A Short Guide to Recreation in Utah’s Public Lands


Understanding Utah’s Public Lands

Trail into an aspen and fir grove, Uinta National Forest, Utah.

Uinta National Forest. Photo credit: Antandrus at English Wikipedia

We are all itching to get outside after practicing social distancing, and where better to go than to Utah’s public lands? Though government advisories and restrictions are starting to be lifted, we should still get outside responsibly by checking local reports and regulations. Let’s learn about Utah’s public lands and get outside and enjoy the beautiful it here in Utah.

Deep canyons, stunning arches, and abundant wildlife await visitors on Utah’s public lands. These lands, the majority of the state and more than 35 million acres, provide seemingly unlimited recreation opportunities for the public. Because public lands are just that: lands for the public. They are funded and collectively owned by all of us, the American taxpayers for preservation, recreation, resource extraction, and more.

National public lands in Utah are managed by four different agencies that collaborate to ensure protection and appropriate usage. These management agencies include The Bureau of Land Management (BLM ), The United States Forest Service (USFS), The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Parks Service (NPS). What is available for use on our public lands is dictated by who manages the land. Knowing what type of recreation is available allows you to successfully plan and execute a multi-day backpacking or climbing trip, off-roading adventure, or a visit to some of the most unique land features on the planet. If you’re interested in exploring public lands in Utah but aren’t sure what is available where, read on to learn how to use Utah’s public lands for recreation.


Though we all know Utah is teeming with an unimaginable amount of beautiful landscapes just begging to be explored, now is not the time to travel and take trips to public lands. The small communities surrounding Utah’s public lands are more vulnerable and have fewer resources and are therefore more at risk to the effects of Covid19. However, once we have weathered the storm and are all able to get out responsibly in nature again, we can all recreate on Utah’s public lands again.

National Parks

The National Parks Service manages our national parks. Utah is home to five: Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Each of these parks are easily accessible, deliver spectacular views, and feature stunning natural wonders. As the parks are all easily accessible, they are often crowded. During peak tourist season you can expect busy trails and full parking lots. Camping, in particular, can be a bit difficult as the campgrounds fill up fast. All of the National Parks in Utah require an entry fee.

zion national park utah spring hikes

Zion National Park

Recreation Opportunities: National Parks deliver some of the most spectacular views and natural wonders in the country while being easily accessible to the public. Sightseeing, guided tours, hiking, climbing, and limited camping are all available in the parks.

National Forests

National Forests are managed by the USFS for multiple uses including recreation, conservation, and resource extraction. As logging is on the decline in Utah, most of our forests here focus on recreation and conservation. However, the land is still used for grazing, mining, and energy development in a limited capacity. Utah has six national forests: Ashley, Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-La Sal, Uinta, and Wasatch-Cache.


Fishlake National Forest. Photo Credit: Wayne Wonderland IRA (c) Tim Peterson

National Forests are far less accessible than National Parks, which is great if you’re trying to escape the crowds. The Southern Utah National Forests are close to the National Parks as well as acting as a sort of buffer. You can set up camp in the forest if the campgrounds at the park are full. As National Parks are more remote, you need to some exploring to find remarkable landscapes and vistas. Dispersed camping is allowed on National Forest land allowing you to set up camp anywhere there is an established fire ring.

Bald Mountain in the Uinta National Forest

Recreation Opportunities: National Forests offer a plethora of activities including fishing, hiking, hunting, cycling, camping, and more. Dispersed camping is available throughout the National Forests making it a great overnight option while you check off the National Parks.

National Monuments

National Monuments are set aside to protect natural, historic, or cultural features of landscapes. Utah’s National Monuments are managed by the NPS, USFS, USFWS, and BLM resulting in different recreation possibilities at each. Utah has 8 national monuments: Bears Ears, Cedar Breaks, Dinosaur, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, and Timpanogos Cave. These national monuments are not as extensive as their National Parks counterparts, but arguably just as breathtaking and unique.

Bears Ears scenic shot with Indian paintbrush flowers in foreground

Bears Ears National Monument. Photo Credit: Jake Hamblin

Recreation Opportunities: Depending on which government entity is managing the land, recreation opportunities vary. Grand Staircase-Escalante, for example, is managed by BLM and allows for a wide range of recreational pursuits such as hiking, canyoneering, dispersed camping, and off-roading. On the other hand, Timpanogos Cave is managed by the NPS and hiking and cave tours are your only options.

Bureau of Land Management Lands

Land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, is multi-use land for recreation, resource extraction, watershed, wildlife and fish habitat, and conservation. About 60% of Utah’s public lands are BLM land. These huge swaths of land are very remote and require no entry fee for recreationists. You can expect little to no cell service. Being this distant from civilization has its own appeal, but it can also mean that getting help in case of an accident can be difficult if not impossible.

Tent in wilderness with sunset

BLM Campsite in San Rafael Swell

Recreation Opportunities: BLM land has almost no rules. You can build campfires, shoot guns, and drive and ride off-road, and plenty more. Within reason, almost anything goes as long as you leave only footprints and don’t drive off of designated routes and disrupt conservation efforts. 

National Conservation Areas

Areas that with particularly beautiful natural features or biological diversity that are managed by the BLM are granted the title of National Conservation Area. They have greater protection than regular BLM land and thus no resource extraction is permitted. Utah has three conservation areas: Red Cliffs NCA, Beaver Dam Wash NCA, and John Wesley Powell NCA which was designated on March 12, 2019. Expect to pay a nominal fee when you visit national conservation areas. These fees are primarily in place to limit human presence.

Recreation Opportunities: Generally only foot travel is permitted on the trails, so lace your shoes and go hiking and backpacking while drinking in the stunning natural beauty. In Red Cliffs NCA, be on the lookout for the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise while you explore its 130 miles of trails.

National Recreation areas

National Recreation Areas are lands near or encompassing large reservoirs. They’re typically close to urban areas as well to ensure that the public can easily access them for recreation. Utah has two National Recreation Areas: Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. Glen Canyon charges a $25/car fee while Flaming Gorge requires a Recreation Use Pass at its boat launches as well as the Little Hole trail below the dam.

Recreation Opportunities: Both Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon offer the opportunity for boating, swimming, kayaking, fishing, and more.


National Historic Parks and Trails

Managed by the NPS, National Historic Parks and Trails preserve places and commemorate people, events, and activities that are key to our nation’s history. In Utah, we have one National Historic Park: Golden Spike National Historical Park. This site commemorates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the US. Visitors can visit the visitor center and engine house to learn more about this historic event.

Golden Spike

Golden Spike National Historic Park | Photo Courtesy of Spike150

Utah has four National Historic Trails: the California Trail, Mormon Pioneer Trail, Old Spanish Trail, and the Pony Express trail. Each of these trails spans multiple states and preserve some history from our state and nation’s past.

Recreation Opportunities: National Historic Parks are for learning and sightseeing. On the National Historic Trails, you can go on day hikes, a thru-hike, or a backpacking trip while connecting to Utah’s history and the nature around you.

National Wildlife Refuges

Utah has three National Wildlife Refuges: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, and Ouray National Wildlife Refuge. Millions of birds flying along the Pacific and Central flyways use these refuges as resting, reeding, and nesting sites on their journeys. Visiting the National Wildlife Refuges is free if you aren’t hunting, but requires a duck stamp, or a bird-hunting permit, if you are there to hunt. Even if you aren’t hunting you can still purchase a $25 duck stamp anyway as they are collectible.

Recreation Opportunities: Wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, and paddling are all available on the wildlife refuges. 

Wilderness Areas

Wilderness areas are just that, places where nature is still pristine and untamed by humans. The designation of wilderness land, by Congress, is the highest level of protection that can be issued for a public lands area. These areas can exist within other types of land, such as national forests or parks. These landscapes are truly wild, remote, and difficult to access, but that is what makes them so great. Wilderness areas are typically free to use, but some parking areas may have a small fee. In order to keep these areas unspoiled, no motorized or wheeled traffic is allowed.

Recreation Opportunities: As you are truly in the wild, wilderness areas are great places to escape modern life for some backpacking, hunting, and fishing.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

The designation of a Wild and Scenic River ensures protection for preserving the rivers in their natural, original state. The rivers are free-flowing and haven’t been altered or dammed in any way. Utah has almost 82,000 miles of river. 169.3 miles of these rivers are designated as Wild and Scenic. Utah has two rivers that have sections with this designation: The Green River and The Virgin River.

Recreation Opportunities: Wild and Scenic Rivers are the perfect places to experience the river as nature intended: unaided by motors. Float along in a canoe, raft, kayak, or SUP while fishing, wildlife watching, and being fully immersed in the outdoor experience. If you plan on fishing, be sure to purchase a license before you hit the river.

State Land

In addition to amazing landscapes and natural wonders on federal land, Utah has an incredible array of state parks. Like federal land, these state-owned lands are yours. Unlike federal lands, state lands typically have fewer limitations and restrictions making it a bit easier to navigate off-road and motorized boating regulations. From the popular Goblin Valley to Jordanelle Reservoir, there are a plethora of varied options for you to choose from. 

Recreation Opportunities: As Utah’s state parks are diverse, be sure to do a bit of research ahead of time. Generally speaking, as state parks don’t have as many regulations as federal lands, you are able to camp, boat, hike, fish, bike, off-road, and more.

Tribal Parks

In addition to federal and state land, Utah is home to one Tribal Park: Monument Valley. This iconic area is somewhat of a symbol of the American West. Monument Valley belongs to and is managed by the Navajo Nation who grants access to the public for recreation. It should be mentioned that nearly all of our public lands are Native lands with sacred roots. Every time we recreate on public lands we should do our best to not only respect the land but those who once lived there.

Cory Reese running on a desert road in monument valley

Running in Monument Valley, Utah.

Recreation Opportunities: At Monument Valley, visitors can go on guided Jeep tours, go on hikes and backpacking trips, stargaze, and more. Rock climbing and drones are not permitted. Admission into the park is $20/car. Backpacking permits accrue an extra cost.

For more information on Utah’s public lands, you can visit any of the land management websites, or visit Recreation.gov to start planning your next escape to reconnect with nature in Utah’s public lands. 


About Author

Rachel is a writer living in Salt Lake City who loves wearing sweatpants and would rather be outside. She’s often climbing or skiing, but more often than not is simply trying to tire out her wild rescue pup, Scuba.

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