Ready to take a breather from the high heat and humidity of mid-summer? A trip to the mountains is just the cure. Located in the Southeast corner of Colorado you will find Monument Lake (Lodge & Resort), just west of the adorable town of Trinidad. No cell service, but easily accessible with a non-4-wheel drive vehicle. Pavement, all the way to the turn in, and if you choose to tent camp or even arrive with a trailer, there are a handful of sites, which you should have no problem accessing. With limited options for power or water, dry camping is the best option for this lakeside mountain resort, which has been thriving since 1937.
This section of the Rockies is not for the faint of heart, at 9,000 feet, you will certainly feel the heaviness of your lungs the moment you decide to head out for a hike, or even for a wander to the bar – which is also the only location where you can find hot food and wifi. There is also a “store” with charcoal, ice, wood, t-shirts, and other random limited camping items as well as your go to location for boat rentals. I would suggest buying anything you need which is not already packed, in Trinidad, before heading up. There is a Safeway on the west side of Main Street, easily accessible, which also has a gas station; please fill up. Having a full tank, when driving with limited, if any, cell service, is always a good idea.
The lake itself, is not massive, but certainly large enough to entertain a kayak or paddleboard. There are even small fishing boats you can rent, on site, as well as the aforementioned watercraft. With plenty of fish to catch and even a cleaning station, should you want that trout pan fried for dinner. When camping at this elevation during the summer, you will enjoy temperatures 10-20 degrees cooler than the community you just drove in from, as well as frequent afternoon showers – be prepared for both. This is also bear country, so not keeping food out is in your best interest. Black bears are adorable, and mostly not aggressive, but not putting food away, is surely asking for trouble. Also, please never approach a bear, and never run. Make a lot of noise, get as big as you can, and walk away slowly, while facing the creature. You can find more Black Bear facts HERE. Cougars can also be found in these woods, they typically stay to themselves and tend to keep away from campgrounds, but be aware, while out hiking. Same m.o. as the bear, make a lot of noise, do NOT run, back away slowly. There are a number of smaller critters as well, mostly Chipmunks and Jays, which will ransack any provisions left unattended. Elk, Deer, Eagles, Raccoon, Foxes; keep your eyes open for them all.
You can wander the loop of the lake, which clocks in at 2 miles, or head into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with plenty of trail heads in the area. The closest is only a few miles away, located within another great camping area – Purgatoire and the North Fork Trail of the namesake.
There are two camping areas. The first is relatively close to check in, the marina/store, and bar/restaurant. If you do not have an all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive, I would suggest these options. They are spread out in a loop, numbered from 1-11 any numbers attached to an A, are closer to the lake. I personally tent camped at 3A, giving me limited lake views, plenty of flat grassy area to set up my tent, and a nice firepit/ grill. This is by far the most ideal location with water view, for tent camping. The other A locations are better suited for a camper. With direct lake access, flat camping locations, and a few trees or shrubs to create shade, this is the BEST location to set up for a few nights. The downside is the walk to a toilet – a good football field distance away. This restroom facility is clean and handicap accessible AND has showers available to use, with no additional use fees. They are simply a HIKE from your site.
The second camping location is on the North end of Monument Lake. The dirt road is quite rutted, with large potholes and some large rocks. Not well suited for low vehicles or those which do not have an all-wheel drive option, or high clearance. I drove the perimeter in a Subaru, which did fine, but would be questionable in, say a Mazda Miata. Perks of this second location would be lots of shade and a much quieter venue. Bear in mind, this location is less likely to have a flat spot to set up and is very rocky; there is also only one small pit toilet, which was not in the best of shape. The farther away from the lake, the better the set-up location, but hardly any views. Whichever location you choose, dry camping is only $30 per night, plus a $6 nightly vehicle charge. Have a bunch of friends you want to bring on an adventure, possibly a family reunion? There are group sites available as well, but these are farther into the woods, with great shade but no views.
This is also a spectacular trip for motorcycle enthusiasts - who most likely do not have room for camping gear. No worries! This resort offers cabins and also hotel rooms, which overlook the lake. The latter even include lovely decks and kiva fireplaces, to take in the sunshine or the edge off the mountain chill.
The website is best to make a reservation, as the phone is rarely answered, and messages are not responded to. The Facebook page as well, is good for limited information, but don’t try to make contact from here. Certainly, you can try your luck and simply take the hour to drive up from town, but I would not recommend this tactic on a weekend, as the likelihood of being sold out is probably pretty high. Cabins rentals run around $145 per night, overlooking the lake, dispersed on the hillside as you first come into the resort. The hotel style rooms are spartan, but offer a nice view, private bath and comfortable bed, they run a tad less. Perhaps you just want to come up for the day, there are plenty of spots if you just want to fish or kayak for an afternoon. Mid May to mid September, this is a prime location to turn off your phone and be at one with nature.
Monument Lake is located on the Colorado Scenic Highway of Legends, otherwise known as Route 12, a historic byway. You will drive through what appear to be several ghost towns, along the way to your mountain adventure. One such location, Cokedale, will cause you a double take on what seem to be something straight out of the Roman Empire – but instead these alcoves along the highway, were used as ovens for smelting coal. A bit farther up the road, the town of Stonewall will intrigue you with their small store and geological wonder, an actual rock wall, called a Dakota Wall, splits the community in two. Pay attention as you drive this windy mountain road, as you may also glimpse relics of the many mines which dotted the area. About 20 minutes past the lake, you will find a plethora of trail heads, as well as the adorable tiny community of Cuchara, where there is an official yacht club and you can also spend time on horseback, enjoying the trails. You can complete this long loop by heading into New Mexico to the mountains around Taos, and then back down around to Raton and finish in Trinidad, where you began. This entire loop can be done in a day, but would make for a lovely long weekend, or even weeks, adventure.
Remember too, Colorado is an open range state. This means cows, have the right of way. Many ranchers here use the higher altitudes in the summer to graze their herds on the many fresh green meadows which dot the area. If you are hiking and come across a heard, pay them no mind, and walk around the group. Gate logistics are pretty simple, if you find it open, keep it open; if you find it closed, keep it closed. Be sure to check with the local ranger station to ensure you don’t hike onto someone’s property, while out exploring this region, also known as the Spanish Peaks Wilderness. The night skies are pretty spectacular at this altitude, be sure to spend time after dark, away from a fire pit, gazing up to the heavens. With twinkling stars so bright, you might think you can reach out and touch them
I definitely recommend spending some time in Trinidad while you are here, it is an adorable historic community with plenty of art galleries, fun bars and restaurants lining its few short blocks. Taos and Santa Fe are about three hours to the South and Colorado Springs is about the same to the North. All in all, making this a Southwest adventure get-away, perfect for a solo camping trip, family hiking adventure or buddies fishing escape.
As always, travel safe, have fun - be careful! It is always best to be fully vaccinated for the safety of others as well as yourself. This past year has been a roller coaster of emotions for sure, which is reflected in the limited posts coming forth. Please do not hesitate to contact me about this trip or any others you are interested in taking one day in the future.
Travel alone, travel as a group or travel with one or two friends, exploring our world is the best education there is - enjoy!