An Expert Guide to Camping in Utah
Utah is full of amazing places to camp. Expert Taylor Nelson lays out some suggestions for where to start planning a trip.
So you’re planning a trip to Utah—where do you begin? With five national parks, over 40 state parks, six national forests, and millions of acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, Utah offers more than just about any other place imaginable. In my experience, it is the most awe-inspiring ecological and geological region in North America, and maybe the world. With so many options, it can be overwhelming to plan a trip. Many people opt to spend weeks traveling the state if they are able. Whether or not you can do that, it’s always best to plan thoroughly in order to see everything you hope to see.
In this article, I’ll offer you my insider tips on finding quality campsites in Utah. This isn’t going to be a “Top 10 Things to See in Utah” list, though I will be highlighting some of the best areas the state has to offer. I won’t be covering RV camping, yurt rentals, or “glamping.” This is your guide to tent camping on a budget. I spent a lot of time during my first few trips to Utah fighting the crowds for quality, affordable camping, until I discovered the other resources and camping options available. Since then, all of my best camping experiences have been in Utah. I’m hoping this article can be your fast-track to finding easy access to affordable or free campsites, so you can spend more time enjoying the incredible, natural wonders the state has to offer.
Important Things to Consider
Where you camp in Utah is going to depend on what kind of public land you are on and where in the state you visit. Areas like Moab see roughly three million visitors a year, so camping near town can sometimes be a free-for-all. Utah’s backcountry, on the other hand, features some of the most remote areas in the continental U.S. It’s best to have several plans, depending on where you go.
If you are visiting the deserts of Southern Utah, it’s important to consider the time of year. The summers are brutally hot, and should never be taken lightly. Ensuring you have enough water, picking campsites with shade or making your own shade, and seeking out river access can be very important in the peak of summer. It is also consistently cold at night—this is something that many desert newcomers don’t expect. Most campers will leave their rain fly on their tent all day, trapping in heat as well as stopping windborne sand from filling their tent.
Camping in Parks
Utah is famous for its national parks—Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef National Parks offer the best of what the state has to offer. Camping in parks is usually very straightforward. They offer hundreds of campsites and backcountry permits, as well. These are usually the best campgrounds, offering the best value and amenities, if sometimes slightly more expensive. Always consult nps.gov for information on specific campsites; some will be first-come-first-serve, while others will allow reservations. The same is true for state parks and national forests. Check out the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Utah State Parks websites for specific areas and campsites. Campsites outside of national parks will usually offer the lowest prices, but this depends on the area. Make sure to do your research. In the height of the tourist season, Utah’s parks tend to fill up quickly. Reserve sites ahead of time, or expect to go to your plan B and C camping options.
The final type of public land available for camping is on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Dispersal campsites, also called primitive campgrounds, are the best places for free camping. The Bureau of Land Management is a branch of the Department of the Interior that manages millions of acres in the U.S. Much of this land is set aside for public use. Unless otherwise specified, you can camp anywhere for up to 14 days, the caveat being that there are no water or bathroom services, and you can only have a fire in designated fire pits.
Because of this lack of amenities, and the harsh nature of much of Utah’s desert ecology, it’s important to make sure you have enough water and basic supplies for dispersal camping. Many of the free sites in Utah are in great locations but happen to be in some of the harshest environments around, so plan accordingly. Some have fire rings, some do not. A gas stove and kitchen equipment, water storage, spare tires, jumper cables, batteries or generators, bathroom supplies, and reliable GPS communication are all good things to consider having with you if you plan to head deep into the backcountry.
All together, BLM land in Utah covers 23 million acres, so there is always somewhere to camp. Use this link to find interactive BLM maps of the state that indicate the status of public land.
The Ecology and Geology of Utah
Take one look at a satellite image of Utah and you’ll see how the state is split roughly in two, ecologically. The striking red landscapes of Southern Utah almost feel like a different world from the mountainous regions around the Great Salt Lake and Tushar Range. All five of the national parks are located in the South, which speaks to the unique nature of the geology there. In this article, we’ll focus more heavily on the Southern region, but will include links to public lands in North and Central Utah, as well.
Moab and Surrounding Region
Moab is nestled in between Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park, south of Interstate 70 via U.S. Highway 191. It is the most popular outdoor destination in Utah. Salt Lake and neighboring states’ residents pour into Moab on weekends to explore the national parks, surrounding state parks, and BLM land by foot, mountain bike, watercraft, and four-wheel-drive vehicle. If you visit Moab, expect there to be more crowds than the rest of the southern part of the state. Finding campgrounds will usually be more difficult at the height of tourist season and on weekends.
Arches National Park
Arches is the most advertised park in the state, world-renowned for its high concentration of sandstone arches. Camping in the park can help you avoid traffic in and out of the park’s single entrance, but be aware that the 51 campsites get reserved quickly. Despite its high traffic, Arches is well worth the visit!
- Devil’s Garden Campground – Two group sites.
- In addition to the designated campground, you can obtain a permit to backpack in the park.
Designated Campsites in and Around Moab
If Arches is full, there are options within the town of Moab itself, ranging from the hotels to RV and tent sites off the main road. These are certainly a last-resort option, but you’ll find a much better campsite by utilizing this discovermoab.com page to find designated sites and dispersal sites on the outside of town. Having slept in a tent site within the town of Moab on my first trip to the area, I recommend seeking out all of the other options before resorting to this!
The land around Moab that isn’t part of a national park is almost entirely BLM land. Along the Colorado River, there are a number of designated campgrounds—some closer to town, and another section further east in Castle Valley. In this area, you can camp only in a designated site, as there is no dispersed camping. The sites will have toilets, picnic tables, barbecue grills, and fire rings, as well as river access. These spots are first-come-first-serve and often fill up quickly, so have a backup plan if you’re hoping to camp along the river!
- Along the Colorado River on State Route 128, there are a number of campgrounds to both the east and west of town. The discovermoab.com site is a great resource that lists every campground in the area, both designated sites and dispersal areas.
- Kane Creek Road – also included in the link above, I’ve had great success finding campsites along this road! Tons of group sites.
Dispersed Camping Outside of Moab
Most of the area around Moab is dispersal land. In addition to the discovermoab.com link above, this BLM website is useful when planning a trip to the Moab area. It will show you which areas are open to dispersal camping, which areas are designated sites only, and more.
Areas where I’ve had luck:
- Willow Springs Road – North of town, can be seen on the attached map.
- Behind the Rocks WSA – South of Moab.
- Sand Flats Recreation Area – East of Moab.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is the lesser known park outside of Moab and further from town than Arches. It is well-deserving of its national park status, and is bigger than Arches, as well. The northern section of the park is known as Island in the Sky and is accessible from U.S. Highway 191 on your way into Moab from the north. There’s just one designated campground in the park, but the bordering Dead Horse Point State Park offers more hiking trails and campgrounds, in addition to the available camping in the surrounding area along Gemini Bridges Road and the road into the park.
Inside the Park
- Willow Flats Campground – No group sites.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Following U.S. Highway 191 south of Moab, Utah State Route 211 leads you to the southern portion of Canyonlands National Park, which encompasses the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Divided into the Needles District and the Garden District, this unique geological area has been carved by the two mighty rivers and their subsidiaries to create one of the most unique landscapes on Earth. Within the Needles District, there is a campsite, as well as a private campground just outside of the park and BLM campgrounds alongside State Route 211. Backcountry permits can also be obtained for some of the most remote, wild areas in North America.
Inside the Park
- The Needles Campground – Three group sites.
- Backcountry campsites in Garden and Needles Districts.
Outside the Park
- Needles Outpost Campground
- Indian Creek BLM area.
In the southern part of the state there are two national parks, a national monument, and several state parks. Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park are just 72 miles apart and both offer stunning views and optimal backcountry camping, as well as hundreds of sites inside and outside the parks.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is a hidden gem, known for its spectacular hoodoos and striking views of the surrounding region. The park offers nearly 200 campsites between two campgrounds, with amenities like bathrooms and potable water in addition to the usual picnic table and fire ring. The park also has an extensive backcountry area accessible with a permit.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park has been nicknamed the “painted Yosemite” because of its steep, red canyon walls reaching 700 feet from the valley floor. Much of the center of this park is designed around that canyon and its architect, the Virgin River. There is also an extensive backcountry area and hiking trails outside of the main area, including the famous Narrows. There are campgrounds inside the park available for reservation, offering over one hundred sites; however, some are open for just part of the year. There is also a private campground bordering the park with hot showers and a restaurant.
Inside the Park
Outside the Park
Campgrounds in Escalante National Monument
Escalante National Monument is a patch of BLM land in South Utah the size of Yellowstone National Park. It extends from Bryce Canyon in the west, from Bears Ears National Monument in the east (which is more BLM land bordering the Moab area), and it extends south to Lake Powell and further on to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Within this region is the famous Wave rock formation, in addition to miles and miles of slot canyons and red desert moonscapes. There are a few designated campsites along the main road in this area, and these are first-come-first-serve. If you’re able to get a spot, these will have bathrooms and campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. The town of Escalante also has several private options with showers and food.
If you aren’t able to get a campsite, all you have to do is find a country road somewhere off the highway, pick a spot in the desert, and set up camp anywhere. Hole in the Rock Road, which runs off of the main road—State Route 12 in Escalante—is an incredible dirt road that leads to dozens of offshoot roads leading you deep into the backcountry, with some roads winding their way to the Lake Powell area. This is an extremely remote location, so be sure to follow the aforementioned guidelines on dispersal camping. There are also a number of state parks and national forests bordering Escalante, which you can find through the State Park and BLM websites. Highlights include Kodachrome Basin, Coral Pink Sands, and Goosenecks State Parks.
North and Central Utah
The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and a patchwork of state parks and wildlife refuges make up the public land surrounding the Greater Salt Lake City area. This national forest extends eastward toward the Colorado and Wyoming borders, covering a wide swath of diverse ecological territory, which includes the imposing Wasatch Range, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and the remote Flaming Gorge region. It is known for world-class hiking and biking trails, incredible high desert and alpine vistas, and both resort and backcountry skiing. The famous Antelope Island State Park, jutting out into the Great Salt Lake, presents camping opportunities close to the city.
This area is covered in quality campgrounds. This website for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest will cover the campgrounds in the area, as well as backcountry permits. There is so much camping in this area that I could write a separate article about it; however, I feel the unique nature of Southern Utah deserved the main focus in this article.
In Central Utah, west of Moab and south of Salt Lake City, the Tushar Mountain Range is a lesser-visited area that offers a different side of Utah. The fact that the world’s largest single living organism, the Pando Aspen Grove, is located here and it’s one of the least-known parts of Utah says a lot about what the state has to offer. Check out the websites for the two national forests in the region, Fishlake and Dixie National Forests, for information on campsites and backcountry permits.
This information is still just the tip of the iceberg of what the beautiful state of Utah has to offer. But this should hopefully help you navigate your way through the different camping options available to you. If you’re camping in dispersed sites, you don’t have to plan much in the way of where you’ll be sleeping, just gear. If you want to camp close to the main attractions, plan to get there early or reserve sites wherever possible. If you know where you’re going to go and plan accordingly, camping in Utah will be one of the easiest and most amazing outdoor experiences of your life. Have fun out there!