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Reservoir Dogs: Camping on Local Waters














It’s summertime, and with the Summer sun comes all the things we wanted to do all year between last Fall, the coldest winter in decades, and through surviving our global coronavirus pandemic 2020 plague lockdown. That was a lot of words. I’m not sorry. Overlapping the lockdown, over the last few months, we definitely got involved in a few #BlackLivesMatter protests (strictly for coverage, obviously) and definitely got tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and shot with rubber bullets.




Now that much of that has died down, while many dedicated and brave souls continue marching in Aurora for Elijah McClain and demonstrating in Denver, tearing down monuments to racists and murderers across the nation, and occupying government meetings, it’s time to consider self-care. 


Self-care, as far as I can tell, almost always involves getting away from other people, relaxing, communing with nature, looking inward to the soul, and water sports. I’m not sure if that last one is officially self-care, but if it’s not, I think we can all agree it should be. For the 2020 June HOT issue travel article, yours truly, De La Vaca with the big hair bun, decided to get out and review our regional reservoirs for camping. I went with a crew, I went with a few; let’s call them Reservoir Dogs. 


Let me be honest at the outset, lest you think this was a puritanical environmental adventure strictly for communion with nature and hours of meditation: there was drinking. There was madness. There were sun burns. There was a severe lack of social distancing at one location. There was a whole lot of drive time, but who cares when you’re driving through our glorious mountains? And there was definitely a lot of drinking. Did I say drinking already? Well yeah, it’s important, stay hydrated. Science!


This is what happened. But first…what the hell is a reservoir and why camp there? 



There are hundreds of lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, but one Wikipedia page lists only 62 reservoirs. National Geographic is instructive in that, “A reservoir is an artificial lake where water is stored. Most reservoirs are formed by constructing dams across rivers. A reservoir can also be formed from a natural lake whose outlet has been dammed to control the water level. The dam controls the amount of water that flows out of the reservoir.” Cool. For the record, just because I’m a fan of hydrology and took a bunch of Landscape Architecture courses in college, most dams are bad ideas. There are whole movements to undam rivers so water – and the fish that inhabit those waters – can move freely.


On the plus side, dams exist to store water for communities. I’m not gonna say that’s greedy, since it’s how large communities are able to exist, and I won’t get into water rights and deprivations, like how Northern Mexico is drier than it should be since the Colorado river doesn’t make it all the way down where it used to. But I digress…


As reservoirs exist to store water for consumption and agriculture, the land around reservoirs becomes public land. And because it’s public land, access is regulated – either by the state (Colorado Parks and Wildlife) or the National Parks Service. Some reservoirs are completely off limits, some have limited access (like daytime recreation hours or limited water access) and some are full access, meaning camp all you want and bring a boat or paddle board. So now… how were the reservoirs?


How was the reservoir experience?

Starting with the only place we really camped, Rifle Gap Reservoir is an interesting case. Wikipedia tells us that “Rifle Gap Dam is a dam in Garfield County, Colorado, about five and a half miles north of Rifle. The earthen dam was constructed between 1964 and 1967 by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, with a height of 157 feet and 1450 feet long at its crest.” You can see the dam wall from the beach and many campsites, and you can drive right over it without noticing. It’s 3 hours and 17 minutes from my friend Kaley’s house (she lives near Denver Tech Center), about 50 minutes from Erie. We arrived at Rifle Gap Reservoir four hours after our reservation time – luckily they don’t reassign campsites till 10 pm, though check in is at 1pm. Luckily our campsite hadn’t been taken over by squatters or wild animals.


A beautiful drive, dulled only be an incredible about of roadwork in both directions, and matched only by the beauty of the lake as you drive in, ends with you pulling into your campsite (if you were lucky enough to get a pull in), or pulling up as near as possible to your campsite. Our walk-in only campsite, space number 141, sounded like a helluva hike when we booked it so we were really excited to find that the walk-in was an extremely short distance (maybe 50 ft.) and the bathrooms were very close. 


The campsite, it must be noted in the current crisis climate, was also exceedingly clean and well spaced out from other campers’ sites. In the current camping in the time of Coronavirus global pandemic situation, it’s nice to be somewhere without mandatory and necessary masks because we’re all camping on top of each other; please note that we 100 percent support wearing masks. 


As quickly as possible, we set up, we chilled, we poured some drinks, and we drove down to the various shores, including an incredibly muddy non-swimming beachhead, before moving to a rocky peninsula and holding an impromptu photoshoot on the edge of the lake where no swimming is allowed but which is a much lovelier place for a photoshoot. 


The weekend goes by, as it is wont to do, and we were left with lots of feelings about it. Pick a reservoir that has great beaches; the swimming beach at Rifle Gap was rocky, covered in large thorns, and muddy enough that making our way into the water was off the table. It’s only good for watercraft, which it would be epic for. Large stretches of open water to let it rip, tiny islands for private parties, safe for paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes, mean this place, and most reservoirs, are almost exclusively for those prepared to be out on the water. 


We also popped by Chatfield for an event. The Denver 20/30s Singles group on facebook, with 1,783 members currently, hosted a campsite party called “Chatfield Tittie Day”. There was no nudity, but the name, given facetiously, added an element of the risque to an otherwise chill event. 


Importantly, the park rangers were there preventing access to Chatfield at the entrances, given COVID protocols, and we saw dozens and dozens of cars turned away. We were able to park and walk in from the main roads, off Wadsworth, where our campsite party was located. 


Arriving, as you can see in the picture, dozens of young singles were mixing and mingling, without a mask in sight. And there were plenty more campsites engaged in the same behavior down the shore from where we were. 




While an incredibly good time, we couldn’t help but wonder if this investigative drinking – we mean reporting – would end with us in the hospital dying from Coronavirus. It’s not a joke. We believe the science completely.


“Carter Lake,” my friend Mike McDaniel tells me, “is not far from Denver and has the clearest water on the Front Range.” He would know because he first went with a scuba group doing an open water certification, meaning he’s been on a lot of local water, and under a lot of local water. Reminder that Colorado is one of the best places in the country for scuba diving. (See: Scuba Diving in CO: Spend your Summer Beneath the Surface, YS June ‘19.)


McDaniel says he “camped at the South shore a couple of times and it has great facilities,” and that the “North shore has a solid marina market and [a] grill with decent burgers.” In a nod to the local penchant for watercraft and water sport, (see: The Splash: Colorado Water Sports, YS March ‘18), he points out that the location is, “also cool because it doesn’t ice over so you can boat almost year round”. COunt us in for winter boating, sipping warm drinks as the air freezes around us, a light snow being quickly absorbed into the waters around us. 


In terms of best beaches and locations to chill, McDaniels says that, “the west side of the lake is all natural flagstone, from which a visitor can build thrones and castles… Go see the beach on the East, but [his] preference is to park at the South shore campground and walk in on the Western shore: there is a little cove there with sorta small rock jumping options.”


Convinced yet?

Camping is a great human pastime, as is loving the water. Whether you camp at lakes or camp at a reservoir, go fully prepared for more days than you plan to stay. Our last day at Rifle Gap got dicey when we realized we were out of water and still had to navigate a groggy morning while packing out. Reservoirs are often gorgeous, well designed, well maintained bodies of water with access for camping, fishing, or recreating. We highly recommend looking into how you plan to spend your time – suntanning, swimming, fishing, or out on the water – and finding a reservoir with the features to match. Otherwise, you may end up on a rough beach with no boat and a muddy shoreline.   


Have fun, stay safe, and tag us in your camping photos.


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