Part I: Camping in the Winter Sucks! (Colorado does not!)
In the last year or so, I’ve done more fun trips and been to more cool places than I can count. However, with all those trips I’m always thankful to get home and have time to relax and unwind from the grind that travel usually is. There’s an old saying that goes something like “While at home, you dream of travel, and while traveling, you dream of home.” I’ve found this to be true in my experiences with travel and adventure.
Our trip to Colorado in early January absolutely, completely broke this rule in every way.
This is a blog I’ve been planning to write for a while. I had the idea to write about how winter camping sucks a couple months ago. Personally I had never actually been camping in the wintertime, but it seemed like a fairly horrible idea.
The plan was to go down to the Buffalo, do some quick hiking, stay a night at a campground, and head back home. It was going to be cold. Highs in the 20’s. Lows in the teens. It would be a fairly quick trip if we did it right, close to 24 hours.
However, I’m slightly addicted to adventure. Always chasing the next big trip. It’s kinda what I live for. Travel for me often isn’t about the destination, but about the journey and trip itself. That’s where the adventure is. It’s awesome.
So of course, four days before we planned to take our trip, I had the idea that we could turn our two days we had planned to spend in Arkansas into close to three days on a trip out to Colorado. We had the time, gear, money, truck, everything we needed to make this trip happen.
So the plan was made that we would leave very early on Thursday morning and make it to Pagosa Springs around sunset. That’s a 14 ½ hour drive from our hometown of Ozark, Missouri. We would then head north on Colorado road 600 and 631, into Rio Grande National Forest. We would camp that night, spend the next day hiking and just exploring anything cool we found, camp again, and then drive home on Saturday morning. This was an area I had never been to, but from the information I could find online, there would be good dispersed camp spots here, as well as what seemed to be some pretty awesome campgrounds.
The problem with the campgrounds though, is that it was January. Pages for each campground in this area noted that they were all closed this time of year. What I couldn’t find much information on was like, how closed they actually were. We would find out! Where I really wanted to stay was the Teal Campground on the Williams Creek Reservoir, about 26 miles up the road. The views of the mountains surrounding the reservoir looked incredible. Ever since our stay at the little known Cottonwood Lake in Wyoming I’ve had a soft spot for lakes in the mountains.
So, just a couple of days after deciding to actually go, we rolled out of Ozark just past 3 A.M. on Thursday morning. It was really cold! We made it about five minutes before having to stop and retie the loose end of a strap on our roof basket. I have never ever been so thankful to have heated seats in Dudley.
Well how cold was it? Dudley said it was 9 degrees Fahrenheit not long after crossed the border between Missouri and Kansas. It was somewhere along here where Payton, who was riding shotgun, noticed a massive design flaw in the Explorer.
All along the back of the passenger footwell, glovebox, and airbag, there is either very little or no insulation. This is something I’ve since confirmed on the Ford Explorer forums. When traveling at speed (like, above 60 MPH) in really cold weather, it feels like the entire footwell, glovebox, and airbag are all just one big vent blasting you with cold air. Having sat shotgun later on in the trip, I can confirm this is an absolutely miserable experience.
We attempted to remedy the problem by lining the foot well with a blanket that would also hang from the glove box. This helped, but also made the air coming out from the crack under the airbag even more noticeable.
After a quick stop to top off the tank in Fredonia, KS we managed to hit Wichita just in time for morning rush hour, and quickly decided that Wichita may have some of the worst drivers in the entire country outside of Texas. Our next, and first official stop, was in Strafford, where we were quickly unimpressed by the convenience store full of old people drinking coffee. After finding the nearest McDonald's we took a quick detour down to Pratt.
After eating three hotcakes “very quickly” (probably in around a minute) Payton took over driving for us, taking us across the Kansas countryside, heading west on Kansas 400. It wasn’t long before we realized we probably should have got gas in Pratt, as we had about 40 miles to empty. We stopped in Bucklin at a truck stop that had what were quite literally the slowest gas pumps any of us had ever seen. It took probably close to ten minutes to fill up our tank.
That tank of gas took us all the way through the rest of Kansas. I’m not sure why, but I have a weird love for this part of western Kansas. It’s all industry. Big cattle trucks and feed lots and processing plants. Loads of Industry, but then like.. it’s still the wild west!
Another place I love is the Colorado sign on 400. This place wouldn’t be special at all if it wasn’t here. Eastern Colorado and western Kansas are the same! But just like, knowing you’ve made it through Kansas, that the best part of the trip is ahead of you, that you’re in Colorado now is like, a big deal. I’ll also say, the Colorado sign on I-70 further north doesn’t feel the same at all. I-70 sucks.
Our first stop in Colorado came in Holly, which is just the cutest little town with the cutest little name. Fun fact: the cantaloupes from the 2011 Listeriosis outbreak were from Holly! We parked in front of a convenience store and all got out to stretch our legs and grab some waters. Noah was standing next to Dudley, minding his own business, when two men swerved up in a truck, nearly flattening him in an instant.
Not too long after we stopped in La Junta to fill up again and prepare for what was really a transition period in our trip. It wouldn’t be long before we were in the mountains. It was a clear day and we could just barely make them out in the distance. The drive from La Junta to Walsenburg on Colorado 10 is probably my favorite leg in a trip to southern Colorado. You’re surrounded by complete nothingness for hours. Like nothing at all! It’s just land! Yet right in front of your face you can see the mountains, and you march closer and closer to them until before you know it, you’re in Walsenburg, right at the base of them.
We headed over North La Veta Pass, and into the San Luis Valley, stopping in Alamosa for yet again more gas. We were tired. Driving through the valley isn’t the most enjoyable thing in the world, yet views of the Rockies on the horizon kept us excited. From Alamosa we had an hour and 45 minutes to Pagosa Springs, and it was 4:15. While we had hoped to be in Pagosa Springs around sundown, if you only spend a few days planning a trip and end up only an hour late, you did good.
Our timing meant that we would get to head over Wolf Creek Pass while the sun set behind the mountains. The colors were absolutely stupid. It felt like a dream. Driving through the mountains with oranges and purples exploding above us, and the green of the trees and white snow below us.
Then, just like that, it was dark. Really dark. It was cold again too. These were both somewhat worrying factors to consider when realizing we hadn’t even got off the highway to head to a campsite yet. We stopped in Pagosa Springs to pick up some groceries that I had forgot the day before and let our families know they may never hear from us again after we perished in the cold that night.
I’m not sure completely what we were expecting. We knew it was going to be cold! Earlier in the day though we were wearing T-Shirts and enjoying the beautiful weather at every stop. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my realization that this may have been a bad idea when I got out of the truck at that grocery store and it was like 25 degrees.
From Pagosa Springs we headed north on Colorado 600 as planned. Again, I can’t emphasize how dark it was. I knew it would be about an hour to the Teal Campground, if we decided to go that far. After not too long 600 turns into 631 and becomes dirt/gravel. While we weren’t quite in the National Forest yet, the area was pretty remote. It felt like we were the only people in the world.
Eventually the valley became more wooded, and we came upon the first campground along this road in the National Forest, the Bridge Campground. While we hadn’t planned on staying here, we couldn’t have if we wanted to. A locked gate sat promptly at the entrance. So this was my answer to “how closed” the campgrounds really were during the winter season. Very closed.
We continued north on what was now 640, getting close to the reservoir and Teal Campground. Past the Williams Creek Campground (also very closed) we came upon a sign that read “Dispersed camping in designated sites only.” Great! That’s exactly what we were looking for! We went further up the road still, at this point only a mile or so from Teal. The entire time we had been on the road I was making notes aloud about every potential camp spot I saw (little did I know Noah and Bri were both already asleep in the back, Payton would just nod in approval each time.) There appeared to be plenty of spots off the road now.
Arriving at the turn off for the Teal Campground, I was in disbelief. There was no gate! Down to the reservoir we drove, only to have our hopes crushed by individual gates at each loop of the campground. It appeared the road was left ungated so that you could still access recreation areas on the reservoir. We quickly took note of what appeared to be a few men out on the reservoir ice fishing. Everyone was awake now, and we quickly debated if we should go talk to them. I decided it would be best at the time if we headed back down the road to one of the prime spots we had just passed.
The pulloff for the first one we passed again seemed.. Rough.. I rolled down my window and shined my flashlight out, looking to see if I thought this spot would work. It probably would have! If not for the small “NO CAMPING” sign along the tree line... This was slightly worrying when regarding our chances at camping at any of the spots we had passed on our way in.
So we continued back on down the road, not seeing any “designated spots.” When we reached the Williams Creek Campground again, we turned around and headed back up the road, checking to see if we missed any other signs or spots.
On our first time heading up the road, we passed a turnoff with a wooden sign that read “THE GUGNINI COMPOUND” I made a comment to Payton that was along the lines of “Well we’re definitely not checking out what’s up there” as I would prefer to steer clear of anything labeled a “compound” in the middle of the mountains.
This time after passing the sign and crossing over a cattle guard and fence immediately past it, we spotted another spot on our right that looked like it had been pulled off in before. There weren’t any signs saying we couldn’t camp there, and looked like a perfectly fine spot to camp. So, I backed Dudley in and ran another sweep through to make sure we could camp here. Everything looked fine, even though it didn’t appear anyone had camped here recently.
So, I should address at this point that while this was not our first time ever setting up camp in the dark, it was our first time trying out our hand at dispersed camping, something that seems to be the majority of our future. So the prospect of stepping out of the truck and having a completely dark and empty patch of grass with some trees around it was a little intimidating.
We had already decided on jobs for each person when we first got to camp, with Noah and Payton setting to gather wood from the trees behind us, while Bri gathered rocks for a fire ring that I was attempting to dig out. That effort didn’t last very long, as the ground was completely frozen. I moved to unpacking our table, food, and other gear while they all worked on the fire, and it wasn’t too long until we did actually have a fire going. Soon our tent was set up and our entire camp was unpacked, all in less than an hour too.
I think after we all stopped running around getting everything unpacked and set up is when we started to realize just how dang cold it was. How cold you ask? Like 18 frickin’ degrees! We were exhausted and hungry and now cold. Bri, Noah, and I scarfed down almost all of our hot dogs and sausage, while Payton (who, as you may remember from our Oregon Trail trip, is vegetarian) attempted to bake himself a potato.
We had little interest in sitting out in the cold after we finished eating, and quickly gathered into the tent. Our propane tent heater had seemingly done little to heat it up while we were eating. It didn’t feel any warmer inside the tent than outside.
Ultimately, this is where some cracks started to show. I had forgotten to bring a pillow and blanket in our haste to leave my house that morning. I claimed one of the extra blankets we had brought as my pillow. Noah’s sleeping bag didn’t have a bottom to it. Like, he got in and his feet just came out the other end. Luckily we had brought an extra. Our tent heater did us little good at all. We stuffed hot packs inside our socks to thaw out our feet.
Eventually, sleep came. It had been a long enough day. It was not good sleep. Countless times I woke up because Bri was shaking in her sleep so violently next to me. The longer I’d stay awake the more I’d start to shiver uncontrollably. I actually thought at one point that we were probably going to die. One of the quilts we had froze over because of the condensation from our warm breath. The moon was so bright that I woke up several times thinking it was daylight, only for it to be like, three in the morning.
Around six, I woke up for good. I told myself I wasn’t going to get up until seven and tried to sleep again. That lasted about half an hour.
As miserable as being in the tent was, it was still colder outside. I grabbed my bag and jumped in the passenger seat of Dudley to change. It probably took me close to 20 minutes. I couldn’t button two buttons on my flannel because my hands were shaking so badly. The laces on my boots barely qualified for being tied.
While I was changing I saw Noah stumble out of the tent. I watched him walk around aimlessly for a few minutes. He looked pretty lost. I will never forget our exchange when I stepped out of the truck.
“So three things." He said holding up three fingers. "One, I’m never doing that again.”
I agreed. I didn’t really care what we did that night but there was no way in the world we could camp again. We were in agreement that it had been one of the worst nights of our lives.
“Two, That’s a house back there.”
Sure enough, I looked through the tree line behind our camp and maybe 200 feet away was indeed a house.
“Three, That sunrise is amazing.”
He was right about that too. It was probably the best I had ever seen.
So, armed with this new information and Noah and Bri working on gathering wood to build us a fire, I set out to scout the area out a little bit more and take some pictures. Most of them turned out pretty horrible as I couldn’t hold my camera still.
As I was doing this an older man in a Forest Service pickup came along the road. I waved to him as he passed and he just stared at me like he was seeing a ghost. I pretty quickly decided that we probably weren’t on any land that belonged to the house, and that it was unlikely anyone was actually home, as they would have seen our lights and fire the night before. I did find it somewhat hilarious that we camped as close as we possibly could have to the very place I had mentioned wanting to avoid the night before.
We had a fire going in record time. Before getting into breakfast we all took a few minutes to warm up around the fire and have a talk about what we wanted to do for that night. We decided that while we would ultimately see where the day took us, we would pack out camp that morning and do a bit of exploring in the area, then hit some hiking trails before driving the nearly 15 hours back home through the night.
Breakfast for the morning was to be scrambled eggs and sausage. This trip was full of confirmation that we are prepared and have experience we need to do longer and more remote trips in the future. Another thing it confirmed is that we need some serious practice when it comes to cooking in camp.
For starters, my butane stove wouldn’t light for reasons still beyond me. It’s less than a year old and has seen pretty light use. We tried everything we could to get it to light, with no luck. This meant we’d have to cook everything using the fire.
So we built a small platform out of rocks to put our skillet on which we would use to cook our eggs. I cannot put into words how terribly this went. The skillet was never really hot enough to cook the eggs on. Ashes were raining down into the pan. Here’s what our first attempt looked like. Payton actually ate these.
Our second batch was definitely the strongest, and I quickly claimed those. We then learned that Noah didn’t even know how to scramble eggs, and had only made them twice in his life. The sausages were also pretty unappetizing on the outside, although still edible.
So, while not completely satisfied with our breakfast, we packed up camp and then took a bit to just take in where we were. We didn’t have any amazing views from our camp spot but we were in the mountains! It wasn’t as cold now and we had a full day of adventure ahead of us.
Our first stop would be the Williams Creek Reservoir up the road that we had began to check out the night before. The pictures I had found online ahead of our trip were incredible, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for the views here. As the frozen reservoir (can we just call it a lake from now on?) came into view behind the trees we were blown away by everything we were seeing.
At first we continued on past the pulloff to campground and use area, just to see what else was up along the road. Not much… besides all the designated dispersed camping spots along the road we couldn't find the night before, and then another campground.. This time with no gate.
We turned around to head back to the day use area at the lake. We parked and jumped out of the truck, full of wonderment and adventure. This was the view that greeted us.
After Payton checked out the ice and decided it was definitely thick enough for us to walk around on, we all set out onto the lake. I don’t know how many places I’ve been where I’ve thought the views were like, actually stunning. Crater Lake maybe. That’s honestly the closest comparison I have on the cool scale. This place was that good.
Would it have been if it wasn’t frozen over and we weren’t able to run around on it and be the only people for miles? Probably not. It was an absolutely amazing experience. Slightly unnerving, as the ice was constantly cracking and expanding. You know in the second Ice Age movie when the giant wall of ice cracks and gives away? That’s what sound we were hearing the entire time.
Eventually, we had our fill of a good time. We agreed that no matter what else we saw, this entire trip was worth it for this one stop. The weather was warming up, the sun was out, and we were in the mountains (and we could actually see them now in the daylight!) We loaded back up in Dudley and hit the snow covered road back to town.
The adventure was on.