Trip Planning Resources
Trip Planning Resources include the resources and information that are helpful for planning a trip. These most often include the use of maps and travel websites (such as hiking or offroading websites), or specific reference information for specific areas. You may notice on this blog so many areas I write about also feature the roads to get there. Offroad trails offer unmatched access to America’s public lands, Colorado no exception. Some of the best hiking and camping are accessible via offroad trails.
As always, do your own research; you are responsible for your own trip planning. This meant to be for reference, what you end up doing is your responsibility, not mine.
There are lots of links to external resources on this site. BackwoodsWanderers.com is not affiliated with any third-party organization or company listed below. Any third-party organization or company is mentioned or linked-to solely for reference purposes.
Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM)
By far the most useful maps for trip planning and identifying areas likely to contain lots of dispersed camping, official Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Maps show the roads which are legal for motorized travel. The advantage is that they are simple, and officially issued maps updated every few years, so you can worry less about accuracy. The drawback is that they don’t show any terrain information, or how technical/challenging the road is. To best understand these, you need background knowledge of the broader area, and the area you want to visit.
Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests, and Pawnee National Grassland
Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre, and Gunnison National Forests
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests
Pike & San Isabel National Forests, Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands
Rio Grande National Forest
San Juan National Forest
White River National Forest
I’m only listing Colorado here because the majority of posts are about places in Colorado. There is a state-by-state index of each state’s National Forests, please refer to that if you would like more information, or use Google.
Country-Wide MVUM Index, Organized by State and National Forest
How to Interpret a Motor Vehicle Use Map for Determining Recreation Opportunities
To the untrained eye, Motor Vehicle Use Maps don’t tell a lot. But if you know what you’re looking at, you can get an idea of what an area or road has to offer. Below is a excerpt from the Canyon Lakes North MVUM, where I have many featured posts.
The map above is of the Red Feather Lakes area, mostly west and south. In solid grey, and labeled, are major roads (county roads, State Highway 14), which are almost always passable by all types of vehicles. Highway 14 and County Road 74E are both paved, which isn’t made clear by the map. Deadman Rd. (County Road 86), Manhattan Rd. (County Road 69), Prairie Divide Rd. (67J), and CR 68C are all unpaved but maintained gravel their entire route, which also isn’t made clear on the map. But you know that if it’s a solid grey road with a county road emblem, they’re going to be graded and maintained.
The black-and-grey dashed roads are all forest roads, with their respective numbers. They’re unpaved, see light maintenance (usually only when a major washout occurs or road damage), and possibly too much for all street vehicles (aka offroad trails where high clearance might be necessary). Notice the dots lining nearly all of these roads. That means that dispersed camping along the roads is legal. So with that, you know that there are likely many dispersed campsites along these roads with already-built fire rings. The black-and-white dashed roads, as you can see, all run directly through the National Forest, aka public lands, where you can camp, shoot, hike, explore, etc. The single dotted lines are known hiking trails which, in this case, are maintained by local organizations with Forest Service support. The black-and-grey dashed roads also don’t tell you anything about how technical the forest road is, just that it is a forest road.
It is not clear that Bald Mountain Road, or road 517, is several orders of magnitude more challenging and technical than the 171 network of roads (where most vehicles, even stock SUVs, can access without issue). It’s also not clear that the Sevenmile Creek Rd., which connects with the 171 network, is at least an order of magnitude more challenging than the 171 network. So knowledge of the area is needed to best understand MVUMs.
The 171 network is in the map above, as well as the road to Deadman Lookout. Just north, out of the frame, are the Creedmore Lakes, Lost Lake, as well as more dispersed camping. The map doesn’t tell you about the nature of the area and what it’s like, but as you can see, you can get an idea of where opportunities are likely to be found.
Other Useful Maps & Resources
Motor Vehicle Use Maps are highly useful for getting a sense of the opportunities available in an area, but there are also lots of other indispensable maps that you can, and should, use in conjunction with MVUMs. Topographic maps are probably the best supplement to MVUMs, but specific recreation area maps are also highly useful, although not every area has a recreation area designation.
General Online Maps
Google Maps is perhaps the most powerful, accessible, and versatile tool for trip planning in the 21st century. The advantage is that Google Maps is zoomable, has satellite, terrain (topographic), and simplified views, and covers the entire country (and world). It is also impressively accurate, and best of all, free. The only drawback is that you need internet access, high-speed internet access to best use Google Maps. Fortunately, that exists in almost every town in modern-day America, and libraries, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, hostels, and more, offer free internet access. Best of all, at least one of these places can be found in most small mountain towns. You can also use Google Maps on your phone. But if you’re in the backcountry, away from civilization, Google Maps is out of the question.
The USGS offers free, downloadable versions of its legendary USGS Quads. For specific areas, the best option are their 1:24000 scale maps. The TopoView online tool is the best way to find these, unless you happen to know an area’s USGS designation by heart. Simply zoom the map in, to where you want to go, and a list will pop up which shows you the available maps, downloadable in PDF format as well as several other formats. You can also narrow your search down by year issued. The advantage to these is that they often show landmarks, points of interest, and various features, such as arches, springs, pipelines, mines, prospects, cabins, and things which Google Maps doesn’t show. That makes them great for exploration in this sense. However, oftentimes the most recent version of a map is decades old. So the drawback is that they are more prone to showing roads which have since been closed.
Activity Specific Resources
Right now, the best option for offroading websites is TrailsOffroad. TrailsOffroad is relatively new to the scene, but I have found it to be the best current option for finding detailed information on offroad trails (other than going and seeing for myself). They take user reports as well as have dedicated writers who write from their own experience of the roads. Seriously, it’s a collection of people who could all probably call themselves “backwoods wanderers”. People who love to do the same stuff that I write about on here. On TrailsOffroad, you can get detailed information about roads, including their level of difficulty, recreational opportunities in the area, what official road numbers you need to look for, etc. They are the best replacement for what TrailDamage.com once was, before they started charging for their trip reports. For example, TrailsOffroad will tell you that Bald Mountain Road (FR517) near Red Feather is more difficult, and that Weston Pass (CR7/22) is usually passable by stock SUVs. The types of things that MVUMs don’t tell you. You can’t read full posts on there without signing up, which is mildly annoying, but sign up is free.
Stay The Trail is more about education than documenting in detail offroad trails, but they do have a decent index of designated offroad trails. They’re worth mentioning because they are officially affiliated with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and other organizations representing offroading groups and responsible use of public lands. Their brochures are commonly found in information kiosks on some of the most popular offroading areas. Their mission is to promote the responsible use of public lands, responsible and legal offroading, and how to best adhere to leave-no-trace principles while traveling the forest by vehicle, etc.
TrailDamage.com is worth mentioning just because it was once the go-to for information about offroad trails in Colorado, Utah, and several other states. TrailDamage used to be free, and have great, comprehensive trail reports about various offroad trails. In recent years, they underwent some kind of “change in identity” where they made this information inaccessible unless you paid for it, and changed their website to only show photos (and photos only) to the public. This caused a lot of upset in followers of TrailDamage, and also spurred the creation of TrailsOffroad, meant to replace the free, open access to information about offroad trails. I no longer recommend TrailDamage to people seeking information on offroad trails, because they changed, and for the worse.
14ers.com is the best resource for planning your trip to walk up the side of a mountain for fun. Much like the above sites about offroading, 14ers.com details the hiking trails for all of Colorado’s 14ers as well as 13ers across the state (as well as other states). Here you will find trip reports, condition reports, information about how technical the trails are, length, and the multiple different route options many 14ers have. You can also print the information and have it with you during the hike. Many of the route descriptions also provide information about where to camp, and other opportunities in the area. 14ers.com is an excellent choice to supplement National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series (info below).
For those of you who love two-wheeled adventures in the mountains, MTBProject is an excellent resource for finding these trails, reading about difficulty ratings, and more. Here you will find, similarly to the other resources mentioned, route descriptions, location, distance, difficulty, etc. Not all areas in the National Forest are open to mountain biking (think, wilderness areas), but MTBProject details the many trails that are open. Most mountain bikers prefer singletrack where they don’t have to deal with vehicles, but it’s important to note that ALL trails open to motorized travel are also open to mountain bikes. There actually many offroad trails which are also quite fun to mountain bike on.
Physical maps don’t run out of battery, and don’t require data. Nothing beats a well-made physical map. There are several great options out there, which are comprehensive, as well as options which cover specific areas if you know where you’re going.
Garmin makes an excellent state-by-state atlas. The DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer series are impressively accurate and detailed. They may not show the smallest roads, but in my experience, they’re one of the best physical maps you can buy and have in the car. They’re a little cumbersome to take hiking, but for $20 an atlas, which covers the entire state in detail and has topographic contour lines (even if not high resolution), they’re certainly worth having. You can order them online, or find them at nearly every recreation store, and even most gas stations (especially in mountain towns).
The Trails Illustrated series are an amazing map series, geared towards hiking and backpacking. They are much more detailed and high resolution than the DeLorme atlases, and sold individually by area. They do, however, have excellent resolution for viewing contours and reading the terrain, show in-depth all hiking trails in the area, as well as any roads in the area. They are printed on waterproof material, and much more compact than the Delorme Series, so that makes them much better suited for carrying in your pocket or backpack while hiking, backpacking, or mountain biking. I’ve personally used them and they are my go-to for any out-of-vehicle endeavor in the woods lasting more than a few hours. The only drawback is that they cover a very small and specific area, so they’re not a good resource if you’re looking for something more comprehensive than that. They’re also anywhere from $10 to $15 per map, so expect to spend a lot if you’re trying to cover the entire state of Colorado, over 100 Trails Illustrated maps. Most of the time, if a place sells the DeLorme Atlases, they also sell Trails Illustrated maps.
Area Specific Resources
Many areas have recreation area designations, that have specific information available by the managing organization. Oftentimes, this information is on area kiosks as well as available locally in the nearest towns, in visitor centers, gas stations, restaurants, etc. It isn’t usually immediately obvious that an area has specific information about it, but area-specific resources sometimes offer far more in depth information, as well as detail the history of the area and points of interest. It is often best to Google this sort of stuff if you’re looking for it (or just come across it like I did) because there is no single place which lists it all. Some examples of what I mean by “area-specific” are listed below:
An example would be the Fourmile Recreation Area outside of Buena Vista in the Arkansas River Valley. The area is home to several excellent offroad trails, and therefore numerous other recreation opportunities along these roads: Lenhardy Cutoff, Sevenmile Creek Rd., Aspen Ridge, Bald Mountain, and more. The brochure has a nice map of the area, and details about the geologic and human history that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.
Another example would be the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers’ website, which documents in detail many of the hiking and backpacking trails in the Comanche Peak wilderness, in the Pingree Park, Red Feather Lakes, and Cameron Pass/Long Draw area.
Or, the Rimrocker Trail is a 160-mile series of offroad trails from Montrose to Moab, where you are immersed in the land around you for the entire route. There are some of the most legendary views of the area along this trail. The Rimrocker trail is promoted by Montrose County, and spans two National Forests, goes through a few different municipalities, and drops you down the La Sal mountains into the Moab area, while taking you on a journey through the western slope the entire way. There are old ruins, archeological artifacts, and more along the way.