Sleeping under the stars might be the best time of year in the fall. The weather is mild during the day and chilly at night, perfect for snuggling up in your sleeping bag. Plus, the midsummer crowds have disappeared, so it’s easier to find a campsite. This season, where are some of the coolest places to camp? There are deserts. Southern Utah is an excellent region for this, and while Zion National Park and Moab are popular autumn destinations, there are plenty of other, off-the-beaten-path spots to explore. We talked with Salomon-sponsored athlete and pro skier Kalen Thorien, who spends much of her time driving her trailer and riding her Harley around southern Utah, to find out where to go and what to pack.
The Mighty Five national parks of southern Utah are Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. Most have campgrounds that are easier to book in the fall, but you should still reserve your space ahead of time. Campsites are hard to come by at campgrounds, although it isn’t impossible, say Thorien. “Ask whether reservations are accepted there. It’s best to arrive early in case they don’t show up. Other than that, don’t be afraid to primitive-camp outside of a campground. You’ll never run out of things to do in southern Utah. Put it on a dirt road and find your spot.”
You may want to consider camping outside of national parks. A site like Campendium, Campspot, or Hipcamp lets you search for camping on public and private land. On sites such as Dyrt, Gaia GPS, or iOverlander, you can find dispersed camping on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). You can find luxurious canvas tents and cabins on GlampingHub and Tentrr.
He enjoys camp outings in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Campers can find dispersed camping in the BLM land southwest of Escalate along the 62-mile Hole in the Rock Road toward Lake Powell. Aside from the vast San Rafael Swell, she likes to wander through the desert canyons and sandstone formations that make up the vast, BLM-managed public land. Thorien says that if you want to live in the desert you should be adept at it. There are a lot of road that will lead to a private Utah.
State parks are equally scenic, have trails, and campgrounds to match the national parks but tend to be less crowded. In Dead Horse State Park, outside Moab, you can find yurts and miles of mountain-bike trails. Kodachrome Basin State Park offers some of the best stargazing in Utah, and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park has rust-colored dunes. Its otherworldly landscape filled with towering sandstone hoodoos draws Thorien to Goblin Valley State Park.
Behind Goblin Valley State Park, Temple Mountain Road offers dispersed, primitive camping. “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.”
Knowing what to do
Disperse camping outside of a campground means following all posted signage, checking campfire restrictions, and picking up and packing out all garbage, human waste, and pet waste. Bags of swag are required. You shouldn’t dig pits in the desert because the poop will remain there for days. As Thorien says, take your toilet paper and waste with you.
You are free to camp anywhere on the BLM property, but dispersed camping in one site is limited to 14 days. There is no need for permits, but the local BLM office or visitor center has information on camping in the area. BLM’s Cedar City, Utah, field office recreation planner Dave Jacobson: “You may camp alongside a road, or just anywhere you’d like.” “Camping at previously disturbed sites is something we encourage. You may enjoy it too, if you’ve already found it as a dispersed site.”
Camp on hard ground instead of soft, fragile desert surfaces. If heavy rains or flash floods are forecast, look out for the weather forecast. Aim for high ground, and stay away from washes and slot canyons. Additionally, pay attention to your surroundings as you drive. In rainy weather, Thorien advises staying off dirt roads because they turn into peanut butter. “There’s a sign at Cottonwood Wash that says don’t go down here if it is raining. “Pay attention to that warning.”
Bring what you need
While you will need all the usual gear for car camping, you might want to remember a few items for desert camping in fall. This time of year, the temperatures in southern Utah can vary drastically; the daytime highs can reach 95 degrees and the nighttime lows can reach 45 degrees. Plan accordingly when packing.
At the start of the trip, you’ll be in T-shirts and shorts, but in the evening, you’ll be in a down jacket and hat. She also suggests carrying rain gear and wearing sun protection throughout the day, such as sunscreen, a sunshirt, and a wide-brimmed hat, as well as lightweight, quick-drying clothing.
Keeping hydrated is also important. Thorien says to bring plenty of water. It may not be possible to locate any in the desert, or it might be too murky to filter. (But even if you do find any, you may not be able to filter.)
If you’re going hiking in the desert, you’ll need breathable, lightweight footwear. Thorien’s shoes are made of rubber with a sticky surface, perfect for walking on slick surfaces like sandstone. Leather boots are not appropriate here, she says. Getting wet will not allow them to dry.” They’re too hot.