One thing I can tell you about me is that I am not much of planner. I really love the spontaneity of last minute plans. And that’s not great for camping because a lot of campgrounds book up in advance, especially the good ones. And it’s even harder to get a site on holiday weekends – like the 4th of July. But I was determined to find something, since this was our first chance to get out for a weekend of camping since moving to Colorado! And since I never plan ahead, I knew it would take just a little research and perserverence to find some great camping near Boulder.
On a busy weekend like this one, your best bet is to find a campground with first-come, first-serve sites – and get there early. On Friday morning, I loaded the kids, the dog, and a tent in the car and drove to the Pawnee Campground in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area to snag one of those sites. This was at the top of my list because it was only about an hour from Boulder.
And we lucked out with a great campsite in a gorgeous mountain setting!
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Here is What You Need to Know:
The Pawnee Campground and the Brainard Lake Recreation Area are really popular. Whether you are camping or just visiting for the day, the lines to get through the gates can get long. Don’t worry about competing for space with all those people that you were waiting in line with though. The traffic in and out is well controlled, so it doesn’t feel crowded or busy.
Make sure to bring some cash to pay for your site (if you didn’t reserve in advance) and the fee to enter the park. The campsite fee does not include the park entrance fee ($11 will cover a car for 3 days).
This is bear country, but bear lockers are provided. Load your cooler and smellables (food, toiletries, and anything else with any odor) whenever you leave your campsite and before bed. Yes, camping in bear country freaked me out a little. But if we are going to camp in Colorado, I figured we’d better just embrace it – and prepare. The Colorado Parks & Wildlife is a good resource for learning to keep yourself (and the bears) protected!
Tip: Get organized at home and pack all smellables in designated bag or tote. Otherwise you’ll be digging through all your stuff for everything that needs to go into the locker. See this post on camping gear for my favorite totes to use for camping!
The campground doesn’t have showers or flush toilets (only vault toilets). But there is drinking water available. Although I really didn’t like the thought of using the vault toilets for 3 days, the camp hosts do a great job keeping things clean, and they really were not that bad!Looking for #campsites near Boulder CO? Pawnee @ Brainard Lake is a top #camping pick! Click To Tweet
There Is Not a Bad Site in the Campground
There are two main loops in the Pawnee Campground – the Elk Loop and the Moose Loop. The Elk Loop (to your right once in the campground) has both walk-to and (the more typical) drive-to sites. While the walk-to sites have plenty of tree cover, the drive-to sites are much more open. We wanted to park at our site for this trip though, so we opted for a site in the Moose Loop where we could get more tree cover. I don’t think there was a bad site in the entire loop, but you’ll get some views of the mountains from sites 24, 25, 26, and 27.
There is lots of space between the sites, so even when the campground is full, you still have plenty of privacy.
Be Ready For the Cold – Even in the Summer!
This campground is in the high elevation (10,300 ft above sea level), so even though you’re camping near Boulder, it gets really cold at night. Plan for cold nights and warm days. Remember to bring base layers, hats, and warm bedding! The days do get warm enough for shorts, but the tree cover still provided enough shade to prevent all snow from melting. There was enough snow on the ground that a few sites were closed off. (But playing in the snow with shorts on kept the kids entertained for quite a while!)
Things To Do While Camping at Pawnee
Plan for some lake time. Brainard Lake has a gorgeous mountain backdrop, and the lake is perfect for a kayak, canoe, or SUP. If you fish, this is a great place for it!
The lake is just a short walk from the campground, so there is no need to get back into the car.
We didn’t know to bring our kayaks this time, but will definitely have them for next time! (For kayaks that can easily be packed up and brought almost anywhere, check out these kayak from Intex. We bring them everywhere, from beaches to mountains!)
Take a walk around the lake or hike one of the many trails in the recreation area. Many trailheads are right there by the lake, making it very convenient to get on a trail quickly. We packed a lunch and hiked to Mitchell Lake for a picnic. There was quite a bit of cloud cover that day, but the views were still gorgeous. We even found a few moose grazing in the field across the lake.
Hiking with the kids for the first time? Read my tips to make those first hikes great ones!
In case you need to run to town for any essentials, Ward is just a short drive from the campground. (Just be aware that Ward is a really small town, so supplies might be limited.)
We like to spend most of our time near the campground when we are just there for the weekend, but civilization isn’t far if you want to get out for a few hours. Since you are camping near Boulder, it’s always worth a visit to the nearby college town. Estes Park is also about an hour from the campground, and Nederland is less than 30 minutes away.
The next time you are looking for camping near Boulder, Pawnee is one of the best in the area. But if you want to go a little further into the mountains, check out this review of Cow Creek South Campground from Travel Plus Family!
Are you a Colorado tent camper? I’d love to hear about your favorite campgrounds in the comments!