Fall might be the best time of year to sleep under the stars. Temperatures are mild during the day and chilly at night, just right for cozying up in your sleeping bag, and the midsummer crowds have disappeared, making scoring a campsite that much easier. One of the coolest places to camp this season? The desert. Southern Utah is a great region for this, and while places like Zion National Park and Moab are popular autumn destinations, there are plenty of other, off-the-beaten-path spots to check out, too. We called up pro skier and four-sport, Salomon-sponsored athlete Kalen Thorien, who spends much of her time driving her trailers and riding her Harley around southern Utah, to get her tips on where to go and what to pack.
Where to Camp
The Mighty Five national parks of southern Utah—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches—all have campgrounds, which are a bit easier to book come fall, but you’ll still need to reserve a space well ahead of time. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find camping in a campground, but it’s not impossible,” Thorien says. “Check to see if they take reservations. If they don’t, get there early—you might catch someone leaving. Otherwise, don’t be scared to primitive-camp outside of a campground. That’s the beauty of southern Utah—it’s endless. Point it down a dirt road and find your spot.”
Consider looking for campsites just outside the national parks. You can search for camping on private and public land on sites like Campendium, Campspot, or Hipcamp. Or find dispersed camping on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on sites like the Dyrt, Gaia GPS, or iOverlander. If you’d rather sleep in a plush canvas tent or cabin, check out GlampingHub or Tentrr.
Thorien likes camping in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. You can find dispersed camping in the BLM land off the rugged Hole in the Rock Road, a 62-mile route that heads from the town of Escalate toward Lake Powell. She also loves to wander throughout the vast San Rafael Swell, BLM-managed public land that’s known for its sandstone formations and desert canyons. “You’ve got to be desert savvy to be roaming around in there,” Thorien says. “It’s wild, with roads that’ll take you to your own private Utah.”
Don’t forget about the state parks, too, which tend to be less crowded than the national parks but with equally good sightseeing, trails, and campgrounds. Dead Horse State Park, outside Moab, has yurts and miles of mountain-bike trails, Kodachrome Basin State Park is a hidden gem, with some of the best stargazing in the state, and at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, you can camp among rust-colored dunes and red-rock cliffs. Thorien loves Goblin Valley State Park for its otherworldly landscape filled with towering sandstone hoodoos.
“There’s a great road called Temple Mountain Road, just behind Goblin Valley State Park, that has dispersed, primitive camping,” says Thorien. “You can pick wherever you want to go. It’s a beautiful area to get away from people, have some nice views, and be near canyons.”
What to Know
If you do plan to disperse-camp outside of a campground, follow all posted signage, check campfire restrictions, and remember to leave no trace—that means picking up and packing out all trash and human and pet waste. “Bring wag bags. No digging pits in the desert, since that poop will sit there for who knows how long. You’ve got to pack out your toilet paper and your waste,” says Thorien.
The BLM has a 14-day limit for dispersed camping in one site, but otherwise you are free to camp pretty much anywhere. Permits aren’t required, but you can always stop into the local BLM office or visitor center for guidelines on area camping. “You can camp adjacent to a road, or wherever you’d like,” says Dave Jacobson, recreation planner for the BLM’s Cedar City, Utah, field office. “We would encourage people to camp in previously disturbed sites. If someone else has discovered that as a dispersed site, you will probably enjoy it, too.”
Try to avoid camping on soft, fragile desert surfaces—look for hard ground. And be sure to check the weather forecast for flash flooding or heavy rains. Seek out spots on high ground, and avoid setting up in or near a wash or slot canyon. Also, watch where you’re driving. “If it’s been raining, do not try to get too far down a dirt road, because it turns to peanut butter,” says Thorien. “Cottonwood Wash has a big sign saying, Do not go down here if there’s a threat of rain. Listen to that warning.”
What to Bring
In addition to all the regular gear you need for car camping, there are a few extra items you’ll want to remember for fall desert camping. Temperature swings in southern Utah this time of year can be drastic; it’s not uncommon to see a high of 95 degrees during the day and a low of 45 degrees at night. So pack accordingly.
“You’ll be in a T-shirt and shorts during the day, then a hat and down jacket at night,” Thorien says. “Always have a puffy jacket with you, since you never know when you’ll need it.” She also advises carrying rain gear and wearing plenty of sun protection during the day, including sunscreen, a sun shirt, and a large-brimmed hat, as well as lightweight, quick-drying clothing.
And you’ll need to stay hydrated. “Bring lots of drinking water,” Thorien says. “This is the desert, and depending on where you are, you may not find any.” (And even if you do, it may be too murky to filter.)
For hiking around the desert, you’ll want lightweight, breathable trail shoes. Thorien wears an approach shoe, with a sticky rubber surface that’s well suited for walking on slick sandstone. “This is not the place for leather boots,” she says. “They’re too hot, and if they get wet, they won’t dry.”