Primitive Camping in Estes Park

In celebration of our first weekend off, I decided it was time to do something exciting, refreshing, and naturey. Thus, Saturday afternoon I dragged the extremely exhausted David and non-surprisingly energetic Lacey into the PT Cruiser. I had a vague idea of where we were headed — Estes Park — and really no clue where we would sleep that night, but I started driving toward the mountains while David slept in the passenger seat and Lacey repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to sit in my lap.

I should mention that, as I’m writing now, Lacey is fast asleep with her head in my lap, and David is passed out with his head on Lacey’s butt. This is love.

As soon as we reached Estes Park, an adorable town nestled in the valley beneath the Rockies, I began calling campsites. Full. What about this one… full. Okay let’s try this one… full again. The panic set in as I kept driving. I woke David up and asked him to call… full. All full. We were both pretty stressed at this point until the call stopped working. No service.

Well, at this point, there was really nothing we could do other than keep driving and hope that we come across someplace to camp. We drove past the turn for our backcountry campsite from earlier this summer, and finally turned in at “Olive Ridge.” The sign said “NO RESERVATIONS NECESSARY” so we drove around, eyes peeled for an empty site. We lost hope quickly, though, until we saw a woman driving a golf cart who looked like she pitied us. I rolled down my window. “Any empty sites?” “No, honey…” she was wonderfully kind and sympathetic which made it feel a bit less defeating. “…but,” she said, “there’s a primitive campsite only a few miles down. No bathrooms, but it’s someplace to sleep.” We were thrilled. She proceeded to give us directions (sketchy directions, but it was better than nothing) and we were on our way.

20 minutes of bumpy dirt road later with signs reading “forest access ahead” which we assumed meant someplace we wouldn’t be kicked out for setting up tent, we had reached the most beautiful stretch of road. Campsites sporadically littered both sides of the road, with just a few campers having set up. I can’t explain the relief, but believe me when I say we were in high heaven. The sun was beginning to turn golden in its arc through the pines and we knew we had only a couple more hours of sunlight, so we found a spot (evident by a slight cleared area and a small circle of stones where a fire could be built) and set up camp.

Our neighbors had an RV and had already built a fire and set up a couple of tiki torches — the overall effect, with the sunlight streaming through, was fairy-like. I wish I had taken a picture, but it is vivid in my mind. The smoke twirled around the pines, spinning upwards as the sunlight penetrated it downwards. I could see the individual wisps of smoke, some more translucent than others. It made the sunlight seem palpable. The smell was of burning pine sap, a smell from childhood hikes laced with fascination.

Once set up, we began to walk. In that first picture you can see the path we walked down; it was a dirt road designed for any kind of transportation, from bike to car to foot, although this area was pretty deep into the woods so there were only a few cars to be wary of.

Lacey adored the path. She danced from side to side, seeming constantly distracted by something new. We saw an elk grazing on the side of the road, although it moved away as we approached. The trees were mostly pine, but every so often we found a grove of some magnificent tree with white bark, black limbs, and brilliant light green leaves. It looked like dogwood, perhaps. I’m not sure.

We spent hours just wandering, not trying to get anywhere. It was a different experience from those we’d had, hiking trails up mountains, because we were just existing among.

The last few photos here are a result of going off-trail: we wandered to the right, following Lacey sometimes and simply walking upwards until we reached an outcropping of rocks. We climbed atop it to find this view (last photo above). An endless range of mountains. As we sat, we pulled out some banana bread we made and shared it with Lacey. A flock of birds, black and white with shining dark-green patches on their backs, dive-bombed us; I think they wanted the food as well. They flew so near our faces that we could hear them, only when they were inches away. They were too quick to be prepared for their approach.

We kept walking and wandering.

When dusk truly began to fall, we walked back. Along the way we met and spoke with a group of middle-aged women who were enamored with Lacey — I believe that meeting people, actually meeting them and not simply a shadow, semi-genuine version of them, is wonderfully easy among nature.

We built a fire, gathering firewood from the surrounding area. I’m still a beginner in the ways of fire-creation, so we had only a few close calls.


One thing I truly believe: it is far less important to be prepared than to simply do.


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