Rangers crack down on dispersed camping at unofficial sites in Summit County due to crowding, environmental damage


A numbered sign designates a dispersed camping site on Boreas Pass Road near Breckenridge. The tent symbol pictured here on Friday indicates where you can legally camp on Forest Service land. Enforcement of new dispersed camping rules went into effect July 29 for Boreas Pass Road.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

The Dillon Ranger District will be closing unofficial dispersed camping sites in popular areas of Summit County and placing signage at official dispersed camping sites to help visitors better understand where they are allowed to camp.

Parking your car or trailer to camp at sites that are not marked with a tent symbol and site number will be illegal once designated sites are implemented. The Forest Service started requiring campers to use designated sites on Boreas Pass Road on Friday, July 29. Designated sites will be implemented at Peru Creek on Aug. 26 and at Spruce Creek and McCollough Gulch starting Sept. 30.

The change is being made in an effort to help prevent wildfires and allow for better protection of natural resources, according to a U.S. Forest Service statement.

Forest Service guidelines ask that campsites are set up at least 300 feet from the Forest Service road and at least 100 feet from lakes, streams and trails.

Dispersed camping is any camping that is done on public land and not in developed campgrounds. The camping is free, but there are no bathrooms, running water or electricity.

The Frappier family enjoys a campfire at a dispersed campsite on Boreas Pass Road near Breckenridge during their vacation from Quebec.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

David Boyd, the public affairs officer of the White River National Forest, said because there are very few developed campgrounds in the White River National Forest, dispersed camping is very popular in Summit County. 

“We’re just seeing, in the last few years, significantly increased use all across the forest. And with the Dillon Ranger District being the closest to the Front Range, it’s seeing the heaviest use,” Boyd said. 

Deanna Carew, a Summit County local for the past seven years, said because of increased use, she has seen “egregious” conditions along Peru Creek Road. While she doesn’t disperse camp herself, Carew has frequented Peru Creek Road to access popular trailheads. 

Last summer, Carew was on a drive to Chihuahua Gulch Trailhead when she saw a white kitchen garbage bag hung 3 feet off the ground at a Peru Creek Road dispersed site. Carew was concerned because a bear could detect any smells that permeate from the bag and easily rip it open to access food inside due to the bag’s low proximity to the ground. 

If a bear finds food at a campsite, Boyd said federal protocol is almost always to euthanize the bear. Bears remember food sources, Boyd said, and they are known to frequent campgrounds if they find food even once. 

Therefore, the Forest Service encourages campers to keep food in their car or to use proper bear-proof containers. 

Boyd also shared that he’s seen a plethora of trash and waste.

“In legal and illegal dispersed camping sites, we’re often cleaning those up after a weekend because of trash people leave,” he said. 

Another common issue at dispersed campsites is improper disposal and handling of human waste. Carew said she’s heard of toilet paper strewn around dispersed campsites and has seen toilet paper on the side of Forest Service trails. 

Boyd encourages campers to pack out their waste, especially at dispersed camping sites.

“We ask that people think about the campers that are coming after them,” he said. If packing it out is not an option, proper handling of solid waste can be found on the White River National Forest dispersed camping webpage.

Carew hopes that designated dispersed sites will bring more education, reduced crowding and a higher frequency of Forest Service rangers in the proposed areas. 

So what will an official designation change about the dispersed campsites? 

Designated sites prevent visitors from creating new sites or staying in sites that pose danger to the forest. From now on, the only dispersed camping sites will be ones already carved out by years of use that strictly follow forest service guidelines. 

There will still be no water, electricity or bathrooms, but the spaces will be cleaned up and marked appropriately. By winter, Boyd said the Forest Service will start to officially map the sites. 

Another benefit is a decreased risk of fire danger. According to Boyd, many of the future designated sites are “hardened” from years of use, so there is less vegetation and well established stone-constructed fire rings that prevent the spread of flames and embers. 

Corey Richardson, the district recreation staff officer for the White River National Forest, said the same number of rangers and volunteers will be out to check on sites. However, the designated campsite system will make it more efficient for them to ensure the safety of campers and of the forest. 

The process to officially designate dispersed sites also includes cleaning dispersed camping sites and rehabilitating sites that don’t follow forest service guidelines. 

The Youth Forest Steward crew recently did a project at Peru Creek, one of the dispersed sites that was chosen for designation this summer. According to the Friends of the Dillon Ranger Districts’ Instagram, the crew eliminated illegal fire rings, fixed compacted soil and planted seed.

The best guidelines to follow when camping at a dispersed site are outlined on the White River National Forest’s dispersed camping webpage at FS.USDA.gov

The Forest Service also encourages Leave No Trace principles, Boyd said. The seven Leave No Trace principles can be found at LNT.org under the “Why Leave No Trace?” drop down menu.


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