, which was on the outskirts of town. Neither of us was motivated to break down our campsite. I think we could have stayed there all year.

One More Adventure

Fortunately packing up was easy with just the two of us and once we summoned the motivation it did not take long for us to have the car loaded and be on our way. Within fifteen minutes we were at the trailhead. Neither of us had done much research on the trail (no cell phone service at the campground) and so we were not expecting the significant incline of the trail. After the previous day’s steep hike we cringed as we continued along the trail, working our way up. Fortunately after some time the trail leveled out, and we were treated to gorgeous views of the surrounding area, including a view of Bear Creek from above. While we were a bit disappointed to not be able to access the creek from the trail, we were fortunately able to do so after completing the hike. We could not resist one more dip in the cold water before heading home.

We spent the first part of our drive home trying to figure out when we could return to the Ouray area. We had a feeling that there was still plenty more to see and to experience.

  • Updated March 1, 2017
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Ilyssa is a mother of four who is employed full-time as a grant writer and who enjoys writing freelance articles in her spare time. Ilyssa has a great love of adventure and the outdoors, which she hopes she is passing along to her children. Last summer Ilyssa and her family took a five week road trip, camping and exploring most of the western United States. The trip inspired Ilyssa to work towards achieving flexible employment and/or financial freedom, so that she and her family may continue to travel and explore all nature has to offer, and not just for a few weeks out of the year.