One of my favorite things about road trips is finding the random, beautiful and spontaneous spots to call home for the night. During our trip through the Mighty Five, we stayed every night in a different free spot between and around the amazing national parks. I find that once you travel outside of Southern California, where I’m from, there is so much BLM (public land) accessible for camping. To me, these are often the most scenic, peaceful spots since they are usually overlooked by the masses. You can find yourself in a place where nothing interrupts your moments with nature.
One of my favorite parts about trekking the Mighty Five, which includes Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, is that once you get to the first park, starting from either the western most (Zion), or the eastern most (Arches), the parks are all in within 2 1/2 hours from the next one on the route. So you really don’t spend too much time driving, which of course leaves more time for exploring. Plus, not only are the parks incredible, but the highways between are just as stunning. Filled with so many colors, roadside attractions and geographical beauties. Scenic Byway 12 is especially gorgeous. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best places to free camp if you decide to trek the Mighty Five someday!
Zion National Park
We started our road trip with Zion National park and here we stayed two nights. The first night we stayed off of Sheeps Bridge Road. About 12 miles south and just off the main highway that leads to the Western entrance of Zion. The campground doesn’t have any view of the park, but it offers many open spaces off of a windy dirt road. A few others had heard of this spot, so we had neighbors. But we slept under the beautiful stars and woke up to beautiful red mountains on either side of us. If you’re looking for an easy to find campsite with quick access to the park, Sheeps Bridge is a great place. Plus, we were only 10 minutes from the Springdale Visitor Center just outside of Zion for when we needed to use the bathroom in the morning 😛
Our second night, we stayed off of Kolob Terrace Road, which was my favorite of the two. It is one of the recommended scenic drives to take around Zion, so when looking for home sweet home, you get to see some incredible views. Kolob Terrace Road is a highway that takes you to the back side of the park and along the way you can find camping just about anywhere. People were pulled off on dirt roads, car camping or with full campground set ups. The best way to find a spot to camp is to look for already built fire pits so you can use them to roast yourself some dinner, or s’mores!! But I think the best part about this spot is that there is a free ranging tribe of cows that roam the mountains here. Make sure you drive slowly and you’ll get a chance to say hello to some mommas and their calfs. We fell asleep to the sound of their cowbell and I couldn’t help but wake up smiling.
Bryce Canyon National Park
It’s so hard to pick a favorite Utah national park since they are all unique and pretty much incomparable. But if I had to choose, the other worldly feel of Bryce was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before!! It seemed like ancient, alien life forms that chose this very spot for their tribe. There are adorable small towns on either side of the park that offer affordable hotel and motel lodging, but if you’re looking for a free campsite, we found the perfect spot!! Just west of the turn for Bryce Canyon, there is a road that leads to the East Fork of the Sevier River. It’s a dirt road, but pretty flat and my little hyundai hatchback survived it. If you go for a few miles, once you start to think you haven’t seen anything and probably won’t, you’re likely almost there! Forest Road 80, to the left, offers quite a few small campsites with already built fire pits. They’re big, private campsites amid tall trees and along an old river bed. We didn’t stay here but it was definitely a spot we were going to go back to if we didn’t find another one within half an hour. We decided to chance it and drive a couple miles further until we reached the Tropic Reservoir. All of a sudden we saw a beautiful, giant body of water surrounded by trees and campsites. It was beautiful finding a spot in the quiet woods tucked seemingly so far off the main highway. I will say, if you plan to stay here, which I highly recommend, make sure you are prepared to make yourself cozy!! It was freezing, which I should’ve expected since there were several, random unmelted snow piles that decorated the campground. But it’s all worth it to sleep amongst the trees and be so close to Bryce!!!
Capitol Reef National Park
So, I’ll admit, as much as camping is my boyfriend and I’s favorite way to adventure, we sometimes like to treat ourselves! Capitol Reef National Park was not only our most pleasant surprise, but it had such a wonderful energy that it encouraged us to do what we sometimes like to, and indulge. We rented a hotel called the Affordable Inn, just to the west of Capitol Reef and for just about a hundred dollars, we had a cozy little home nestled in the beautiful red cliffs of the area. We had dinner at a restaurant called the Red Rim Cafe and we watched every shade of orange, red and brown the sun turned the mountains around us. Even though we stayed inside that night, there is plenty of BLM just outside of Capitol Reef. Between Torrey, Utah and the western park boundary, south of highway 24 is all BLM (free camping) for your convenience. On the eastern side of the park, there is BLM on all sides of Hartnet Rd and Notom-Bullfrog Rd. I highly encourage a visit to Capitol Reef. Don’t overlook it even if you’ve never heard of it. Seeing evidence of every shift of the earth as the sun glinted off the rocks is a sight I will never forget.
Canyonlands National Park/Arches National Park
Canyonlands and Arches National Park are within 40 minutes of one another. They are both local to Moab, Utah, which is an awesome adventure hub for outdoorsy travelers. Since we were coming from the West, Canyonlands came before Arches on our route. To get to Canyonlands, you take highway 313 to make it to the incredible view points of the canyons. The road winds you through open pastures and some of the most uniquely shaped canyons that don’t even begin to prepare you for what it’s like when you finally make it into the park. Along the way, you’ll see a turnout for Dead Horse Point State Park and about halfway between here and the entrance to Canyonlands, you’ll see some dirt roads that venture off the west side of the highway. They’re a little bumpy, but about a mile back you will find a little intricate system of campgrounds that overlook part of Canyonlands. It was one of my favorite spots. We watched the sun go down beyond the canyons we had just explored, drank some beer named after Bryce Canyon’s Hoodoos and felt as if the earth went on forever.
Valley of the Gods
This was, in my opinion, the coolest named camp spot and also our last little home in Utah. We were wrapping our way down the Eastern side of Utah after leaving Arches so we could make our way into Arizona. We wanted to see Monument Valley, which is a famous view used in many old western movies, but once you pass through, there is Navajo owned land for about 4 hours and you can’t free camp within. So we needed to find a place before. We saw a small sign for a place called Valley of the Gods about twenty minutes north of MV and after talking to a ranger at a local state park, the Goosenecks, we decided we would stay in the royal valley. It is a 20 mile, winding loop that takes you through the home of giant, red rock gods. Their phenomenal shape and size makes you feel as if your surrounded by stone, sleeping creatures that might awake if you’re even slightly too loud. The power in their presence was astonishing. There were campsites all along the winding way with already made fire pits. We set up in windy conditions that only added to the brilliant energy but dwindled as the night went on. We got to watch the sun set behind these magnificent structures, watching the silhouettes change with the light and getting a preview of Monument Valley in the distance.