Aspen Meadows in Golden Gate Canyon State Park is a great beginner-friendly camping option for an overnight trip from Denver. It’s one of my favorite places to camp because Golden Gate has the perfect combination of both seclusion and convenience.
You’re only an hour from Denver, but also totally in the middle of nowhere with no cell service…and yet only 20 minutes away from a mini-mart and liquor store. Combined with stellar hiking and nice campsites, it’s not hard to see why this campground is my favey.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park is easy to get to from Denver. The drive is paved the entire way to the park. The road into Aspen Meadows is unpaved in sections but is flat, so you could easily take it on with a sedan.
If you have an annual state parks pass or if you bring $9 cash, you can drive directly to Aspen Meadows. There is a pay station at the campground and at the eastern park boundary on Gap Road. Unfortunately, neither pay station takes credit cards so come prepared with cash or a blank check (lol who has checks still). Otherwise, you’ll have to drive to the Visitors Center first, which is on the southeastern end of the park. This adds about 20 minutes.
Aspen Meadows has several loops, none of which have electric hook-ups. If you’re tent camping at Golden Gate, it’s much more private and nature-y than Reverends Ridge Campground, so I prefer it.
Almost all of the campsites are described as “walk-in,” but unless you stay all the way at the back of the Conifer Loop, you aren’t walking more than 10 feet.
The first time I camped was with my husband. I interpret the term “car camping” to mean “jam EVERYTHING YOU COULD POSSIBLY NEED into the car and bring it all with you.” The second time, I went on a girls trip, and my friends take campground drinks and snacks VERY seriously. Needless to say, on both camping trips I had a LOT of stuff to haul in, and I never thought the walk into the campsites was unwieldy.
All the campsites have fire rings, picnic tables, bear boxes, and tent pads. Almost all of them are also well-shaded, and whoever planned the campground did a really good job of spreading the campsites out enough that you don’t feel like you’re on top of each other.
The Conifer Loop is at the bottom of the campground, so it’s the most secluded area. I’ve stayed in Site 29, which is the closest site to the parking area and the bathroom. It’s the shortest walk from the car plus you don’t have to smell the bathroom even though it’s nice and close. It’s well-shaded and still seems private even though you can see one other campsite.
If you don’t mind dragging your stuff another 20-30 yards, Sites 33 and 35 looked WAY cool and totally private/secluded.
There’s also a cluster of campsites (26-28) that are all right on top of each other, which would be great for a big group!
I stayed in Site 2 on the Meadow Loop for the girls trip, which was in this great little aspen grove surrounded by tall grasses that made us feel like we had the place to ourselves. Site 1 is *pretty* close, but we didn’t notice the people there until their kids kept running over to our tent to stare at us (a little creepy, but didn’t ruin things).
Meadow Loop also gets cell service since it’s up on the flatter part of the campsite, and also doesn’t require driving on any steep hills to get to. You’re further from being able to just walk up to a trail (the Mule Deer trail runs through the bottom part of the campground), but closer to hop in the car and get to Panorama Point. You’re also closer to the main road, which on the weekends does get a fair amount of cars driving back and forth.
Campground Fees and Reservations
Since Golden Gate is a state park, you’ll need a parks pass to get in. If you are a frequent flyer of our state parks system (at least 10 times per year), an annual $80 pass is the way to go since it gets you unlimited visits to any of the 41 state parks in Colorado. If you’re just starting out, opt for the $9 day pass.
Like I mentioned, the visitors center takes credit cards and cash. The pay stations on Gap Road do not take credit cards.
The campground costs $28 per night, which is on the higher end of campgrounds, but it’s also a pretty awesome spot!
You absolutely have to make reservations ahead of time for the weekend. If you want your pick of campsites and loops, you’re looking at reservations in January and February. If you’re able to go on a weekday, as of August 2020, there were plenty of openings. We camped on a Tuesday night and the campground was *maybe* half full. Please keep in mind that during the COVID-19 pandemic, you are required to make a reservation before arriving to the park.
Very basic. Just a vault toilet, which I once heard a teenager described (in a horrified manner) as “just peeing into a HOLE!!!” That teenager wasn’t totally wrong, but it’s not that bad. It’s better than a port-o-potty, but not as good as the bathroom in your house.
There is no electricity or running water, so don’t forget a headlamp/lantern/other lighting option and some hand sanitizer. (Need help packing? Check out my list)
The Mule Deer trail runs right by the Conifer Loop, so you can either start there and tackle as much as you want or drive a few minutes away to Panorama Point, where there is a great three-mile loop that’s beginner-friendly (purple on the below map).
My husband and I tackled a larger loop from the trailhead that left the campground. It ended up being at least six miles (yellow on the below map). It was tough but had beautiful views, taking you around Panorama Point, through aspen meadows and pine tree forests, through rockier sections, and eventually back to the campground. If you’re taking this on, I recommend bringing hiking poles.
You an also take a short stroll to Dude’s Fishing Hole from the campground, but it’s all uphill on the way back (but still only takes about 15-20 minutes). That’s the only bad par about Golden Gate’s trails – everything is hilly! Just take plenty of breaks and bring lots of water. The Raccoon Trail around Panorama Point is also great for leaf peeping.
As someone who tends to forget things, the mini-mart on Highway 119 is a total lifesaver. Plus, you can get gas and firewood there. It’s not only convenient, but just helps me feel more at ease about being out in the wilderness, since you’re really not too far away from anything if you forget or run out of supplies.
If you go hiking after packing up camp, stop at Woody’s in Golden for amazing pizza, beer, and mac and cheese (there are other options but those are my favorite post-hiking treats).
You can’t beat Aspen Meadows access to the real world and beautiful scenery. Plus, Golden Gate is at about 8,000 feet of elevation, making it way cooler than the city (at least 15 degrees typically!). With hiking conveniently located and high-quality campsites, it’s the perfect weekend getaway.