How to Find a Campsite in Moab During Peak Season

Photo: Greg Heil

“How do you know that it’s spring in Utah? The license plates turn green.” At least that’s how the joke goes. Cars from Colorado are licensed with a green plate sporting the outline of a mountain range on it, and every spring, Coloradans flock from their snow-filled mountains to the dry rock and sand of the Utah desert to warm their winter-weary bones.

But they aren’t the only visitors. Moab, Utah, is renowned as one of the top adventure destinations on planet Earth. The reputation has been rightfully earned—the singletrack mountain bike trails spread for hundreds of miles in all directions. Two national parks and a state park make this area a haven for hikers as well. And of course, you can’t forget about the OHV crowd, which was one of the first user groups to appreciate the majesty of Moab.

Lodging in this tourist destination is not only limited, it’s expensive. Hotels prices have risen steadily over the past several years and Moab is the most expensive town in Utah to vacation. During peak season, it’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars per night to stay in a run-down motel in Moab. 

Thankfully, there’s another way: instead of paying for an overpriced and uncomfortable bed, you can choose instead to camp in one of Moab’s many BLM campgrounds. After all, if you’re trying to escape from the city and embrace the warmth of the desert, why not go all the way and immerse yourself in nature with a beautiful campsite? 

Unfortunately, due to Moab’s ever-increasing popularity, getting a first-come, first-served campsite is not a given. Scoring the perfect campsite requires forethought, strategy, and a small dose of luck. Here, we’ll outline a series of steps and tactics to make it easier to score a beautiful desert campsite, even during Moab’s peak season.

Identify your top riding objectives

Porcupine Rim. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Mike De La Rosa

I now find it hard to believe, but my first trip to Moab was almost exactly a decade ago. I was immediately enthralled with this magical mountain bike destination, and have traveled back to Moab over and over again.

Whenever I plan my next trip to Moab, I identify my top riding objectives. For example, I might want to repeat a classic trail, like Captain Ahab or Porcupine Rim. Or perhaps I want to check off some trails that I still haven’t ridden, such as newer builds like Falcon Flow, or obscure trails hidden in the more convoluted networks, like the Klondike Bluffs Trail System.

Whatever the case may be, I identify my top objectives, and then I try to group them together to determine where I’ll want to spend most of my time while in Moab. To help with this grouping, I consider Moab’s mountain bike trails to consist of four quadrants: Southeast, Southwest, Northeast, and Northwest.

Southeast Quadrant

Photo: Marcel Slootheer

The Southeast quadrant contains many iconic Moab mountain bike rides, such as:

Southwest Quadrant

Photo: Erik Proano

The Southwest quadrant doesn’t boast as many miles of trail as the others, but it’s home to some of the best singletrack that, due to the topography of the canyons, is geographically isolated from the rest of the region. The top rides in the Southwest include:

Northeast Quadrant

Moab Brand Trails. Rider: Aaron Chamberlain. Photo: Greg Heil

The Northeast quadrant holds potentially the most mountain bike trail mileage in Moab, which is divided into four complex trail networks:

Northwest Quadrant

Navajo Rocks. Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Aaron Chamberlain

The Northwest quadrant is home to some of Moab’s newest trails, and the mileage here is dramatic. Unlike the tightly-wound trail systems found in the Northeast, the Northwest offers long stretches of uninterrupted singletrack. Top trails found here include:

  1. Navajo Rocks
  2. Horsethief Trails
  3. Mag 7

Moab first-timers might find themselves biting off more than they can chew. You won’t be able to ride everything that this incredible destination has to offer, but you can definitely hit some iconic trails. Be choosy building a list and consider grouping rides close together.

Identify the most convenient campground that’s closest to your primary objectives

Photo: Greg Heil

If it’s possible to group rides into one primary quadrant, or perhaps one side of town (south or north), that should help narrow down the campground search dramatically. There are campgrounds and campsites in every single one of these four quadrants. The trick is to identify the most convenient campground closest to the trails you most want to ride.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the campgrounds in Moab, but here are how the various campgrounds divide into this quadrant system.

Southeast Quadrant

The best camping for accessing the trails in the Southeast quadrant is found in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, although the campgrounds along Highway 128 would also serve well. These campgrounds include:

Southwest Quadrant

The Southwest quadrant offers fewer and smaller campgrounds, but there are still a few available. Also, if you drive deep into the Southwest quadrant, you’ll be able to find a few designated dispersed campsites, but those aren’t very conveniently located for mountain biking.

The Southwest campgrounds are found along Kane Creek Road:

Northeast Quadrant

There are two designated camping areas to the north of Moab that serve the Northeast quadrant well. However, you can also find some of the best dispersed camping in Moab in the Northeast quadrant. Special rules apply to dispersed camping (see below).

The two designated campgrounds are:

Dispersed areas with designated sites include:

  • Dubinky Well Road
  • Cotter Mine Road
  • Dripping Springs/Tenmile Wash

Northwest Quadrant

The Northwest quadrant is home to one of the largest campgrounds in Moab: Horsethief. On Highway 313 in the Northwest quadrant, you’ll find these two campgrounds:

Highway 279 also runs into the Northwest quadrant, but the campgrounds here aren’t quite as convenient for the modern mountain bike rides. But they include:

Some dispersed camping is also available in this quadrant, too:

  • Gemini Bridges Road

For detailed information on each campground and a map that will help you visualize where the campgrounds are located, visit DiscoverMoab.com.

Choose 2-3 runner-up campgrounds, in case the first is full

Grandstaff Campground. Photo: Greg Heil

Chances are, if you’ve identified the most convenient campground in a given quadrant, so have a few thousand other mountain bikers. And the chances are good that the first campground may be full. To deal with this eventuality, pick another 2-3 runner-up campgrounds to try after the first one. I generally start with my top choice and then work out from there methodically. For instance, if you’ve decided to camp on Highway 128, begin close to Moab and slowly work your way up the highway until there’s an available campsite.

Unfortunately, this is a common strategy. Perhaps to combat the crowds, you want to work in the other direction—from the outside in. This might potentially yield a campsite much more quickly but result in longer drives to reach your desired mountain bike trailheads.

Be aware of any rules and restrictions in advance

This article is solely dedicated to first-come, first-served camping, so don’t worry about reservation systems like you would in the national parks, Dead Horse Point State Park, or the private campgrounds. However, you should be prepared and know the most important rules.

All developed BLM campgrounds, except for Ken’s Lake, are first-come, first-served. All individual sites cost $20 per night, and payment must be made at a self-pay station in exact cash or with a paper check. Campsites at Sand Flats Recreation Area cost $15 per night.

Firewood gathering is not allowed at any of the campgrounds, although there is bundled firewood in Moab available for purchase. All campgrounds offer vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings… however, they do not have water available. It’s best to find water in town or at a public fill station like Lions Park.

Campsites are limited to 10 people and two vehicles, or one vehicle and one trailer. The stay limit is 14 days within a 30-day period.

If you want to dispersed camp near Moab, there are a few additional restrictions to follow. First, many zones do not allow dispersed camping at all—see above for some of the best designated dispersed areas. Second, generally speaking, you’ll have to park in a designated dispersed campsite. Follow all LNT practices, and do not drive into the desert to make a new campsite.

Finally and most importantly: all human waste must be packed out of the desert. No burying of human waste is allowed near Moab. This means that you must either use a self-contained toilet system or pack out your waste in a Wag Bag. Even once you’ve packed out your Wag Bag, that bag must be disposed of properly, too. DiscoverMoab.com warns you to not “dispose of Wag Bags in regular trash cans. Due to the compression process involved in regular trash collection, these bags can rupture and create a serious biohazard. Wag Bags should be brought directly to the Moab Transfer Station, 2295 South Highway 191 (3 miles south of Moab). The Moab Transfer Station is open weekdays from 8AM-4PM and Saturdays from 8AM-12PM.” If you’re planning to dispersed camp, come prepared with all the gear you need to pack your waste out of the desert.

Arrive on an off-peak day. Don’t even attempt to arrive in Moab on a Friday or Saturday

Mid-week sunset in Moab. Photo: Greg Heil

Whatever you do, do not attempt to find a campsite in Moab on a peak day—be that a Friday, Saturday, or a Sunday if it’s a three day weekend. It’s simply not worth the effort of trying to find a campsite if you can’t arrive early enough to beat most of the crowds. You’ll probably have a much more enjoyable weekend just staying home and enjoying a relaxing day around the house than spending hours driving around Moab in pursuit of a campsite.

Friday and Saturday are definitely out, but it might also be worth skipping Sunday. While sites may open as hordes of people are leaving, it’s easy to get caught in the bumper-to-bumper traffic of tourists streaming out of Moab and back to the cities. Also, campers are likely to stay in their sites as long as possible, making it difficult to time an arrival.

I’d also recommend skipping Thursday. It’s no secret that it’s nearly impossible to get a campsite on Friday or Saturday, so the next most logical day that most people try is to arrive on Thursday instead.

But you need to be better than those people, too. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there trying to find a relaxing place to camp for the weekend.

Arrive early in the day, during the time that most campers are checking out of their sites

Most campgrounds require campers to vacate their sites by 12PM. However, plenty of people will start packing up their camp at dawn to get out and start their adventure for the day. So, the ideal window of time to arrive at a campground and look for a site is between 8AM and 12PM. Arrive too early, and campers might not have mobilized to leave yet. Arrive too late, and the few sites that emptied out will have already refilled by the time you show up.

Now, if you’re driving a fairly long way to reach Moab (say, from Denver), arriving at 9AM might not seem feasible. It’s a 5.5-hour drive from Denver to Moab, so how can one arrive by 9AM?

One tactic I’ve employed is to stage myself in a nearby town the night before. For example, if I’m planning to arrive in Moab at 9AM on Wednesday, I might pull into the town of Green River on Tuesday night, which only leaves me with a quick 45-minute drive on Wednesday morning.

Talk to people to see if they’re leaving

As you roll through the campground early in the morning, if you see some campers that look like they’re breaking down camp in a hurry, don’t be shy—ask them if they’re planning to leave. If they say “yes,” feel free to wait patiently for them to finish… and while they do, go grab the self-registration slip and fill it out for the site.

Collaborate with friends for campsite sharing

Some rules state you can’t have two vehicles and a camper. Sand Flats Recreation Area. Photo: Greg Heil

Does being tied to work make it nearly impossible to arrive in Moab by Wednesday morning? Try collaborating with friends for campsite sharing. While it’s not legal to have a friend reserve a campsite if it’s not occupied on the first night, as noted above, campsites can usually fit up to two cars and 10 people per campsite.

While two vans can slide into most campsites, campsite sharing also works out well with one van camper and one person who’s planning to pitch a tent on the tent pad. Personally, if I’m set up in Moab for a long period of time, I’ll put out a call on social media to see which friends will be rolling into town while I’m there. It’s Moab in the spring… somebody else is bound to be in town at the same time. On many occasions, I’ve ended up letting a friend drop in and share my campsite for the weekend, or I’ve gone to join a big group camping further out in the desert.

Make sure your campsite is clearly claimed

This step applies mostly to van campers or anyone who moves their “house” to head to the trailhead every day, but it isn’t enough to simply attach a filled-out registration slip to the post. Make sure that you fully occupy your campsite by setting out chairs, water jugs, hammocks, etc. Let people know that even if your van is gone, you’ve claimed this site, and you’ll be back.

Have backup plans for your backup plans

Coming equipped with backup plans for backup campgrounds might, unfortunately, be necessary. If your desired primary and secondary locations are full, start to look beyond Moab proper.

Instead, try heading out to the expansive (but remote) Horsethief Campground. Or perhaps you’re willing to park in the big gravel lot at Courthouse Rock for a night until you can find something else. Or maybe your rig is fully self-contained and you can head to a remote dispersed camping area for a few nights. Whatever your plans are, over planning will help if backup plans fall through.

Parting thoughts

While this whole process might sound like a lot of work, once you have your campsite locked in, you’re golden for however long you choose to stay! (Up to 14 days.) Sure, people love to complain about how busy Moab is… and that applies equally to the restaurants in downtown and the BLM campgrounds. But, hop on a mountain bike and start pedaling deep into the desert, and it’s easy to leave the vast majority of tourists behind.

Let the hikers swarm Arches National Park. Let the OHVs choke the rocky Jeep trails. There’s still solitude to be found deep in the desert on a mountain bike.