How to navigate the new designated camping rules in Crested Butte

Morgan Tilton

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Public land surrounding Crested Butte has officially switched to designated camping.(Photo by Eric Phillips.)

With rugged peaks, rolling waterfalls, popping aspens, and vibrant wildflowers, Crested Butte is a well-known paradise for summer campouts in the upper corner of Southwest Colorado.

Nestled in the Elk Mountains, the high-altitude hamlet is reached roughly 200 miles from the Front Range via the scenic Kebler, Cottonwood, or Monarch Passes. The mountainous destination has become even more popular in recent years for outdoor overnights, leading to land and resource issues.

To help manage the surge of campers, the six picturesque drainages surrounding Crested Butte now feature designated camping, following suit with the designated sites in Gunnison's Hartman Rocks Recreation Area 30 miles south.

In short: You can no longer camp anywhere you want to.

"People understand the value of [designated campsites] and that it needed to get done. People are really taking well to the change and following the visual signage. There's been no complaints, the change seems to make sense, and folks realize it's not the boogeyman. It also provides parking," said Dave Ochs, Executive Director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, which oversees the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC), the trail and stewardship organization contracted to install the designated sites.

Here's how to navigate the newly designated camping (also referred to as designated dispersed camping) in Crested Butte, a transition completed in summer 2022, and where to camp if you prefer to make a reservation or experience less campsite competition.

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Each designated campsite is marked with a numbered wooden post.(Photo by Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association.)

The rules for ‘designated’ camping in Crested Butte

The newly designated campsites speckle the 20,000 acres of the Gunnison National Forest closest to Crested Butte.

Designated campsites, officially established and marked spots for campers, often are remote and lack amenities in contrast to a campground.

The six awe-inspiring drainages with dispersed camping include:

  • Slate River Road #734: 43 sites
  • Washington Gulch Road #811: 47 sites
  • Brush Creek Road #738: 41 sites
  • Cement Creek Road #740: 26 sites
  • Gothic Road #317: 14 sites
  • Kebler Pass Road #12: 36 sites

Off of Kebler Pass, there are also designated sites up Irwin Lake Road #826.

A wooden post with a number and the universal camp symbol marks each designated campsite.

The sites allow campfires only in each site's metal fire ring, including during Stage 1 fire restrictions. (A stage 2 fire restriction is a total ban of fires, even those in a metal fire ring).

Each site provides parking for two vehicles. Sites are first-come, first-served with a 14-day maximum limit. Users can't save campsites.

Campers who fail to follow regulations can be ticketed and fined up to $5,000 per individual, double for an organization, and jailed for up to 6 months, or both.

The sites are free-of-charge and non-reservable. "A fee system is in discussion, which is a massive process…and it's years and years out if it'll happen at all. The system is also working the way it is now without fees," said Ochs.

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Campfires are only permitted in the metal fire ring at each designated campsite.(Photo by Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association.)

Plan for packing out waste

Most designated campsites do not have restrooms or garbage facilities, so campers must pack out human and dog waste.

"There are regular issues with feces and toilet paper. We are trying to encourage people to bring their own self-contained stuff for a pack-in, pack-out situation. That's the most minimal impact," said Ochs.

The CBCC removes nearly 1,200 pounds of trash from trails each year, including deserted camp toilets.

Here's a simple pack list for campers:

  • Trash bag (for general trash)
  • Dog poop bags
  • Human waste bathroom kits or wag bags, sanitization wipes

Campers can use compostable dog poop bags to pick up pet waste. Following Leave No Trace principles do not leave the bag on the trail, at a trailhead kiosk, campsite, or a trailhead restroom. Take the dog poop bag with you when you go and dispose of the bag according to the instructions.

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PACT Outdoors Bathroom Kits include all the tools you need to go to the bathroom in the outdoors.(Photo by PACT Outdoors.)

Bring wag bags for personal relief at your campsite. Often used by backpackers in precious environments, a wag bag is a disposable bag for collecting human waste, which can be transported and thrown in the garbage.

Otherwise, be ready with your tools to dig a cat hole: a specific burial spot for human waste 200 feet (70 steps) away from water, trails, and campsites, as outlined by Leave No Trace. The pit needs to be 8 inches deep, 6 inches wide, and completely covered afterward. Pack out and properly dispose of your toilet paper.

Campers can also consider grabbing a PACT kit. Based in Crested Butte, the outdoor company produces a compact, on-the-go outdoor bathroom pack that includes everything you need for an easy, hygienic, Leave No Trace experience. And you don't have to carry out the biodegradable PACT wipes.

Have a sturdy trash bag to pack out general trash. Do not leave trash along a trail, at a trailhead kiosk, campsite, or a trailhead restroom.

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The six drainages that surround Crested Butte now only offer designated camping compared to other areas further away from town.(Photo by Eric Phillips.)

What is ‘dispersed’ camping

Previously, the region surrounding Crested Butte operated with dispersed camping.

Beyond the newly designated sites, more than 1 million acres of national forest are available for dispersed camping.

Dispersed camping occurs on undeveloped outdoor areas away from established campgrounds or campsites with amenities, installations, or signage. This type of camping is typically cost-free and non-reservable. It has a time limit of 14 consecutive days in national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public land.

Under those parameters, travelers to the Crested Butte area could formerly set up their tent where they wanted as long as they followed the land management regulations, which align with Leave No Trace principles and help lessen environmental impact.

That means folks could establish camp on previously disturbed, flat ground at least 100 feet away from all water sources.

Adventurers could study the national forest Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs), which specifically designate how far you can drive off established roads. For instance, in areas managed by Gunnison National Forest, vehicles could generally travel up to 300 feet from the centerline of roadways. In more sensitive spots, drivers could venture only 30 feet from the road.

Ensure you know the land management regulations of the area where you plan to travel and camp.

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Dispersed campsites are convenient but can lead to longterm environmental impacts in popular areas.(Photo by Eric Phillips.)

Why the dispersed camping no longer works

A conversion plan was in motion more than a decade ago when Gunnison Ranger District started designing a new camping strategy, partially due to increased visitation.

In 2020, camper traffic hit a tipping point. Similar to other jaw-dropping locations in Colorado and across the nation, the Crested Butte area's quantity of sustainable dispersed sites could not meet the needs of the high number of campers seeking to stay overnight.

Campers created multiple illicit new sites, roadways, and parking spots in locations that are not environmentally friendly. Fragile environments, such as wildflower fields, were trampled.

For instance, campsites popped up alongside waterways, which contributed to the increase of E. Coli bacteria; new campsites were set up on steep slopes, which caused erosion issues.

The CBCC blocked off 31 unauthorized driving routes and removed 105 illegitimate fire rings that summer alone.

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Curecanti National Recreation Area has hundreds of campsites overlooking Blue Mesa Reservoir.(Photo by Eric Phillips.)

Other camping options in Crested Butte Gunnison Valley

If you plan to camp in the Crested Butte Gunnison Valley, have a backup plan for another one or two spots you can camp if your first pick is occupied.

Travel goes smoother if you can arrive early in the day, so you aren't trying to navigate rough, narrow dirt roads (often without cell service) in the dark or after designated campsites are occupied.

Beyond these designated sites close to Crested Butte, countless campgrounds are sprinkled throughout the area with amenities like toilets, showers, RV hookups, water, and picnic tables. Some of the sites are even reservable.

Below are camp options to help you create an itinerary for overnight camping in Gunnison Valley.

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Be sure to check the camping regulations and fire restrictions before you go.(Photo by Eric Phillips.)

First-come, first-served campgrounds and campsites:

Reservable sites:

Mixed reservable/non-reservable sites:

Private Campgrounds:

Maps for Camping in Crested Butte

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO
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