4 Lesser-known Utah Recreation Areas & Camping Sites


Escape the Summer Crowds

Utah’s national parks are stunning, but come summer these spectacular destinations are flooded with tourist crowds. And when it comes to camping, the same goes for accessible, local favorites like the Cottonwood and American Fork Canyons. Just try getting a campsite at the Spruces on a Friday night. These days, those desiring a little solitude have to look beyond the summer classics for crowd-free hiking and a quiet nights under the stars.

But one great perk of the Beehive State is that popular, breathtaking natural formations typically have something equally amazing surrounding them, and most tourists just pass them by. Instead of battling crowds and fighting for a campsite, try these four Utah alternatives for a less hectic summer getaway!

Instead of Arches National Park,
Try San Rafael Swell

When you want to escape Moab’s hustle and bustle but still visit the desert, San Rafael Swell features some of the most secluded backcountry experiences Utah has to offer. While it’s a well-known area, the Swell’s expansive size allows visitors to spread out comfortably. Just outside of Green River, there are dozens of slot canyons hidden among the deep, remote areas of the Colorado Plateau.

Ding and Dang Canyons offer a wonderful loop hike through sinuous slots, and Little Wild Horse Canyon is a popular, easier alternative in the same area. Upper and Lower Black Box is a beautiful hike through narrow river canyons similar to Zion’s Narrows.

On the other side of the Swell, Wedge Overlook gives you a sweeping look at the deeply carved landscape. Be sure to check out the Swinging Bridge, an amazing suspension bridge built in 1937 that you can walk across for a view of the San Rafael River.

Where to Camp
Camping in the Swell is primarily on BLM land, making it free, primitive, and mostly dispersed. The dirt roads that traverse the area are full of great pull-offs for camping. Do try to use an established site so you can prevent disturbing the landscape further.

If visiting Little Wild Horse or Ding and Dang slots, find a site along Behind the Reef Road. When at the Wedge, pitch your tent in the San Rafael Bridge Campground and access amenities like fire rings and picnic tables.

Instead of Jordanelle Reservoir,
Try East Canyon State Park

Looking for a great weekend getaway just an hour from Salt Lake? East Canyon State Park is the perfect place for camping, hiking, and boating outside busier reservoirs in the Wasatch. Take out fishing boats, kayaks, or stand up paddleboards on East Canyon Reservoir for a relaxing day on the water. Or learn about Utah history by trekking on the Mormon Pioneer Trail. You may even see mule deer, elk, and moose.

Where to Camp
Camping options at East Canyon include yurts, cabins, primitive sites, and RV hookups, meaning there’s something for everyone. Most unique, the Big Rock Campground offers a structure specifically for hammock camping. Bring your crew and your hammocks to string up, or rent one on the cheap from the park and sleep in style under the stars.

Hiking in Snow Canyon State Park

Instead of Zion National Park,
Try Snow Canyon State Park

Looking for Zion scenery without the shuttle lines and crowded overlooks? Snow Canyon State Park has a lot to offer. Just 20 minutes outside of St. George, this park boasts incredible red rock formations, canyoneering, climbing, and miles of hiking and biking trails.

Find beginner-friendly hikes to scenic overlooks, trails through ancient lava flows, and even petrified sand dunes. The Three Ponds Trail gives you a taste of slot canyons, weaving through amazing, narrow corridors and around sandstone potholes that fill with water after heavy rain. As you watch the sunset over this amazing landscape you may see wildlife like foxes, roadrunners, or coyotes who come out to feed at dusk.

Where to Camp
Camp surrounded by Navajo sandstone cliffs and an impressive view of the night sky at the park’s campground. Offers 17 primitive tent sites and 14 RV sites with hookups so no matter how you travel, you’re covered. Snow Canyon has a $6 per car entry fee, and campsite reservations are recommended.

Bald Mountain in the Uintas

Instead of the Cottonwood Canyons,
Try the Uinta Mountains

Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are overrun with hikers and bikers eager to spend their summer weekends away from the city, but if you put in just a little more drive time you can experience some of the best mountain wilderness areas in northern Utah. For a great weekend of family activities just 2.5 hours from Salt Lake City, check out Moosehorn Lake. Only non-motorized boats are allowed, so this is the perfect place to canoe, kayak, or stand up paddleboard in peace.

Easily access some great hikes in the area from here, including the simple Fehr Lake Trail and the more challenging Bald Mountain hike to a 12,000-foot peak with incredible views. The Ruth Lake Trail offers easy day hiking and great climbing opportunities.

Where to Camp
Just off the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, Moosehorn Lake’s campground is right on the water and has picnic tables and fire rings. At 10,400 ft. elevation, it’s a great place to escape the summer heat of the valley, but be prepared for chilly nights! Nearby Mirror Lake Campground also offers plenty of sites as well as amphitheater programs on weekends.


About Author

Don Macavoy is a freelance photographer and writer living in Salt Lake City–when he isn’t traveling the world. He loves hiking, biking, skiing, and disc golf as well as finding the best craft beer and vegan food in every city he visits. He writes for his website dontworryimfinite.com and can be found at @travelfinite on Twitter and @dontworryimfinite on Instagram.

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