Camping on the Arkansas River: The truth about our 35th anniversary adventure

Arkansas River

My husband and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary over Father's Day weekend. Because 35 years together seemed quite a milestone, especially considering I was a week shy of 18 when we wed and he was just 21 — plus marital, financial, and medical BS throughout the entire year of 2016 that threatened us surviving to the milestone — we wanted to mark the occasion in some extra special way.

So for months we considered this and that, here and there, seeking sites and such we'd never experienced before. Then reality set in. Limited finances and limited paid time off for Jim — who started a new job not long ago — limited our options. Being residents of Colorado, though, a state folks come from around the world to see, there were plenty of touristy things nearby to choose from.

None felt right, none felt celebratory and special enough.

We soon found ourselves on deadline for making a decision and reservations. For some crazy reason, I suggested camping. In the wild. In a tent. Like we used to when our daughters were young. We hadn't gone in 20 years and we had never camped just the two of us, sans kids.

The idea of setting up camp for two, spending evenings under the stars, making s'mores for us — and sharing a marshmallow or two with Mickey (our dog) who we'd bring along, too — immediately felt right. Felt fun.

It was settled. I sought a site, made reservations. We pulled camping gear from the garage rafters, all stored since camping adventures with our kids. We added to the pile to pack in the car assorted leisurely pursuits. Games to play, the telescope for stargazing, binoculars for Big Horn Sheep searching, Jim's guitar for him to play, a couple books for me to read. We were stoked!

So my husband and I marked our milestone wedding anniversary by camping. And we hated it. Worst. Time. Ever. For multiple reasons and mishaps.

Let me first say, the place we went was beautiful. Typically gorgeous Colorado scenery, along the Arkansas River.  Five Points Campground featured our campsite on one side of Highway 50 with a day use recreation area accessible on the other side of the highway via an under-highway walkway. A lovely location.

A hot location. It was 99 degrees when we arrived in the afternoon and began setting up camp. Now, Jim and I are not hot-weather fans. So when making the site reservation, I had congratulated myself on nabbing the only site with shade (per the pics and descriptions on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website).

Turned out the shade wasn't where we needed it. Turned out, too, the shade was on that site only because that site only butted up against a designated (with signs) marshland. We immediately learned marshland equals bugs. There were teensy gnats and other icky flying things everywhere. Coating my shoes, flying in my ears, frustrating Mickey, pissing off Jim.

That was just the first 30 minutes we were there. We scrambled to get the tent up and everything else unpacked, then dashed to the river area to escape the heat and nasty gnats. 

The river area was heavenly. We found a table under a tree, a spot with a super (shaded) view of the river wild and space for Mickey to investigate, as he'd never been near water — lake nor river — before.

We stayed a few hours, then went back to camp to roast weenies and s'mores.

Our return was akin to entering hell. Horrendous heat. Persistent bugs. Wood that wouldn't light due to condensation having formed in the plastic bag holding the wood we'd brought. The charcoal briquettes for grilling weren't much better, though we did eventually manage to warm up — not roast! — the weenies. We said screw it on attempting s'mores.

As it got dark and the fire fully fizzled out, we stared at the spectacular stars in the sky while swatting gnats away and attempting to appreciate the outing. After an hour or so, we zipped ourselves and Mickey into the tent for the night, determined the next day would be better, cooler, and start off right with breakfast and coffee courtesy the camp stove.

Come morning, the camp stove wouldn't light. After repeated attempts on a stove we'd used countless times before. No coffee and growling tummies led to not so blissful bickering. I blamed Jim for not checking the stove before we left. He blamed me for suggesting camping in the first place. All the while, gnats coated my feet and poor Mickey's snout, and the temperature rose along with our tempers.

I offered Jim two options: drive into town to buy a new stove or pack things up and we'd go home — with the caveat that if he chose the latter I would be very, very unhappy.

Jim (grumpily) left to buy a camp stove, Mickey and I walked over to the river — passing a Colorado Wildlife employee who warned us about rattlesnakes. "Not to scare you," she said, "but you are in the wild, so beware." We heeded her warning the entire walk under the hot sun.

As it neared noon, Jim was back, Mickey and I had returned (with no rattlesnake encounter). I got coffee percolating, bacon and eggs cooking. As the site got hotter, we guzzled coffee, slammed food, then booked it back to the river — where we enjoyed a peaceful, pleasant, refreshing, long afternoon.

The main riverside attraction: the many rafters and kayakers braving the rapids.

rafters on Arkansas River

Secondary attraction: Taking turns with the binoculars searching for the Big Horn Sheep for which the area is known. With no luck.

As evening set in, we took a drive along the Arkansas River. First one direction, then the other, delaying the inevitable return to camp for dinner. Eventually, though, we did return. Jim had bought new (dry) wood when he got the stove, and it lit perfectly for him to grill steaks while I fried up potatoes on the campstove.

It was still hot. There were still gnats. But we bit our tongues and made the best of it as we sat down at the blazing hot picnic table to enjoy our dinner.

"This does suck," I told Jim. "Not at all what I'd hoped for. The only thing that would make it halfway worth the hell is if a Big Horn Sheep showed up on the hill."

As if on cue, two goats appeared not far from us. Then got closer and closer and closer as we watched. Thankfully Mickey — crashed in the dirt with gnats and horseflies torturing him — didn't notice. The goats continued moving toward us.

big horn goats

I asked Jim how close they seemed, and he guesstimated "thirty, maybe forty feet." They continued nibbling nearer.

"If they keep coming," I said as they eyed us, seemingly taunting us, "we gotta get in the car!"

At that, Mickey saw them, started barking like mad. The goats stared him down for a sec, changed direction, sauntered slowly up the hillside, nibbling about as they went.

I sighed, finished my steak and told Jim, "Well, I got what I wanted." It wasn't the big ones with big horns, but it was something. "So let's pack up and go home!" I surprised him by saying.

We could either brave the heat and bugs for another three hours before sun was fully down and gone, I said, or we could take an hour to get the car packed and be home before the dark sets in. He immediately opted for the latter.

We scrambled about, packed up our stuff, crammed it all in the car and pulled into the drive before the sun fully set.

When the sun rose come morning, Jim and I celebrated our anniversary with a quiet day at home then dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant. No gnats. No high temps. But plenty of plans to camp again soon — albeit higher in the mountains where temps are cooler and far, far from marshlands of even the slightest sort.