I’ve just returned from a whirlwind road trip to the area around Moab, Utah. This is one of the prettiest regions in all of America if you ask me! I’m a photographer, so I should know. ;)
Much of Utah is beautiful, but Moab is positioned conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on how you look at it) smack dab between two of my favorite National Parks – Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. They are sure to blow you away with their wide open vistas, canyons, and red rock formations, but just around the corner are also Dead Horse Point State Park, countless roadside viewpoints, and plenty of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) property to explore. It will make your head spin and possibly overstimulate your sense of awe!
This region of southern Utah is a place not to be missed on any visit to the American southwest and many adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts come here to camp. Camping options near Moab are plentiful, but there are of course many styles of camping from long hauls in huge RVs to backcountry camping. This post will mostly cover the kind of camping that I tend to do – last minute “car camping”. To me car camping means that I can access the camp site with a small vehicle that holds all of my camping gear.
Camping options IN Moab
Unless you can plan your camping trips months in advance (which I don’t), then you’ll want to look for first come first serve campgrounds around Moab. The ones IN Moab will likely be already full if you arrive without a reservation. Most of these are big commercial RV campgrounds anyway, which I’m not really covering here. While tent campers are also welcome, these mini RV cities are not for me so I won’t have much to say about them.
Since campgrounds in and closest to Moab tend to fill up faster, my advice is to get further away from Moab to increase your chances. I had a long list of campgrounds I wanted to check out along Hwy 128, but every one of them was full by the early afternoon. That is until we got pretty far out from Moab, about 30 minutes or so. I knew that there were more up ahead because of my previous research, so we kept going and found lots of empty sites.
Camping options NEAR Moab
After several visits to Moab and the surrounding area, I’ve now got a few favorite campgrounds to share with you. Some I have stayed in and some I have passed by with a longing glance. Most are on BLM property, fairly cheap, and don’t take reservations. Some of these will offer RV, walk-in, and group sites.
Where I’d stay again
- Upper Onion Creek Campground – Just off of Hwy 128, this is the one we found completely empty after driving just a little further past all of the packed campgrounds right next to the road. I liked it because it appeared to be not as well known (based on it’s lack of tenants, though a handful arrived after us). It was down a short gravel road and the sites were pretty well spaced out. It was also beautiful! There are simple pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. They also have walk-in sites for people with lighter gear.
- Horsethief Campground – This one is off of Hwy 313. It’s quite a bit bigger than I tend to like, but the spacing between sites makes it feel not too crowded. The advantage of these bigger campgrounds is more amenities. In this case the toilets are still pretty rustic, but there are fire pits with grills, picnic tables, and dumpsters. It’s also in a neat area that just begs to be explored. There are hiking trails from the campground.
- Any of the countless campgrounds along Hwy 128 – These are not my first choice because they will probably always fill up in the high season (remember, I like my space), but they are nice enough and convenient if you can snag one. They are near enough to Moab, but not so close that you’re camping right in town. They are next to the river, which is pretty cool, but also right next to the road. I would stay at one of these in a pinch, but I would rather go a little further for more isolation.
Where I’d be happy to stay
- Lower Onion Creek – This campground is just about as far away as Upper Onion Creek on Hwy 128, where we stayed. It seemed comparably nice to Upper Onion Creek, but it’s actually next to the river. When we went to check it out, we realized that it’s a popular spot all around, in addition to a campground. We saw people accessing the river and a group passing through on horseback.
- Fisher Towers – This road leading to this campground is opposite the entrance for Lower Onion Creek off of Hwy 128, but it’s a little further down a gravel road. It’s much smaller, with only 5 sites and no access for large vehicles, but if you can get a spot here, you should be pretty happy! It’s right next to some towering rock formations and the foot of hiking trails.
- Jaycee – Down Hwy 279, this campground is very close to the river, but also right next to the road. These are walk in sites, but they are close enough to the road that you could very easily carry in anything you need. We would stay here for the plentiful shade, but we missed our chance during the last trip.
State and National Parks
- Dead Horse Point State Park – Dead Horse Point State Park is pretty spectacular and offers some incredible views. While I didn’t check out its Kayenta Campground, I wouldn’t hesitate to stay within the park to be so close to amazing photo ops! You can catch sunset, stars, and sunrise all without having to drive out of your way. You can make reservations here, which means it will probably fill up if you don’t plan ahead. State parks are generally pricier, but they tend to have nicer amenities. A huge bonus for this park is the Pony Expresso Coffee Shop, a little shack set up outside of the visitor center while we were there. You’re not going to find much food or drink anywhere else without going all the way back to Moab!
- Arches and Canyonlands National Parks – The national parks offer some car accessible camping, but most of these are also expensive. Even still, my reasoning is the same, to stay so close to the photo ops! With camping you often get more for paying more at least. Some campgrounds in Arches do allow reservations, so be sure to claim a site in advance if you can.
I want to highlight the kind of camping that I have been enjoying a lot lately – small campervan camping. I’m referring to vans that have been converted to sleeper vans, not the big RVs that are sometimes called campervans. It’s no wonder this mini accommodation on wheels is so popular in other countries like New Zealand, Australia, and all over Europe. But in America, it can be hard to find a company that offers such a convenience.
Fortunately I discovered Basecamper Vans based in Salt lake City, our arrival and departure city for this road trip. Matt runs this small business and goes out of his way to provide a personalized service. All of his vans are outfitted with camping and sleeping necessities. The idea is to just show up and you’re ready to camp! Each van offers something different, but the website should be able to answer many of your questions about what’s included.
Dave and I were given the opportunity to take out Matt’s newest vehicle in the fleet for its maiden voyage. The Wayfarer Van is sleek and easy to drive, with an interior designed to convert into a sleeper van while providing plenty of storage. The bench flips out to become a double bed, and the table folds up so that it’s not in the way when you don’t need it. Matt provided us with sleeping bags, pads, and other conveniences for camping that we didn’t need to worry about bringing all the way from home. He includes accessories that you would never get from one of the big rental car companies, such as a USB car charger, a large camping stove, camp chairs, dishes, removable LED lights, and a paper map of Utah (you would be surprised how often that came in handy) among other things.
We parked at campgrounds and slept both in the van and in a tent during the heat wave that was passing through the southwest. If it’s that hot (like 110F/43C kind of hot), then I recommend sleeping in the van with the doors open to get the breeze going through. The lights go off automatically after a few minutes so the battery won’t drain, which is a nice feature. Some of the vans are equipped with a fan/vent which may be better suited for those hot nights.
Despite the heat, I really enjoyed this particular Basecamper Van and wouldn’t hesitate to rent it again! I love combining accommodation and transportation to save money during a trip. To me it’s the perfect solution for a road trip!
- While the big commerical RV campgrounds are not my style, they do offer conveniences that other campgrounds do not, such as laundry services, showers, convenience stores, and even pools! Even if you are not staying at one, you can pay a small fee to use their showers. I’ve found showers in some places that are dirt cheap but with a time limit. I used one in Moab that cost $5 for a shower with no time limit. There was another place just outside of Moab with really nice bathrooms that offered up a swanky shower for $10. Maybe worth it if you’ve been roughing it for a while, but that’s your call!
- If yurts are more your style, there are just a few in Dead Horse Point State Park that you can reserve. They are quite expensive at $99, but that’s for up to 6 people. You also get a fantastic vantage point of the park’s impressive views, as well as more practical amenities like air conditioning. No private bathroom or showers though, sorry!
- There are group camping sites all over the place and many will allow you to make reservations. We discovered Lone Mesa Campground, along Hwy 313. This one was in a pretty spot, but it’s first come first serve and one night only.
- For free camping and backcountry options, please see the BLM website and Arches and Canyonlands National Parks websites for more information.
*A big thank you to Basecamper Vans for generously providing me with a complimentary rental day. As always, all opinions and photos are my own and based on my experiences, unless otherwise noted.