Probably your best choice for free camping near Salida, CO is at Shavano Wildlife Management Area (WMA), in the hills just west of Poncha Springs.
Shavano WMA is named after Mt. Shavano, one of the “fourteeners” that make up the greater Rocky Mountain range in Colorado. The area is owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is camping is permitted.
I camped here for 10 days in July 2019.
It’s a pretty large area too. Plenty of room for the largest RVs. Beautiful views of snow-capped peaks and lots of pinyon pine to help create that “foresty” scent. Some sites have lots of shade, but expect these sites to be occupied as they are highly sought-after. Yet, there’s still not a bad place to camp here.
As far as free camping near Salida, CO goes, this area is probably your best bet, and the closest to town.
Only 5 miles into Poncha Springs, and only 8 miles into downtown Salida, you get two weeks of free BLM camping and close proximity to one of the more popular tourist destinations in Colorado. You’re also close to the Arkansas River if you’re into kayaking, rafting, or fishing.
County Road 250 branches off of US-50 about a couple miles west of Poncha Springs, and takes you into the foothills of Mt. Shavano. The road turns to dirt and gravel, and it gets rather washboarded and bumpy. A couple of turns are rocky, and there are couple of more steep upgrades, yet they are still accessible to just about any vehicle. I was able to tow our 28 foot trailer with a 2WD pickup truck up those grades just fine.
Once into the “main area” you might want to pick out a space off the road, unhitch your trailer or toad, and then scope out the entire area. You may find some really nice campsites by just taking the time to look around.
If you were to go further up County Road 250, the road gets more steep. There are still more campsites further up, but suitable for cars, vans, and 4WD trucks. You might not want to a tow trailer too far up.
Expect decent Verizon 4G signal here. I was able to get 3 bars unboosted. I had a friend come over and visit, and he got 4 bars on T-Mobile.
Even better yet, I encountered no mosquitoes flying about, and very few flying insects. It’s a great place to put out camping chairs, table, and BBQ grill.
For that matter, campfires are allowed too.
While temperatures in Salida and Poncha Springs might reach 88 degrees in July, it remains closer to 82 degrees at Shavano WMA. It does get windy at night here, and even during the summer, expect short bursts of rain, two or three times out of the week.
The sunsets and sunrises, however, are amazing.
There are signs posted that you are not allowed to use this land for “residential” purposes, however it seems that some campers here (who have claimed the more desirable sites), look as if they’ve been here for weeks or months. For the 10 days I camped here, I never saw any BLM officials come by.
Shavano WMA is still a very popular area to camp. It’s a well-documented place on many camping forums. During the week, expect half of the campsites to be taken. Once the weekend comes around, it’s pretty well full. But, even though it may seem full, there’s still plenty of room if you’re willing to squeeze in.
Yet, despite how many RVers and campers tend to use this place, it still remains quiet throughout the day and night.
Read more reviews of Shavano WMA.