4 tips for finding the perfect Utah campsite without a reservation

‘Be open to all sorts of different camping,’ says The Dyrt founder Sarah Smith

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The late afternoon sun ignites a rainbow during a brief rain shower in the Devils Garden campground at Arches National Park May 19, 2013.

A popular campsite locator app lists more than 1,300 sites in Utah. But when the weekend of July Fourth was entered as the reservation dates, the number of available spots disappeared faster than a popsicle on a mid-summer day. In fact, it turned up none. Zilch. Zip. Zero.

Turns out that was just a temporary glitch in the app. But for any would-be campers who didn’t make reservations back in January, the sentiment is the same. Finding a campsite any weekend this summer, let alone a holiday weekend, feels impossible.

Good news: It’s not.

Even though 8.5 million people experienced camping for the first time in 2021, according to a report released June 1 by the free campsite locator app The Dyrt (conducted in conjunction with two independent polling firms). And even the same report disclosed campers found it three times as hard to book a site than in 2019, it can be done. Honest.

Penance will probably have to be paid for lack of planning, though. It will likely come in the form of the absence of running water, electricity, toilets or — for those unwilling to live without those luxuries — at high costs. But if the goal is to spend the night in the wilderness, that isn’t beyond reach, even this weekend.

“Be open to all sorts of different camping and then you have more options,” said Sarah Smith, founder of The Dyrt, a free campsite locator app. “Which I think is really a fun way to camp.”

Here are some options to look into:

Do a last-minute check

The misfortune of others may lead to your good luck. You never know when an injury or an emergency or someone’s epiphany that they don’t really enjoy communing with nature will cause them to cancel their reservation at the last minute. For that reason, it’s worth checking recreation.gov, the reservation site for all federally run (and some state-run) campgrounds to see what’s available. If you don’t have time to keep checking back on that spot by the lake with the great fishing, though, you can pay a little to have the app Campnab do it for you.

Other apps worth checking include hipcamp.com and thedyrt.com, both of which feature established campsites but also contract with private landowners who are willing to rent out space on their property.

Go group or glamp

Is it a requirement that camping involves setting up a tent in the dark and sleeping on either an incline or lumpy rocks? If the answer is no, and you also don’t think a basic tenet of camping is that it has to be cheap, then the world is your yurt.

Though they can cost as much as a hotel room, several campgrounds still have glamping sites available. Often these include a freestanding yurt, cabin or trailer complete with beds, rugs and maybe your own hot shower.

The drawback is that they can cost three to five times more than a spot at a traditional campsite, and sometimes even more than a hotel room. The same goes for group sites. Several campgrounds around the state (try Tanner Flat or Strawberry Bay) still have reservations available for their roomiest sites, which can fit you and all your neighbors, but also come at a cost of more than $100 per night.

Be an early bird

Just for procrastinators like you, most federally run campsites have set aside several first-come, first-served spots. These can be high risk-high reward. If you can snag one, awesome. But if you want to keep looking for, say, something closer to the water or farther from the toilets, you might be left out in the cold. That’s if you even get the luxury of choice. These sites fill up early and often, so it’s best to go mid-week (which is actually a great way to find camp areas anytime this summer) or at least several hours before checkout if you want a chance to stake your claim.

A few Utah campgrounds offering first-come, first-served sites to consider include: Anderson Cove Campground near Ogden, Gooseberry Campground in the Fish Lakes National Forest, Currant Creek Campground south of Heber City and Hades Campground, located 55 miles east of Park City.

Create your own adventure

One of the best-kept camping secrets is dispersed camping. On most land managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the United States Forest Service, people are allowed to set up tents or park their RVs. That means you can choose how close to a neighbor or to the highway you want to be (though the courteous camper looks for a place that’s been used as a site before). Plus, it’s free.

“If you have some time and you have some adventurous streaks, get out there and explore a little bit more and see what you can (find),” said Smith, who noted the paid version of The Dyrt has overlays of federal lands and often pins and reviews of popular dispersed sites. “I mean, especially in a state like Utah where there’s so much public land.”

Some caveats, though, courtesy of Loyal Clark, spokesperson for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

First, Clark advises, check the campfire restrictions at Utahfireinfo.gov. If fires are allowed, make sure they are completely doused before you leave. Do this by pouring water on the ashes and stirring, pouring and stirring until they are cold to the touch. Also, don’t try to burn trash, like cans or plastic or styrofoam — pack it out. And leave sticks in the ashes.

Second, camp at least 20 yards back from rivers, streams and wetlands. Bring a portable toilet or learn how and where to bury your business. This kind of outing will also require you to haul in or filter all the water you’ll need.

Once you’re settled, unfold that camping chair and sit back to listen to the sounds of nature. Watch a hummingbird fly by. It should be impossible for them to support their bodies in the air with those tiny wings.

But, just like finding a camping spot on a holiday weekend, it’s not.