This article is brought to you by our friends at Escape Campervans. Consider a van rental in Las Vegas and follow this road trip guide to hit all of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks in an adventure-ready ride.
Riddled with mountain ranges, alpine lakes, and a desert full of towering sandstone formations, Utah is one of the great treasures of the west. When my husband and I lived in the Beehive State, we always said we’d never have enough time to check off all the places we wanted to see. But we’re still trying…
It’s nearly impossible to cover everything this stunning state has to offer, but road tripping and camping in Utah is arguably the best way get going. This method of travel allows you to experience the landscape along the way as you explore the state’s five impressive national parks.
Desert Camping in Utah’s Mighty 5
With so much to see, it might seem hard to choose where to dedicate your time. From experience I can say that Utah’s southern desert region, where the Mighty 5 National Parks are located, are worth prioritizing. So let’s start there, and hit the road:
First Stop: Zion National Park
If you haven’t seen pictures of Angel’s Landing, open a new browser and type it in. Right now. This unique hike is equally beautiful and terrifying. Missteps can be deadly — so be prepared for a challenge, and take your time. Once at the top, the views open up to the red rock sculptures throughout Zion National Park. Take in the curvature of the canyon, and the pinyon pine growing up the rocks. It isn’t something you’ll want to miss.
Other hikes in Zion are not to be missed as well. Secure your permit to hike The Narrows, and if time permits, consider doing this hike from the top-down, which is a two-day excursion instead of just one. The Subway and Kolob Canyons are lesser known, but equally beautiful.
Snag a desert camping spot at Watchman Campground, located just inside the park’s south entrance. Amenities are close by in the town of Springdale, and you’ll be only a few short steps from the shuttle that travels into the canyon each day.
Second Stop: Bryce Canyon National Park
The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park feel simultaneously foreign and natural. Witnessing the pre- or post-dawn light filter through a field of hoodoos is a moving experience, one that cannot be missed by travelers through Southern Utah. Check out Agua Canyon, where layers appear across the horizon and you can take in views of red cliffs and Navajo Mountain in the distance. See if you can pick out “Rabbit” hoodoo and “Backpacker” hoodoo, too, as you continue to explore Utah’s Mighty 5.
Finally, hike the Peek-a-Boo trail, an 8.6 mile trek that winds through a small portion of the park and rewards hikers with excellent views of the Wall of Windows, Three Wise Men, and Cathedral formations. Pitch your tent at Sunset Campground.
Third Stop: Capitol Reef National Park
Home to North America’s largest monocline (a warp in the earth’s crust), Capitol Reef attracts geologists and enthusiasts alike who are eager to navigate it’s otherworldy surfaces and depths. Witness the Waterpocket Fold by driving the Burr Trail. And stop by the Fruita District, where you can study the thousand-year-old petroglyphs and see the old pioneer settlement and orchards.
While you’re in the Fruita District, pitch your tent and setup camp at Fruita-Capitol Reef National Park. This area is serene, with views of the old pioneer orchards and surrounding red rocks.
When time and access permits, embark on the 60-mile journey to Cathedral Valley, a remote and wild section of the park that rarely sees visitors. High-clearance vehicles are required, but, according to Utah.com, rarely needed. Bring emergency supplies just in case, and revel in the solitude.
Fourth Stop: Canyonlands National Park
If you want a true desert camping experience, Canyonlands National Park offers plenty of backcountry and primitive sites along the White Rim Trail, and inside the Needles, Island in the Sky, and Maze districts. Nearly 13 established primitive campgrounds dot the Canyonlands landscape, and a week among the cactus and pinyon pine will do any of our plugged-in selves a whole lot of good.
For many, the Mesa Arch Trail ranks high on the list, particularly at dawn, when photographers can capture the sun shining perfectly through the sandstone window. You likely won’t have the place to yourself, but you will find an uninterrupted view through your lens.
Frontcountry campsites are found here at The Needles Outpost and Willow Flat campgrounds, depending how far you’d like to drive. Both campgrounds are set far off Highway 191, and offer no cell service. However, they do each provide easy access to nearby trails. Make sure your five or ten-gallon water jugs are topped off–water is only available at the Visitor Center.
Fifth Stop: Arches National Park
The first time I visited Arches National Park my jaw literally dropped. With over 2,000 natural sandstone arches scattered throughout the park, there are endless opportunities to be amazed. It is no wonder why this park is considered one of Utah’s Mighty 5. The 40-mile road traversing the park makes sight-seeing easy. There are dedicated pull-offs and signage for key viewpoints like The Windows, Balanced Rock, and Devil’s Garden.
At the end of the 40-mile road sits the only campground within the park: Devil’s Garden, an often windy and usually full campground during peak season, which is April through October. Wind aside, this is the best and easiest way to spend time in Arches without having to deal with the long line up to the Visitors Center in order to enter the park each day.
Be prepared, though, as no amenities are offered throughout the park, and cell service is limited.
The most iconic hike in Arches is Delicate Arch. Marked with cairns and wooden signs, the 1.5 mile hike crosses sandstone bluffs and an old homestead. You don’t want to miss it.
Sixth Stop: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments
This region of the state has been plastered across national media outlets since 2015, when former President Obama made a last ditch effort to protect the nearly 1-million acre swath of Utah desert that is sacred to the Dine, Ute, Hope, and Zuni tribes.
Visit and learn about the Ancestral Puebloan Cliff Dwellings found here like the House on Fire and Bears Ears. Drive through the Valley of the Gods and experience pure isolation among crumbling desert spires. You can even discover ruins and rock art at Greater Cedar Mesa.
Finally, finish your camping trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 with your final destination, Valley of the Gods. Here, you will have easy access to both national monuments, and can unwind from your week on the road.
Save Utah’s Mighty 5 camping list to your profile, and start planning your trip!