Finding a cozy little spot that few of the mainstream tourists know about definitely is a primary goal when planning a great escape and this is where the lesser known National Forest destinations fit into the picture. National Forest destinations are not usually featured on the cover of motel lobby tourism brochures, so to find these cozy spots a little bit of research must be done prior to arrival. Doing a map search for campgrounds, trailheads or landmarks in a specific National Forest website will often turn up many surprises. Browsing a National Forest website will also reveal many outdoor recreation options that may not already be known. What this all adds up to is there are plenty of places to escape from the big crowds in the National Forests and all that a visitor needs to do is figure out where to go!
The San Juan National Forest covers a vast amount of mountainous terrain in southwestern Colorado and there are plenty of cozy spots to be discovered. Some destinations can be accessed with a regular passenger car, while access for others will require a 4x4 or doing some hiking. Most of the San Juan National Forest roads are dirt roads and the conditions do vary greatly. Some of the National Forest dirt roads are rated as 4x4 vehicles only and there are also roads where RV campers or trailers are not allowed, so once again, doing some research ahead of time will prevent headaches later on down the road.
As a rule of thumb, the closer that a National Forest destination is to a city, the better the dirt road conditions will be. This is especially true in the Durango area and this is where the San Juan National Forest Lower Hermosa Campground can be found. The dirt road going uphill from Highway 550 in Hermosa is nearly always smooth enough for a passenger car, so it is easy to escape to this cozy little spot! In Hermosa, County Road 576 road follows Hermosa Creek uphill into the mountains past a few ranches to a large parking area in a deep forest. The parking area is for the Hermosa Creek Hiking Trail system, which actually is quite extensive. The Lower Hermosa Campground is located next to the trailheads, so for an avid hiker or mountain biker, it does not get much more convenient than this!
The Lower Hermosa Campground is in a tall pine forest way up in the mountains, so the setting is as pleasant as can be. This is a small campground that offers a limited amount of campsites, so large groups may have to look elsewhere. The campsites are equipped with fire rings, picnic tables and there is a pit toilet on site. However, there is no running water, but for those who have filtration systems, Hermosa Creek is not far away and there are plenty of natural springs in these mountains. In fact, there are some hot springs resorts downhill along the highway, so this cozy little spot sure can be an alluring place for some long overdue relaxation.
The Lower Hermosa Creek Campground is closed for the winter and open all summer, so the local activities are warm weather related. Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding on the Hermosa Creek Trails is what most of the daytime visitors come here to do, so this destination can be more like a day use area than a campground, especially on weekends. This may be surprising, but even when busy there are usually a few empty campsites available on any given day, because the primary focus is on the trails.
The main environmental condition to pay attention to when camping in a mountain pine forest is fire danger. The Hermosa Creek region was consumed by the 416 Wildfire fire back in 2018, so the fire danger is in fact real, especially during seasons of drought. The photos for the Lower Hermosa Creek album were shot just a few days before the 416 Wildfire began, back when I lived in Colorado. My home was only a couple miles away and watching the flames get closer certainly was a worrisome sight. Much of Hermosa Creek was scorched, but it has been a few years since the disaster occurred and plenty of new green growth has taken place. For this reason, the photos may not truly represent this area as it exists at the current time.
The Lower Hermosa Campground was closed for a long time after the 416 Wildfire, but this area is now open to the public once again. When seeking a cozy campsite while touring the Million Dollar Highway through the San Juan National Forest, the cozy Lower Hermosa Campground is a good one to keep in mind!
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