Shannon Gilmour and some friends from Centennial were looking for a place to camp this summer and ended up next to Vasquez Creek. They found a campsite to accommodate their group of 12 people and two dogs the first weekend in August.
“A friend of mine who has a condo up here told me there was camping up this way, but I really have to give credit to the uncovercolorado blog. He rated it fifth in the state,” Gilmour said.
Indeed, “Vasquez Ridge” appears fifth on the list of Best Camping in Colorado from a June 2013 entry on the blog, after the Maroon Bells and before Guanella Pass. The blogger describes it as: “Free Camping only a few miles from downtown Winter Park.”
The close vicinity to town is a draw. But it may contribute to the crowding on certain weekends, according to Sulphur Ranger District Public Affairs Officer Reid Armstrong.
“The number of campers in the Winter Park area has increased with the amount of marketing and events,” she said. “Increased use has been reflected on the National Forest whether it’s for biking or camping or people walking their dogs.”
The free camping on upper Vasquez Road is “dispersed camping,” so there is no designated number of sites nor is there a limit to the number of users that can be in the area. There are also no fees associated with camping there because the Forest Service does not provide amenities such as water, trash service, nor toilet facilities.
The Forest Service did not quantify the amount of the increases, but Recreation Manager Nick Schade said that he can confirm use is growing, based on employee observations.
“Free camping comes with a price,” he said. “We have trash issues and sanitation issues and increased patrols needed.”
New facility in the works
Bruce Hutchins, district manager for Grand County Water & Sanitation District #1, has also observed greater numbers of campers near the district’s Big Mac water treatment plant on Vasquez Creek.
“I think it is increasing with the amount of events in town. During the festival weekends, the town is packed and the camp sites get the overflow.”
Grand County Water and Sanitation District #1 operates the only portable outhouse available in the Vasquez Creek dispersed camping area. The district empties it weekly, at a cost of $95 per month. Although it was installed for employee use when the treatment plant was expanded in 2006, the district leaves it unlocked for the campers because it contributes to better sanitary conditions along the waterway.
“There aren’t any real facilities up there for them. It seems like nobody wants to walk uphill to do their business. People will drive down the road to use it,” he said.
The district is planning to install a higher capacity vault toilet like those used in other forest service camp areas. The estimated installation cost is $25,000.
“We’re really close. It was supposed to get done this summer but it may get pushed until next year,” Hutchins said.
The district is always concerned with water quality, which it tests on a monthly basis. Officials have seen the fecal coliform counts go up in the raw (untreated) water samples. Fecal coliform are bacteria found in human and animal feces. Its presence can indicate other, more dangerous pathogens are present.
The water treatment facility is designed to clean the water and make it safe for consumption, and Hutchins is confident that the water quality is not at risk.
“It’s still a lot better watershed than 99.9 percent of the country uses,” he said.
Grand County Water and Sanitation District #1 serves downtown Winter Park including Beaver Village, Leland Creek, and Hi Country Haus.
The Forest Service also wants to keep the impacts near the creek minimal. Rangers carry “leave no trace” information and try to discuss proper care of public lands with users. High on their list is using established camp sites rather than creating new ones, and disposing of all human waste at least 200 feet (70 adult paces) from any water source, trail, or camp site.
Length of stay limited
The Gilmour party had little trouble finding a nice spot to camp when they arrived mid-day last Friday. But some weekends cars troll Vasquez Road searching for an available site.
Casey, a young man who relocated to the Fraser Valley three years ago, doesn’t feel that he has an unfair advantage by holding his site for longer periods of time.
“There are so many campsites,” he said. “There is plenty of forest for everyone to camp in.”
The Forest Service policy states that 14 days is the maximum time allotted to campers in one location.
“It’s not legal to reside on the National Forest,” said Armstrong. “This is the public’s land, and it’s not meant for people to make it their personal home. If someone takes the best spot to set up their tent for the summer then no one else gets to enjoy that spot.”
Violators can face fines from $275 up to $5,000 and possible jail time of up to a year. Repeat offenders have been banned from using the National Forest.
According to Colorado’s department of local affairs, the state’s population is expected to grow by half a million people in the next five years with 77.39 percent (379,250 people) of that growth on the Front Range. Recreating on public lands is part of Colorado’s culture and a reason people move here.
“People just love to go camping,” said Winter Park-Fraser Valley Chamber Director Catherine Ross. “Especially a year like this when the fire danger is lower. You can have a campfire and everyone loves that.”
The pine beetle has required many resources for the past several years. Now the Forest Service is ready to move forward with other plans.
“We’re working on a master trails plan,” said Armstrong. “That’s something that we’ve been able to turn our focus to now.”
As for camping, the discussions are preliminary but the vision is forming.
“The best model — the one we think would be ideal — is to have enough developed campsites close to town,” said Armstrong. “We think it’s important for the Town and the Chamber to be part of comprehensive planning for camping.”
The Town of Winter Park and the Chamber have indicated they are willing partners.
“It’s a great experience but I think we can make it better,” Ross said.
“It seems like nobody wants to walk uphill to do their business.”
District Manager, Grand County Water & Sanitation District #1