Last-minute camping in the Rockies

5 great no-reservation campgrounds in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming

Warner Lake
Photo: Trent Nelson

Southeastern Utah

  • Warner Lake Campground in Manti–La Sal National Forest: A 9,100-foot sky island provides cool relief from the searing desertscape 5,000 feet below—it can be 40° cooler up here. The 20 drive-in campsites are tucked into aspen groves where you’ll have forever views of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Bring a paddleboat to explore the lake (pictured), a no-motors liquid jewel. Opens early Jun; $10; 435/636-3360. 
  • Plan B: Nearby Oowah Lake, a petite high-country lake with 11 tent-only campsites. $5; www.fs.fed.us/r4/mantilasal or 435/636-3360.

Western Montana

  • Cromwell Dixon Campground at Helena National Forest: West of Helena, campers can usually mosey up on a whim and snag a site atop McDonald Pass. Most of the 15 developed sites have views of the immense valleys, mountains, and meadows that sprawl into the boundless horizon (ain’t for nothing they call it Big Sky Country). From here, you have right-there access to the Continental Divide Trail stretching from Canada to Mexico. $8; opens late May; 406/449-5201. 
  • Plan B: Score one of the 15 sites at Vigilante Campground, 30 miles east of Helena. $5; opens late May; www.fs.fed.us/r 1/helena or 406/449-5201.

The Tetons, WY

  • Teton Canyon Campground in Caribou-Targhee National Forest: Welcome to one of the best wildflower-viewing areas in the Tetons. This 20-site campground at nearly 7,000 feet is a good jumping-off point for popu­lar areas of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, an untrammeled expanse where trails lace through a kaleidoscopic display of flowers. Also outside your tent flap: rock climbing, fishing, and horseback riding. $10; opens mid-May; 208/354-2312. 
  • Plan B: Head to Curtis Canyon Campground, 8 miles east of Jackson. $12; opens mid-May; 307/739-5500.

High Uintas, UT

  • Moon Lake Campground, Ashley National Forest: About three hours east of Salt Lake City, Moon Lake is a pretty blue jewel surrounded by thick green forest beneath the towering cliffs of the High Uintas Wilderness. More than 50 sites are sprinkled beyond the shore, and campers canoe, kayak, fish, or hike local trails fanning out into the high country. $10; opens late May; 435/722-5018. 
  • Plan B: Right by the campground, Moon Lake Resort has cabins, boat rentals, and a convenience store. From $40; opens late May; 435/454-3142.

Leadville, CO

  • Elbert Creek Campground in San Isabel National Forest: Campers with lofty ideals gravitate to this 17-site campground in a lodgepole forest at 10,000 feet. The two highest peaks in Colorado, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, loom overhead, drawing hikers psyched to bag both peaks right from their tent door. Some of the most outrageous views in the state lure less-ambitious types to the national forest, and fly-fishing abounds in nearby Emerald Lake (plus in the creek running through the campground). From $13; opens late May; www.fs.fed.us/r2/recreation or 719/486-0749.
  • Plan B: Halfmoon Campground, at the start of the 8-mile trailhead to Mt. Elbert, 10 miles southwest of Leadville. From $13; opens late May; www.fs.fed.us/r2/recreation or 719/486-0749.
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