Every year is, of course, different from the one past and predictably the one to come — some more than others.
This is one of those years. I won’t mention the virus but this once, being extremely different this year and the social upheaval that has come with it. Not to ignore the more serious consequences, one specific difference among many changes is my perception that summer in the outdoors and particularly camping has seen a significant increase.
For a number of years, my family has gone camping often in the summer, usually a weekend and usually not too far from home. There have also been several trips to more distant locations for an extended time. For the longer trips, say a week to a distant national park, we make a reservation. Most campgrounds require a reservation, and anyway, you sure don’t want to be a long way from home and no place to stay. For the local trips to the public land campgrounds, sometimes we would make a reservation ahead, if it is a reservable campground — not all are reservable and some have a limited number of dedicated first-come, first-served sites. Getting a spot hasn’t been a problem.
Until this year. It’s crowded! Even the reservation site is booked up for weeks. And yes, one can stay outside a campground, primitive camping. And many do, but even as I look for these spots, they are often claimed.
With the crowding we had experienced on previous weekends, I decided I wanted to know I had a place before I left town, so I spent significant time on the reservation systems. I look primarily at two reservation systems. One is recreation.gov, which is for the federal U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The other is the Colorado Parks and Wildlife for the state parks.
I started looking about 10 days before the scheduled Friday afternoon departure. Couldn’t find anything within a couple of hours’ drive. I geographically expanded my search for a little more drive time and still nothing.
But there can be cancellations, so I rechecked every few days. Then boom, just two days our camping date, it came up, an opening at a state park.
Vega State Park. I’d been there just on a day trip in the summer but never camped there. Also, I go occasionally in the winter for ice fishing. In spite of the nervous searching for a reservation, anywhere, this became a wonderful weekend.
Vega State Park is remote. At 8,000 feet elevation, you are in the mountains and the trees, it is cool compared to the heat of the home valley, the reservoir is relatively large, and the campground has well-kept facilities.
The actual camping spots are mostly out in the open above the reservoir, so while the tree shading is minimal, the view is great. There are four campgrounds around the lake, each with a slightly different flavor from tent to large RV, some with electric and water hookups, all easy to drive, park, and set up. Rustic cabins are also available.
Vega Reservoir is fed by Plateau Creek, built primarily as irrigation water storage. As such, the lake level fluctuates with the prior year’s snowpack and the summer irrigation demand. On our visit, the lake was down some, but still accessible and very scenic. Power boats are allowed and one boat ramp was open. I took my fishing kayak and tried the water several times during the weekend. Unfortunately I didn’t catch much. The fish are there, I saw a few jumping, and I know the fishing can be good at times, but it just wasn’t my time.
On our particular weekend, the park staff offered a “Moose Day,” which was an educational program at the park’s visitor center to learn about moose in the area. The displays were great, but of course lacking an actual moose.
We even did a little scavenger hunt to answer questions about moose. I won a moose stuffed animal! I have seen moose in a number of places around western Colorado. Nearby Grand Mesa National Forest received a transplant of moose in 2005, so while not common, moose sightings are exciting.
Vega State Park can be accessed east out of Grand Junction off I-70, taking the exit that takes one to Powderhorn ski area. Then on to the mountain town of Collbran and again on to the park.
Incidentally, while the road out of Collbran is two-lane and curvy, it has been recently re-paved and was a pleasant drive. Another way is from the south side of Grand Mesa, out of Cedaredge and over the top to the north side. A great drive, but has elevation gain both ways as one must summit Grand Mesa and then descend to Collbran.
Vega State Park has an entrance fee for day-users. Campers pay both the day-use fee and a camping fee. Boats must be inspected for invasive species. Look online for details at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-487-3407.
I’ll be back. Maybe in the fall for color weekend. If I can get a reservation — I better book now!