Colorado may be home to many of the more picturesque vistas this side of the nation’s largest ball of twine, but time, money and mere organization can prevent many of us from ever soaking in the region’s well-documented mountain majesties.
That’s why the state library system teamed up with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to launch the Check-Out Colorado State Parks program, an initiative intended to soften the barriers to entry for potential park-goers from across the state.
Launched as a pilot program in late 2015, the new offering allows library card holders to rent out an Osprey backpack with a free state parks pass for up to one week at a time. On top of containing the pass that offers free access to Colorado’s 42 state parks, the pack also holds a pair of binoculars and several informational pamphlets on topics such as bird watching, geology and camping.
The Aurora Public Library’s Central Branch was named one of eight libraries across the state to be involved in the pilot version of the backpack initiative last fall, when the Colorado State Library put out a call to local librarians, feeling out who might be a good fit for the test project, according to Megan Ellis, programming and outreach coordinator for the Aurora library system.
Since launching the backpack program, Ellis said that the waiting list for the program is running nearly 60 names long.
“I don’t think they were on display for a day before they got snagged,” she said of the library’s first two pilot packs.
But it’s not too late to add your name to the list of backpack seekers and snag a free week of exploration, even if it doesn’t happen until the end of the summer. If you do add your name to the ballooning crop of pack and pass hopefuls, here are our picks for the best places to get your fix of some nearby and not-so-nearby nature this season. (Or, you could borrow your friend’s library card in a neighboring city and grab a pack there — the program expanded to libraries across the state in mid-June. But if the Division of Parks and Wildlife asks, you didn’t hear it from us — shhh.)
Where to spend a weekend
Rifle Falls and Rifle Gap Located about three hours and 45 minutes from the Aurora Municipal Center.
Basic campsite permits at Rifle Gap cost $18; electric hook-up camping permits run $24. Basic campsites at Rifle falls cost $20 through Sept. 20, but site reservations are typically fully booked several months in advance. For more information on these parks as well as the others mentioned in this list, visit the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website at cpw.state.co.us.
There’s more to Rifle than a lethal name and pretty waterfalls. Even so, it’s perfectly acceptable to get hung up on the cascading rivers that flow out of Rifle Falls State Park. They’re flippin’ gorgeous. One of the farthest destinations mentioned on this list, the pair of state parks in Rifle — Rifle Falls and Rifle Gap — are unquestionably worth the roughly the roughly 200-mile drive that stands between their respective ranger stations and A-Town. Tucked within a swath of the White River National Forest, both parks feature quixotically tropical vegetation that can provide the perfect tie-over for suburbanites looking for their fix of greenery in Colorado’s arid summer months. In nearby Rifle Mountain Park, which does not fall under purview of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife, miles of limestone cliffs have become iconic detonations among modern rock climbers. And when you’re all parked out, or just need a slug of Gatorade and a warm meal, the nearby town of Rifle is pretty darn adorable. As American Main Street as American Main Streets get, the tiny outpost on the Western Slope is a welcome respite from this burg’s endless ocean of concrete strip malls. And if you don’t have a fortune to snag a coveted camp spot during theses uber busy summer months, there’s plenty of camping to be had on the county roads that hang off CR 245, winding and weaving their way through bucolic pastures before culminating in neighboring New Castle.
Paonia Located about four hours from the AMC. A basic campsite runs $10.
The list of possible activities at Paonia State Park doesn’t run quite as long as some of its nearby counterparts, but a nearly-free place to crash while checking out the dozens of nearby wineries by day isn’t exactly the worst thing in this cruel world. Tucked into an assuming pocket of the Western Slope, Paonia has made an increasingly well-respected name for itself in recent decades as the destination Colorado winos must check out while they’re saving up for that wild, wild trip to Napa. A trio of wineries line Route 133 about 20 minutes from the state park, making for quite a boozy afternoon in Western Colorado. If you can spend two days in the area and alternate driving duties with a comrade back to the campsite, or just bring a few bottles back for fireside indulgence, Paonia and its park make for one (un)forgettable weekend.
Where to spend a day
Eleven Mile: Located about two hours and 15 minutes from the AMC. A basic campsite permit is $18 or $24 for a campsite with electrical hook-ups.
Sure, you can cast lines in Cherry Creek and other assorted tributaries around the metro area to your heart’s content, but you have to put Aurora in your rearview to get to most of the state’s better fishing havens. Eleven Mile State Park outside of Lake George is just one of those aquatic nirvanas. Anglers have been landing cutthroat, brown trout pike and kokanee salmon at the park for decades now, and there’s no signal that the luck is going to dry up any time soon. If spinning reels just don’t do it for it, the park is also (in)famous for tricky sailboarding due to strong, unpredictable winds.
Where to spend one afternoon: Castlewood Canyon: Located about 50 minutes from the AMC. There is no camping at Castlewood.
Red rock walls? Babbling brooks? An ideal habitat for black bears, mountain lions and other local fauna just a few miles removed from the commercial shopping mecca that is the Outlets at Castle Rock? However unlikely, it’s very real and it’s name is Castlewood Canyon State Park. Something like Cherry Creek’s kid brother, Castlewood Canyon is a few dozen miles removed from most of Aurora’s suburban hives in the compact hamlet of Franktown. Spanning more than 2,600 acres in size, Castlewood provides that perfect mountain remedy on a weekday or weekend morning without slogging through the mess that is I-70 Westbound. Dozens of paved and unpaved walking trails spider their way through the park, weaving in and out of impressive and somewhat clandestine canyons in the process.
In Your Own Back Yard Cherry Creek: Located 20-ish minutes from the AMC, depending on which entrance you prefer.
A basic summer camping permit runs $20 through Sept. 30. A full hook-up permit is $30. The proximity of this suburban playground makes this listing somewhat obligatory. Situated in Aurora’s southeastern buttock, the park is too beautiful, too chock full of activities and too gosh darn close to a majority of this city’s ZIP codes to be ignored. Heck, you could drive your vehicle around the eponymous reservoir — for free, with your super cool backpack and parks pass — before a weekday dinner if you were so inclined. But the beauty of having free admission to such a nearby commodity is the ability to spend a full — like summer-solstice-style full — day there. From dawn to dusk, milk that parks pass for all its worth and load up the car with enough snacks, games and 3.2 beer to make the rangers question whether you’re considering making the sandy beach your permanent residence. (Don’t actually move there, please.)