Story and Photos By Sean Zimmerman – Wall
The heat of the day slips away with the fading sunlight as my amigos and I sit back to enjoy some cool beverages. Cast before us are lofty peaks basking in the waning hues of alpine glow. A mellow breeze blows ripples across the nearby lake. As we revel in the majesty of the evening, our hearts are content and our minds at ease. Picturesque landscapes like this are not hard to find in Utah, and many can be easily reached within a few hours drive of Salt Lake City. From the high alpine environs of the Uintas, to the stark deserts and red rocks of Moab, Bryce and Zion, a multitude of opportunities exist for a relaxing weekend of camping with friends and family.
Many will say that to find epic camping you need to travel light and venture into the backcountry. But for those who just want to get out of the city and spend some quality time with loved ones, just decide on a location, then load and go.
Traveling west on I-80 from my previous home in Tennessee, I was treated to endless expanses of flatness. Missouri, Nebraska and eastern Wyoming are less than stunning, and the uneventful drive made me want to crash my car into a ditch for a little excitement. Then I saw the Uintas. Looming like giant sentries in the distance, this exquisite range immediately captured my attention. Deciding I needed some fresh mountain air to regain my sanity, I stopped along the Mirror Lake Highway at the small, but scenic, Lily Lake. The 12,000-foot peaks vaulted toward the heavens and the serenity of the forest was extremely soothing. I pulled out my sleeping bag and Therm-A-Rest from the trunk and spread out under the endless sky. It was impossible to imagine such beauty existed, and the accessibility further amazed my weary head. Sleeping under the stars that night, I knew moving to Utah was the right decision.
Areas like Lily Lake are strewn along the highways traversing the range, and the most difficult part of your travels will be choosing a spot. The fees for the average campsite are $16/night and each is furnished with a picnic table, fire ring and parking space. The sites are usually spread out enough to allow for a feeling of privacy, yet you may want to invite the neighbors over for some tales around the fire. Trial and Mirror Lakes are other excellent Uinta camping venues, and there are several short day hikes just outside the grounds. Fishing is also permitted in most areas, provided you have the proper license. Prime visiting time is June–October, depending on snowmelt.
Traveling south toward Moab offers very different opportunities for enjoying Mother Nature’s diverse palate. Along Highway 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon is a hidden gem of a drainage called Diamond Fork. The river plunders alongside the road for miles and provides excellent spots for trout fishing. Near the 10th mile marker are some quiet campsites and a series of trails that lead deep into the forest. One of my favorites leads toward the infamous Diamond Fork Hot Springs. Beware the nude bathers!
Further south along the highway, the scenery transitions from thick alpine forest and towering cirques to deep canyons rife with rich veins of coal and iron. After passing Price and Helper, the land opens up into utter desert. It’s impossible to gauge your speed as you careen down the road, gaping at the neverending rows of colorful mesas. Once on Highway 191, there are numerous side roads, some marked, most unmarked. Choosing any one can lead to epic vistas and delightful solitude.
Just past the turnoff for Highway 313 toward Canyonlands is a rocky little wonder of a road that traverses the side of a gargantuan mesa. A four-wheel drive or high clearance vehicle is strongly recommended. Gemini Bridges is the final destination, but the drive is half the adventure. Along the side of the dirt and slick rock “roadway” are tiny nooks and crannies amongst the sandstone. These provide perfect pullovers and terrific campsites. Regulated by the BLM, camping in the Bride Canyon area is allowed. Campers are encouraged to take the proper care of these primitive areas and leave no trace. Some climbing opportunities exist, and there’s fun mountain biking nearby. A stout climb leads to the top of the plateau, and soon you are standing on the rim of several canyons spanned by twin natural bridges. The daytime views are astounding and the stars blinding on a clear night. Eventually, the road spits you out near Canyonlands entrance and you can loop around back to Moab.
Still further into the nether reaches of the desert is Highway 24. This scenic stretch passes by Goblin Valley State Park, and within the park boundaries are exquisite escapes into innumerable slot canyons. Eerie rock formations dot the landscape and it’s evident how the area got its name. Camping is available in the park and some primitive sights exist with no facilities. Make sure your car is well stocked. Beyond Goblin Valley, more highways and byways criss cross the terrain and dazzle the senses. Winding through desert, climbing into thick cloud forests and then descending back to a mixed environment, you reach Bryce National Park. Known for its distinct rock formations (hoodoos) and stunning contrast of red rock and green forest, this is my personal favorite place to camp. All campgrounds are equipped with bathrooms, fire rings and ample parking.
Reaching any one of these splendid spots is relatively easy in a vehicle, albeit a capable one, and will offer you, your friends and your family unforgettable experiences and lasting memories.
An Outdoor Sports Guide writer since 2009, Sean understands the value of a cold beer after an epic day of adventuring, as well as good friend to share it with
Luxury Camping Gear
By Jenny Willden
Just because you’re sleeping the woods doesn’t mean you can’t get a good night’s rest. Invest in this high-end camping equipment then wake up refreshed and ready for adventure.
Therm-A-Rest® Luxury Map Mattresses
Enjoy camping again on this self-inflating beauty featuring advanced pressure mapping technology and die-cut foam to give you optimal support. Use two with a coupler if you like to cuddle. $99.95 cascadedesigns.com
MSR Holler Tent
Weighing just six pounds, this roomy three-person, three-season backpacking tent fits three large Therm-a-Rest® mattresses with space to spare for gear! Mesh windows and vents keep you cool in hot weather and coated fabric repels moisture. The Holler sets up in a jiffy and is plenty spacious for car camping. $399.95 cascadedesigns.com
Therm-A-Rest® Down Coupler
Join your Therm-A-Rests to create a featherbed for two with this luxurious 650-fill down coupler. No one will complain about skipping a hotel stay after sleeping on this plush pad, which seamlessly mates mattresses and snaps to Therm-A-Rest comforters and blankets for a real bed feel. $99.95 cascadedesigns.com
Therm-A-Rest® Ventra Down Comforter
Free your feet and sleep in the Ventra Down Comforter on your next summer expedition. This lightweight, compressible blanket is rated to 40°F and keeps you comfy while eliminating unneeded fabric beneath you. Snap one directly to Therm-A-Rest fitted sheets or two to a down coupler for a spacious love nest. $199.95 cascadedesigns.com
Trekr Camp Washcloth
Stay clean in the backcountry with this travel washcloth made from QuickDri nylon, which resists odor and rinses clean after every use. Unlike microfiber, Trekr cleans grim easily, even when wet. $8 for two lunatecgear.com