U. S. WEST
A Colorado winter holiday with an entire state park to ourselves
The fluffy snow that falls in the dry climate of Pearl Lake State Park in northern Colorado is typically more than 90% air. It’s why people love to ski at nearby Steamboat Resort, in what’s known as “champagne powder”. It’s also why a mound of that airy snow creates only an inch of water when melted for doing dishes on a yurt camping trip.
Doing dishes in snowmelt may sound inconvenient but I don’t mind, because winter is my favorite season at Pearl Lake. With the campground closed, other than two yurts, it’s possible to have an entire state park to ourselves.
Map of Pearl Lake State Park
plus Steamboat Lake & Steamboat Springs
Pearl Lake State Park
Located about 25 miles beyond Steamboat Springs, one of Colorado’s most popular ski resorts, the Pearl Lake campground is framed by mountains and set within a pretty pine forest. It’s roughly 30 miles to the Wyoming border and it feels like ranch country – fancy ranch country.
Expansive properties with beautiful mountain homes are showcased at every turn. It’s the kind of place where I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ralph Lauren riding across an open field. Although his home is 300 miles from here, near Telluride in southern Colorado.
It was just before Christmas when I visited Pearl Lake with my family. We parked at a small lot and began unloading. The yurts at Pearl Lake State Park are accessed by a half-mile hike up a hill. Thankfully the path had been shoveled by the park services staff because it was steep enough that hauling everything up in the snow, felt like an adventure before the adventure.
Even yurt camping, with a shelter obviously supplied, requires extensive supplies. We carried up drinking water, firewood, sleeping bags, pillows, clothes, food, cookware and board games.
And dog food. We had brought along out dog Archie along, and he gamely ran up and down the snowy hill on each of the multiple trips.
While my hubby and two teen boys carried up the last load, I took in the view. I loved that the yurt was far enough from the small parking lot that we couldn’t see the car, and because it’s on top of a ridge, there’s a mountain view in every direction.
Pearl Lake in Winter
We left the yurt and went exploring. The park has 36 campsites along a ridge that gently slopes down to Pearl Lake. In summer, the snowy path we walked would be lined with tents, and activities would include fishing for cutthroat trout, paddling, and hiking the trail around the lake perimeter. In mid-October each year, as the aspen trees turn to gold the campground closes, leaving only the two yurts available.
This are of Colorado is a winter paradise, receiving over 300 inches of snow a year. We greeted a few day visitors who were snowshoeing, and Archie kept us entertained with his antics.
He’s a rescue dog so our best guess at his breed is a mix of retriever and corgi, and I will add that he has the appetite of a retriever and the legs of a corgi. Every time he wandered off the path he would sink to his chest and have to bound upward like a reindeer, to get free of the fluffy snow.
We reached the lake and walked out on to the frozen surface. We had been here once before with friends and had gone on a snowshoe adventure across to the other side. If you plan to do this, check with park staff regarding the safety of the ice, as conditions do vary.
Archie had a great time running around on the ice and soon the light started to fade, so we headed back up the hill. Walking in the snow without snowshoes was fine as long as we stayed on the path.
Pearl Lake Campground - all to Ourselves
As the sun sank behind the mountain peaks, the day visitors left and we had the park to ourselves. I was surprised that the second yurt was vacant as it was the eve of Christmas eve and this seemed as ideal a place as I could imagine.
We lit a fire at the fire pit next to the yurt. Some lights from ranch homes were faintly visible back toward the highway. The moonlight shone on the snow and the overcast sky cleared so we were treated to a gorgeous starry sky. I noticed that it’s a different kind of quiet, outdoors in winter.
We ate dinner inside, played cards and read books, comfortable in the warmth from the electric heater. In addition to bunk beds, the yurts have a picnic table outside and a table and six chairs inside. There aren’t many places left to unplug these days, but Pearl Lake State Park is one of them; like most of Colorado state parks there’s no cell service.
I enjoy outdoor adventures, and I am also a midlife woman who really appreciates a good night’s sleep. The wooden bunk beds are equipped with foam mattresses, so it’s much more comfortable than traditional camping.
Camping, Not Glamping
Technically the yurts sleep six, with a double bed on the bottom and a single on top. The doubles are small for two adults though, better for two younger kids. For four of us, it was perfect. For one of us, not so much. Archie didn’t love when slabs of ice and snow slid off the canvas roof during the night. But he eventually settled in.
Although we were unplugged, the yurts have power and I brought an electric kettle because I appreciate being able to make hot drinks when the campfire isn’t lit. The yurts also have a chest of drawers, a lamp, ceiling fan and skylight. Screened windows can be opened for airflow in nice weather.
This is camping however, not glamping. The yurts don’t have plumbing and the vault toilet which you will use is not heated. Also, in winter there is no running water in the restrooms so we brought hand sanitizer and a hand towel.
If you don’t mind the vault toilets, admittedly my least favourite part, $90 a night feels like a steal for a beautiful setting with access to outdoor adventure and the same million-dollar views of the nearby ranch homes.
How to Reserve at Pearl Lake Campground
Pearl Lake State Park takes reservations up to six months in advance. You can make them online or by phone with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Reservations can be made up to the day of arrival, but you must do it online or by phone, not at the site. If the Pearl Lake yurts aren’t available and your dates aren’t flexible there are 10 cabins open in winter, at nearby Steamboat Lake. Call the Steamboat Lake Marina: 970-879-7019.
Dogs are allowed in yurt #16 (for $10 extra a night) but not in yurt 6, so reserve the correct one if your furry friend is accompanying you. You will also have to pay a park entrance fee when you arrive – $9 a day.
Hiking & Snowshoeing
We decided to bring nordic skis on this trip, rather than snowshoes. We actually did borrow snowshoes from the nearby Steamboat Lake Visitors Center, but they were very basic.
I would suggest bringing or renting snowshoes if you want to explore around. You can rent them in Denver or Steamboat. Otherwise, bring tall waterproof boots and stick to the paths. And do inquire with park staff about the safety of walking or snowshoeing on the ice of Pearl Lake.
Nordic Skiing & Snowshoeing at Steamboat Lake
If you want to snowshoe on groomed trails you can visit Steamboat Lake, a ten-minute drive from the Pearl Lake campground. A designated snowshoe trail winds through a pretty lodgepole pine forest and offers great views.
Steamboat Lake has nice groomed nordic trails as well. Note that they do not rent skis here. You can rent skis in Steamboat Springs or in Denver, where it is about half the price. We like Denver’s Wilderness Exchange for rentals.
We have done a little Nordic Skiing but are still new to it and the trails at Steamboat Lake were very nice. They are rated beginner and intermediate and extend around the lake which offers pretty scenery and a few hills for the more ambitious skiers. Dogs are allowed but should be kept on a leash (shh).
Steamboat Lake and Pearl Lake both permit ice fishing in winter months. They each have different restrictions regarding flies, lures and fish limits. Inquire with the park services.
I haven’t done this; it doesn’t really appeal to me, to be honest. I’ve heard a lot about significant injuries with snowmobiling accidents. But if you would like to try it this is a great place with 146 miles of groomed trails through the Routt National Forest.
Call ahead to the Steamboat Lake Visitors Center to inquire about outfitters, or you can book through nearby Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse (more below).
If you were going to splurge on one activity, you might want to consider dog sledding. We did this in Crested Butte when our kids were young and we all loved it.
Horseback riding is available at several places nearby and it seems to cost around $100 a person for a two-hour ride. We did this a few year ago and the scenery was very pretty. Unfortunately I can’t recall which outfitter we used, but they seem to offer a similar experience for a similar price. I enjoyed it, but unless riding is your passion, I am not sure it’s worth $400 for a family of four.
Pearl Lake - Good To Know
We counted on the fact the bears were sleeping but there were mountain lions spotted in the area when we visited. Check with the visitors’ center ahead of your trip to see how they recommend you store your food.
Sleeping bags need not be rated for extremely cold temperatures as the heaters keep the yurt toasty warm. If you want a shower while yurt camping, showers are located at the Steamboat Lake Visitors Center, 10 minutes away.
Pearl Lake Camping - What To Bring
The fire pit comes with a grill for cooking on. A cast iron pan is ideal because it’s already black. We also bring one saucepan for heating soup, stew and hot chocolate. As mentioned I like having an electric kettle – good for tea, coffee and late-night ramen, for hungry teens. Bring heat tolerant cooking utensils and an oven mitt to handle hot pots.
Snow for dishwashing is complimentary but you’ll need a small bin, dish soap, a scrub brush and tea towels.
You also need to bring your own firewood, matches and we bring newspaper for starting the fire. Call the Steamboat Lake Visitors Center for updated info as to where you can purchase firewood. You may be able to purchase it at the General Store in Clark, which is nearby (more below).
Headlamps or flashlights are great for the evening and we used hand sanitizer and a hand towel as vault toilets don’t have running water in winter. Don’t forget playing cards, board games and books.
Beyond Pearl Lake
Where to Eat
In you tire of cooking over an open fire and washing dishes with snow, we’ve eaten at two nearby restaurants and both were good. My teen boys also love knowing we go out for a big breakfast after packing up on our final morning. So do I.
The closest dining option is Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse, 3.5 miles away. A parking lot full of snowmobiles, rather than cars, gives you an idea of the vibe here. In addition to snowmobile tours, they apparently offer sleigh rides here.
The food is good and this place has a fun atmosphere. There is also a small market with groceries, water, beer and I believe firewood.
Another dining option is the general store in Clark which is eight miles back towards Steamboat. The food is good and there is a cute little postal counter inside that dates to 1889. They have a few booths near where you order that have a pretty view of the mountains. It is smaller and simpler than Hahn’s, but our lunch was very good. They even had avocado for my wrap – an unexpected culinary win.
Add on a Visit to Steamboat Springs Resort
The historic mining town of Steamboat Springs is one of my favourite mountain towns in Colorado. It dates to around 1875 and you will see a lot of folks wearing their cowboy hats around here. It is a mecca for winter recreation, so if you want to extend your yurt trip, this is a fun option. At the very least, I recommend stopping here for lunch at one of the places on the main street.
The downhill skiing is excellent and it’s well set-up for beginners. The lift tickets are very expensive though and there is a lot to do here beyond skiing. Fat biking is now a popular winter activity and much quicker to get the hang of than downhill skiing. The other winter activities mentioned are available here also, including dog sledding, snowmobiling and nordic skiing.
Steamboat is actually one of the best nordic centers in Colorado. A fun fact about the town of Steamboat: they’ve produced more winter Olympians than any other U.S. city.
Where to Stay in Steamboat Springs
Steamboat can be very expensive. If you want something budget-friendly I like the Inn at Steamboat. It is a small boutique hotel with charming rooms and a small outdoor pool that’s open in winter, which kids love. A hot breakfast is included as is a shuttle that will take you to the mountain.
If you are travelling as a family and want a suite-style room with a kitchen, I like the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas. Sizes range from studios with kitchenettes to huge three-bedroom villas with large kitchens and dining rooms.
If you are travelling with your dog, we’ve stayed at the Fairfield Inn which has newer rooms, some with mini-fridges, and microwaves. Breakfast is included and the hotel is basic but comfortable.
We’ve also rented an AirBnb in Steamboat, when we were travelling with another family. It’s great to have the extra space and a kitchen. Even budget-friendly can be expensive in Steamboat, so book ahead if you can, or watch for promotions.
Pearl Lake and the surrounding areas is one of my favourite of Colorado, so any vacation here will be wonderful, at any time of year. I even imagine buying a little cabin near Steamboat one day… but then I remind myself of all of the countries I still dream of visiting, and that’s my priority at the moment.
Still, I’m grateful to live somewhere with so much natural beauty and affordable getaways like yurt camping. You don’t need a million dollars to live like Ralph Lauren, if you don’t mind cold toilets and washing dishes with snow.
Several other Colorado State Parks have yurt camping and you can find out more in a this guide I wrote: Yurts in Colorado’s State Parks.