Images of tents set up before such splendid Utah backdrops as wind-sculpted slot canyons, pristine alpine lakes and magnificent red-rock arches are inspiring enough to make an outdoor adventurer out of anyone. OK, camping will never be everyone’s idea of a good time. It’s fine, just don’t invite those people. Fortunately, it means there are more campsites available for those who think tent camping in Utah is a marvelous idea.
Utah has oodles of amazing places to camp across its diverse regions and unique landscapes. These include desert, mountain and lake destinations to suit every camping style. Even eliminating non-tent camping from a search, you’ll find hundreds of options among private and public developed campgrounds plus countless dispersed sites on public lands. These range from amenity-packed camping resorts focused on family fun to remote, primitive sites far from the sounds of other campers.
Whatever style of tent camping in Utah appeals to you, it’s always best to plan and make reservations as far in advance of your trip as possible.
Where to Camp in Utah
Decisions, decisions… Utah’s diverse regions, landscapes, major tourist attractions, seasons and weather forecast are factors to consider. So are the types of activities you want to do on your camping trip, and the kinds of campgrounds you prefer.
Maybe you’re the play-it-by-ear type, but your other half will freak out if you venture up a mountain without a guaranteed site. Unless you want to become their emotional support camper, choose a reservable campground.
Do you prefer to camp in places that aren’t too… peopley? Then obviously avoid popular destinations like Lake Powell and Zion, and all national parks during peak season. And perhaps consider sacrificing some conveniences for the serenity of dispersed tent camping in Utah.
Does your camping style involve a car full of snacks and prized possessions? Is your dog sitter the world’s biggest flake? (Don’t panic! There are plenty of dog-friendly campgrounds in Utah.) Did your uncle finally agree to let you borrow his giant RV?
Whatever your personal deal is, it just takes a bit of preparation to figure out the best tent camping in Utah for you.
Tent Camping in Utah National Parks
Utah has five national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion) and eight additional national park properties. They all have multiple developed campgrounds as well as backcountry camping options. These are — of course — super-popular destinations, so book sites early and steel yourself for the hardship of having strangers in all your photos.
Open seasons, reservation systems, amenities and check-in procedures vary from park to park. Backcountry camping is allowed in all five national parks, and all require a backcountry permit. Check the camping setup for every national park property individually, in advance of your trip. You don’t want to get scolded by a park ranger. That’s embarrassing.
Do you like nice things, like hot showers and a strong WiFi signal? OK, Princess (jk). Know that concessionaire-run campgrounds inside some Utah national parks tend to have a greater range of amenities than park-run campgrounds.
Want to wear one of those “life is better at the lake” T-shirts un-ironically? A couple of notable lake destinations for tent camping in Utah National Parks are Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, including Lake Powell, and Flaming Gorge Reservoir National Recreation Area. They both have developed campgrounds, plus Glen Canyon has free (always nice) no-permit-required camping around the lakeshore for up to 14 days.
Tent Camping in Utah State Parks
Most of Utah’s 43 state parks have campgrounds, including developed and primitive tent sites. Some of the most popular parks include:
- Antelope Island State Park: This park is on the shores of the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City and is known for its wildlife, including a free-roaming bison herd (yeah, you’re not so special, Wyoming!). It has four campgrounds plus backcountry tent camping.
- Bear Lake State Park: Along the Utah/Idaho border, this stunning turquoise lake features the longest beach in Utah. Some say it looks like the Caribbean, honestly, they do. It also has four campgrounds with hot showers and flush toilets.
- Kodachrome Basin State Park: Named for its unique multi-hued rock formations, this state park is a photographer’s dream. Makes you think all of the world’s a sunny day. (Come on, where are my Paul Simon fans?) With three campgrounds to choose from, it’s great for tent campers in Utah, too.
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park: Ever-shifting, wind-sculpted pink sands draw visitors to this state park In southern Utah. Doesn’t that sound pretty? It has one campground with 34 sites.
Tent Camping on Utah’s Public Lands
Utah boasts over 20 million acres of public lands, managed mainly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (NFS). Because these are public lands, everyone is guaranteed access to them for camping and recreation. Before you plant your flag on the nearest plot and cry patriotic tears over such beautiful freedom, understand that there are some important restrictions. You can’t just freely camp anywhere in Utah.
Always research to find appropriate places to camp on public lands, and consider booking a site at one of the many developed campgrounds run by the Forest Service or BLM. Fees range from free to around $10, and these campgrounds tend to have few and sometimes zero amenities. Info is available at recreation.gov.
Some select public lands in Utah are subject to a permit and lottery system to protect them from overuse. You know how other campers can be. This applies if you want to camp at Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears National Monument, Paria Canyon or Sand Cove near St. George.
Dispersed (Free) Tent Camping in Utah
You might have heard rumors that there is free tent camping in Utah anywhere you go. There is some truth to this, although not entirely accurate. Public lands are indeed open to dispersed tent camping, often without any fee, reservation or permit requirements. Utah certainly has a lot of public lands, but there are regulations, including:
- You’re not allowed to camp in places marked as off-limit. This could be due to the area being a sensitive ecological or cultural site or close to water sources.
- National forests have designated areas for dispersed and free tent camping in Utah. Check with a BLM field office or national forest ranger station.
- Whenever possible, set up your tent on a site that has been previously used. Thrifting is good for the planet.
- You may camp for a total of 14 days within a 28-day period. After that, move it along.
- Respect Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly principles. If you don’t know what these are – what kind of camper are you?! Read up immediately and repent for your sins.
Private Campgrounds in Utah
Campers will find the widest range of tent camping options in Utah at private campgrounds. If you enjoy amenities like swimming pools, on-site cafes or restaurants, gift stores, bike rentals, etc., private campgrounds generally offer the best tent camping in Utah. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not real camping if you’re too comfortable. Everyone’s happy place looks different, and some have hot tubs.
Before booking a site, do plenty of research on the campgrounds that appeal to you. Read reviews (filtering out the crazies) and check the small print concerning booking policies.
Tips for Tent Camping in Utah
Utah has a four-season climate with extreme heat and cold, potentially affecting tent camping options. You already know this, but here’s a reminder that sun protection and plenty of water are necessary at all elevations year-round.
Let’s just say you’re a normal person who doesn’t like to camp when it’s snowy, icy or brutally hot. Then April to mid-June and August to mid-October are the best times, weather-wise, for tent camping in Utah. In winter, stick to Southern Utah. High-elevation camping in Northern Utah is a summer-only activity. In spring and fall, you might be in for a wild ride through Utah’s full temperature range.
Tent camping in Utah is safe, but you need to use common sense concerning wild animals. Utah is home to black bears, mountain lions, bison and rattlesnakes. You’re cool with that, right? Read up a little on appropriate behavior around these animals, and basically, don’t be an idiot. Keep your distance, and never feed, approach or touch wild animals. Don’t be that guy. Learn how to be bear aware and keep your tent and campsite free of food and any scented items.
Cell phone service can be poor or nonexistent outside Utah’s urban areas. It doesn’t have to be the nightmare you imagine. Prepare by downloading maps, guides and reservation details. Use Wi-Fi at campsites or visitor centers. Bring some offline entertainment or just take in the amazing scenery and star-filled night skies while camping in Utah.