• Ben Webby

A Guide to Road Tripping and Camping in Utah

Updated: Oct 12

Utah is one of the best states in the US to road trip through. As soon as you drive into this wild state, you will feel as if you have taken a trip to another planet. Your mind will be constantly blown at every corner. There are so many natural wonders to see in Utah, it can be challenging to know where to go!

We set out from San Diego, California on a road trip to Utah in our 2004 Toyota  Highlander. We drove 7 hours through Cali, Nevada, and Arizona before arriving in Zion for our first night of free camping in Utah.  We were going to spend 10 days camping in Utah, exploring the various national parks and monuments here.

What to do on a Utah Road Trip:

1. Zion National Park

2. Bryce Canyon National Park 3. Moab

4. Arches National Park

5. Canyonlands National Park

6. Monument Valley

7. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Recreational Area

8. Zion National Park, round two

Days 1 & 2: Zion National Park

After a big day of driving east into Utah, we arrived late and camped in Watchman Campground (National Park Campground) for free.  There is a great hike behind the Watchman campground that takes about 10 minutes and gives you amazing views of the mountainous valley you are in. 

We found a couple of fantastic swimming spots in Zion along the Virgin River. The best spot was under the bridge where the shuttle buses turn up the 'floor of the valley' road. There is a nice pool below some rapids that offer a refreshing plunge. It's amazing emerging from the water to see the enormous walls of Zion. 

The drive up the Zion-Mt Carmel Canyon is one of the best in the country. It winds its way up the mountain, offering spectacular views of the canyon. There is a mile-long tunnel at the top that was cut out of the mountainside to allow traffic to go through to Zion.

On the edge of Zion National Park, is a funky, little town called Springdale. A little pricey, but if you need essentials this is the closest town. I love how all the small towns and Indian Trading posts of the southwest make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. It's a unique look at the early history of the US. More about Zion National Park on day 9 & 10.

Inside the National parks are not the best places to find free camping in Utah, but it can be done, as we did in Watchman Campground. Just get there late and be gone early in the morning. Otherwise, look for campgrounds in Utah on BLM land just outside the national parks.

Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park

The sunrise point hike is an easy track that gives you a great look at the sharp rock formations emerging from the ground, carved by millions of years of tectonic activity.  Here you can view Utah's ‘hoodoos,” tall, pointy rock features resembling cave stalagmites. Each hoodoo is made up of different colors of orange, white, and yellow.

After driving about an hour and a half up gravel roads, we found free dispersed camping in Dixie National Forest. If you are looking for free camping in Utah, the National forests are a great bet. All throughout the forest was free and we picked a spot about an hour west of Bryce Canyon in the middle of the forest.

Inspiration Point is another spot at Bryce Canyon that is worth checking out. Gaze across the layers of white and red rock that form unique shapes in the canyon. Inspiration point is around 1.5 miles south of the Visitor Center. 

Day 4: Moab

We left Bryce Canyon aiming to camp in Moab, Utah that evening. We climbed 9000ft through Fish Lake National Forest, then hit the baron desert of 70 east for a few hours. That was broken up by incredible scenery around Orangeville.

The Green River Canyon was one of the most insane stretches of road that we have seen in the entire country and definitely our favorite in Utah. 

More crazy red rock walls around tabletop mountains continued on until we hit Moab. Moab is a cool little action-packed town, that seems to live and breathe adrenalin sports. 

We found an amazing free campsite in Utah on the Colorado River. Kings Bottom Campground - 800 Kane Creek Boulevard, Moab (Bureau Land Management) - Our spot was on the edge of the river, walled in by giant red cliffs. 

This campsite was one of the best campgrounds in Utah that we found. It was 20 minutes from Arches National Park and 40 Minutes from Canyonlands National Park. 

We took a hike up Moonflower canyon and were treated to spectacular views down the river as the sun was setting. We could see the famous Arches from Arches National Park on the horizon. 

Day 5: Arches National Park

We drove into Arches national park from Moab. As soon as you enter the park you are greeted with wild scenes. Giant rocks precariously stacked on top of each other, looking like they could call fall at any moment.

It’s insane to imagine how this park was formed. Enormous holes and arches appear in the sides of the mountains as you drive further into the park.

The window section is one of the park's most famous features and is an easy walk up to the arches. We stopped and took a hike here, getting an up-close look at the arches that we could see on the horizon last night. 

Landscape Arch is also an impressive sight to be seen. Spanning 88 m, it is the largest natural arch in the US and can be viewed in the northern area of the park, in Devils Garden. Take the easy sub mile hike to view it up close. 

Day 6: Canyonlands National Park

Heading south on the 191 on the way to Canyonlands, the scenery dramatically changes. It's like entering a new planet; red rocks, carved valleys, and cliffs of all different colored layers of rock. The lines and colors of the rock offer an unspoken insight into the history of the state.

We were in awe, looking left and right at rock monuments emerging like an ancient city from the flat desert ground. These looked like the perfect hideouts for the ancient people of the Americas. Take the 211 West towards Canyonlands. Where you turn left you will see an impressive looking monument called Church Rock. 

The 211 west was even crazier than the last road we were on, and one of the best stretches of road to drive in the US. Any road trip to Utah National Parks has to include this drive.

Huge walled canyons enclosed us and giant boulders were scattered everywhere. Glimpses of Utah’s enormous monuments appearing on the horizon as we rounded each corner. We drove for an hour along this road and arrived at the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park. The drive back along the 211 is just as exciting from the reversed direction.

Day 7: Monument Valley

After getting back on the I-191 we aimed south to Monument Valley. Driving this road with the sun setting behind the monuments is a beautiful site to see. The silhouetted monuments and tabletop mountains glowing in the distance.

On the road south, you will head past 'Mexican Hat', a flat rock balanced atop a mountain that resembles a sombrero. 

Driving through Monument Valley will have you feeling as if you were thrust into a Western film set in the late 1800s. There is nothing here except desert and monuments that rise from the red ground. 

Unfortunately, the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is around the Monument Valley area, was hit hard by Covid-19. This led to a lot of the campgrounds in Utah near the area, being temporarily closed. Check the park's website before traveling here to check availability. 

Day 8: Lake Powell

The largest freshwater source between Monument Valley and Zion, making it the perfect place to stop and hang out on a hot summer day.  Easily the best swimming spot in Utah and an important stop on your road trip to Utah.

Lake Powell is a beautiful desert oasis, formed when they dammed up the Glen Canyon. The pristine lake is backdropped by wild red mountains, cliffs, and a dry, hot desert. 

It's like an island paradise in the middle of the desert, white sandy beaches and warm, clear water. There are tons of activities to do at Glen Canyon; swimming and boating being two of the most common. There are also some famous sightseeing opportunities, Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are must see’s. Take a 1.5-mile round trip hike to the impressive overlook at Horseshoe bend. Antelope Canyon is only accessible by guided tour. 

Days 9 & 10: Zion National Park

Finish off your Southern Utah road trip with another stop at the gem of the state, Zion National Park. There is fantastic free camping on BLM land about 30 minutes east of the park, at the foothills of Mt Carmel. This spot was the perfect base while staying at Zion, it wasn’t too far from the park so we could drive in early to hike and explore. It also was up quite high so provided us with nice views of the area. 

Another spot for swimming in Zion is at the back of the  Zion Canyon Village. You can park right on the side of the river and walk 10 meters down to find nice pools for swimming, perfect for cooling off after a long hike in Zion. 

We stopped on the Mt Carmel side of the 1-mile tunnel and went for a hike to the Zion Canyon Overlook. A short and relatively easy hike that offers unbelievable views. There are some skinny sections of the path where only one person can cross, if you are scared of heights this might not be the best hike for you. 

Best Free Camping Sites in Utah

1. Zion National Park

We spent a lot of time looking for free campsites in Utah around Zion and this was far and away the best. It has some great sunrise and sunset views and is in close proximity to Zion. BLM Land.

GPS: 37.206195, -112.674979.

2. Bryce National Park

This one took us a solid hour of driving up a gravel road to find. We were so far out in the boonies that our neighbors were nowhere close.

GPS: 37.650502, -112.216289

3. Arches National Park

Free BLM camping in Utah, just outside of Moab and on the banks of the Colorado River. Its 14 minutes' drive to the entrance of Arches and can see the arches on the horizon from camp.

GPS: 38.556491, -109.585018.

4. Lake Powell

The closest free camping to Lake Powell. BLM land, dispersed sites on a dirt road

GPS: 36.994201, -111.60102. (Yes, we cheated, it's just over the border into Arizona.)

Best Roads to Drive in Utah

1. Zion-Mt Carmel Canyon in Zion National Park

2. Green River Canyon on the 70 East

3.Canyonlands 211 West  as you enter the National park from Montecillo

Best Hike in Utah

1. Angels Landing was closed when we were there but it is one of the most incredible hikes in the US.

2. Canyon Overlook This is a short and relatively easy hike that allows you an insane view over the Zion Canyon. 

3. Windows Loop in Arches National Park, short and easy and you can walk right up to the famous Arch. 

Best Swimming Spots in Utah

1. Lake Powell hands down. Utah is hot and dry so swimming spots are crucial but they can be a little hard to find

2. Colorado River one of our favorite spots was on the wild Colorado River, where we were camping in Moab, Utah.

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