The Mighty 5: Camping in Utah National Parks

May 9, 2018 |

The Mighty 5: Camping in Utah National Parks

By Nathan Paul Swartz

All the Best RV Camping in Arches

Five national parks span nearly the entire length of Southern Utah, connected by a seemingly endless stretch of public land. This leads to epic adventure galore, a non-stop opportunity to explore not only the parks themselves but the impressive array of grandeur that surrounds them, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Goblin Valley State Park and Valley of the Gods. Whether you’ve come to Utah to single-track it over the slick rock, hike legendary trails, photograph the red cliffs at sunset, or spot a mountain bluebird, wide-open skies and memorable adventures await.

Campgrounds in Arches National Park

Arches and Canyonlands share a “homeland” in the small city of Moab, Utah.  However, if you arrive with the happy-go-lucky notion that you might be alone in exploring the two nearby national parks, hip little town, and tons of BLM land, you’ve got another thing coming. Moab is likely the most popular destination in the Mighty 5, and tens of thousands of Jeep enthusiasts, OHVers, mountain bikers, and wandering hippies merge regularly and year-round on this adventure town.

Though you’ll almost certainly share the vast public lands and private RV park offerings in the area, and will need to lean on advanced planning (sometimes six months in advance!) for campgrounds public and private, the crowds are easily worth it once you realize that you’re surrounded not only by the officially sanctioned beauty of the parks but the nearly endless rainbow of colors that this corner of Utah provides. Moab offers red rock, turquoise cliffs, distant snow-capped peaks, and the warming glow of restaurants, shops, and other amenities.

If you’d like to be minutes from one of the parks but still close enough to enjoy the pizza shops, breweries, natural food stores, and ATV rentals of Moab then the campground in Arches National Park is your best bet. Moab proper has about a dozen private RV parks for those of you who like to shower and have consistent access to cell service and an electric plug, but many campers enjoy the wide-open offerings available just outside of town. It’s worth noting that BLM land here isn’t quite the same as in other parts of the American West; the sheer population of RVers, tent campers, and van-lifers has had such an effect on the landscape that in some places they’ve fenced off specific areas where you are allowed to camp, and some BLM camping — like Willow Springs Trail — comes with developed pit toilets to help keep the human waste out of the open desert.

The Best Camping near Arches National Park

More Free Camping Near Arches

Full Hookup RV Parks Near Arches

All the Best RV Camping in Canyonlands

Where Arches is all about the impressive rock formations which give the park its name, Canyonlands is a park about a much greater scale: it is a set of endless scars on the earth’s surface that read like the workshop of an artist trying to paint the perfect canyon.

While the park is only a half-hour from Moab its vastness will make your drive to any particular point likely much longer. Still, given the long lines at Arches, it may be the more accessible of the two national parks in this corner of Utah.

Campgrounds in Canyonlands National Park

There are two campgrounds that can accommodate RVs up to 28′ in the park, and the highly acclaimed Dead Horse Point State Park is just outside of the Canyonlands Island in the Sky park entrance. All three are plagued with the same problem that the rest of this region shares — more people want to camp here than the parks can hold — thus planning well in advance is a necessity if you’re desperate to stay in the legendary Dead Horse State Park. Both of the national park sites have first-come, first-served sites for you early birds, and Squaw Flat offers reservations on the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.

Note that Willow Flat is also called Island in the Sky Campground, and Squaw Flat is known as The Needles as well.

More Free Camping Near Canyonlands

All the Best RV Camping in Capitol Reef

As Moab plays the perfect bustling 4×4 paradise, Torrey, Utah is a rocking chair on the front porch of an old cabin. The town has nowhere near the amenities offered near some of the other national parks in Southern Utah and similarly oozes with all of the charm that truly small-town life tends to breed.

An RV park in town offers a walkable experience in Torrey while still draped in ever-stunning mountain backdrops. While small, Torrey is home to fancy restaurants with expensive margaritas and rattlesnake appetizers as well as low-key joints promising home cooking. A small store in town can hook you up with the necessities but don’t expect a Walmart or much of anything else you may have come to expect from America’s highways these days.

Campgrounds in Capitol Reef National Park

The park itself plays host to three campgrounds where you can nestle in and explore everything from the raw geology of the area to the Mormon settler history, including the remote and small rig, high-clearance only Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa Campgrounds. Otherwise, Fruita can accommodate RVs up to 45′ in length. For those of you who tend to show up late, there’s an overflow area just outside the park’s western entrance that where even the largest RVs can usually find a place to call home.

National Forest Camping Outside of Capitol Reef

The Fishlake National Forest offers the rare treat of forested camping in the otherwise largely desert landscape that makes up Utah’s Mighty 5. Forsyth Reservoir offers a chance to camp near a manmade lake while Singletree comes complete with the unusual feature of a flushing toilet in a national forest campground.

Free Camping Near Capitol Reef

While no doubt the most convenient access to the national park is Capitol Reef Overflow, situated conveniently between the park’s entrance and Torrey, there’s plenty more free camping outside of Capitol Reef.

RV Parks Near Capitol Reef

All three of the private RV parks in Torrey are positioned close enough to town that you could walk or ride a bicycle along the busy Utah State Road 24, and all offer similar experiences as far as access to cell service and full hookups go. Sandcreek RV Park is probably the most basic (and affordable) of them all, while Thousand Lakes is the furthest out of town but boasts a swimming pool.

All the Best RV Camping in Bryce

With no real downtown or Main Street to speak of, Bryce Canyon and the similarly named “town” nearby is perhaps the most remote feeling, and least convenient of the Mighty 5 parks to visit, but the impressive hoodoos and ancient bristlecone pines more than make up for what the area may lack in big box stores and chain restaurants. As far as the town goes, a woman (or business) by the name of Ruby seems to run most everything from an RV park to a gas station and a gift shop.

Campgrounds in Bryce Canyon National Park

Both North and Sunset Campgrounds in Bryce Canyon are more accessible for those of us who tend to fly by the seat of our pants, as compared to say the parks near Moab or Zion. Early birds willing to get into the park early and scope out the perfect place to watch the sunset or walk to the canyon rim will get the best sites. Sunset Campground tends to be a little easier to get into, with its lack of cell service and secondary position in Bryce Canyon, while North Campground gets rave reviews for decent cell service and a walkable experience that includes trails, the rim and access to the visitor center.

If the park is full up, though, Ruby’s Inn RV Park is the next best option as far as proximity to the goodness.

Free National Forest Camping Outside of Bryce

Outside of the park, the Dixie National Forest provides some of the most concentrated, splendid treed camping this nation has to offer, and the majority of it is absolutely free. If you’re looking for the picnic table, fire ring, and a shower experience, you can always pay a few bucks to stay at Red Canyon Campground, but otherwise dispersed, free national forest camping surrounds Bryce on nearly every side.

RV Parks Near Bryce

Arches has Moab, Capitol Reef has Torrey and Zion has Springfield. And Bryce? Bryce has Ruby’s, so looking elsewhere for the full hookups experience outside of the park may be sacrilege to some. That said, Bryce Canyon Pines is making their own “we’ve got an RV park, a store, laundry and even a pool” mark near the park as well, and Red Canyon RV Park is an option a little further up the road.

All the Best RV Camping in Zion

Just as most parents don’t say it out loud, but secretly have a favorite child, Zion National Park feels like the fortunate son of Utah’s Might 5. The adjacent, happening town of Springdale is a bit more upscale than the rest of the states southern villages, and it’s not only walkable, but a shuttle regularly runs from town into the park itself.

We’ve covered camping in Zion in its totality before, as well as the plethora of free camping outside of Zion National Park.

While South Campground and Watchman are the official campgrounds in the park, Zion Canyon Campground & RV Resort is perhaps the next best thing, situated along the Virgin River with the same gorgeous canyon views you’ll find in the park, and a short walk to the park entrance.

Other Public Lands in Southern Utah

The spaces between the national parks can be just as grand as the big boys themselves, with experiences that run the gamut from snow-covered fir forests into May to desert galleries of nature’s wildest imagination. The state park offerings promise an artist’s palette of vistas while Grand Staircase-Escalante is a surreal site worthy of national park status all on its own.