Fall/Spring Camping on the Western Slope, SE Utah, and Northern New Mexico
I wanted to provide some first hand information of places in Canyon Country I like to check out in the Fall and Spring when temperatures aren’t blazing hot. If you go to these areas you MUST travel with a portable toilet as you can’t dig cat holes for human waste in the canyons…after all, everything is pretty much solid rock. Don’t be a blight on nature by trashing Public Lands, learn Leave No Trace ethics and respect the guidelines required to keep areas pristine. If you are busted by a BLM or Park Ranger without the proper resources, your fines will be STEEP (hundreds of dollars). If you need a suggestion on human waste bags, then check out the following link to what I recommend. If you’d like to have a complete waste system including a fold up toilet the size of a briefcase, here is what you need.
Before diving into this information, I want to point out the Leave No Trace 7 Principles as outlined on their website. You must adhere to these ethics when enjoying the backcountry. Be responsible and keep your impact minimal on the environment…
Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
Repackage food to minimize waste.
Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.
Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
In popular areas:
Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
In pristine areas:
Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.
Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
Okay, now that I’m done preaching here’s the places I love to enjoy in the Fall and Spring when temperatures are pleasant!
Western Slope Region near Fruita and Delta:
McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area - Located on I-70 along the Colorado/Utah border is an area called McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area managed by the BLM. This is considered dispersed camping since there aren’t any “pay” campgrounds so everything is first come, first serve. I HIGHLY recommend camping at the Knowles Overlook Campground. This area is hard to reach unless you have a 4x4 vehicle (although I have seen some 2WD vehicles with good clearance on occasion) and it’s somewhat easy to get lost seeking out this location. If you start to encounter ledges on your drive then you’ve taken a wrong turn. The Knowles Overlook Campground is basically primitive camping with a pit toilet in the area. Be sure to camp in a spot with a designated fire ring. There are plenty of great areas to check out but be sure to bring water as resources are extremely scarce. If you’d like to view the interactive map, click HERE.
**Great hikes McInnis Canyon/Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness Area**
- McDonald Creek - pictographs, canyon hiking, riparian area.
- Rabbit’s Ear - excellent views from the mesa.
- Rattlesnake Canyon - 2nd highest concentration of arches in the world.
- Mee Canyon (difficult) - very unique erosion patterns.
- Knowles Canyon (very difficult) - Colorado’s most remote canyon.
Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area - This is another canyon wilderness area covering 210,000 acres with dramatic vistas, trails, and campsites. I’ve not spend a great deal of time in the area, however the terrain is very impressive and the canyons are incredible. Good dispersed camping can be found on the east side of the conservation area along the network of roads along Escalante Rim Road and also on the west side the conservation area in the Uncomhpagre National Forest. EXCELLENT hiking and history throughout the canyon.
Western Slope/Four Corners near Durango:
By far one of the best areas of Colorado for Native American ruins and rock art…
Mesa Verde National Park will blow your mind. There are literally thousands of dwellings in this National Park. If you have time, I’d recommend spending a few days in the area hiking around and site seeing. Even if you don’t want to stay in the park, I’d recommend doing a day trip into this incredible area.
Canyon of the Ancients National Monument is very cool but plan ahead as the road system can be sketchy. The Monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States, with rich, well-preserved evidence of native cultures. The archeological record etched into this landscape is much more than isolated islands of architecture. This cultural landscape contains more than 6,355 recorded sites reflect all the physical components of past human life: villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges. Some areas have more than 100 sites per square mile. The number of sites is estimated to be up to 30,000. Lots of good day hikes in the area so even if you don’t camp here, I’d recommend checking it out.
Hovenweep National Monument (technically in Utah right across the state line) - this is one of my “must see” places. The campground is a pay site but worth the $$. It’s very remote and off the beaten path so there aren’t really any crowds at Hovenweep. It’s technically a “dark sky” area so the stars at night are unreal. There are tons of ruins in the immediate area so you can spend a few days exploring structures from a bygone era.
I have to admit, I had NO IDEA Utah was so rad when I got on the road! The terrain out there is other worldly and the abundance of Public Land is incredible (second in the nation to Nevada). The state is comprised of 66.5% federal land, compare that to Colorado’s 35.9% and you’ll get an idea of how much there is to offer. There are 5 National Parks - 3 in the immediate area around Moab. While the town of Moab can get nuts on the weekend making it undesirable to visit due to traffic, weekdays you’ll find it to be rather mellow. **Pro tip - Stay away from Zion National Park - it’s a madhouse these days and you can no longer drive into the Park. Instead, a bus shuttles people in and out…not a good experience.
Arches National Park - I always tell my friends if a dinosaur came walking around the corner at Arches then I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s so much to see and do here but the park can be a bit crowded tin the Fall so plan ahead.
Dead Horse Point State Park - I’d highly recommend this area. There are so many canyon rim hikes looking down into the Colorado River area and Canyonlands. It’s shocking the scale of the canyons in the Park. There are lots of great amenities and the park is considering a “Dark Sky” area so the stars are insane. There isn’t any dispersed camping in the park but I highly recommend day trips into the area.
Canyonlands National Park - I’ve not personally been to Canyonlands but have heard exceptional things.
Goblin Valley State Park - This is the most unique area I’ve ever been. The geology and erosion patterns are unreal. I’ve always wanted to do mushrooms and walk around the “hoo-do’s”…the name given to the rock structures in this State Park. This is another “Dark Sky” area and rather remote so there isn’t much in the way of crowds. In the immediate area outside of Goblin Valley is the San Rafael Swell - home to some of the best slot canyons in America. As I mentioned on messenger, the Ding Dang slot canyon trailhead and the Little Wildhorse/Bell Canyon loop can be accessed from the Goblin Valley area. Really great terrain, I highly recommend spending some time here.
San Rafael Swell - Nicknamed the “Little Grand Canyon”, the San Rafael Swell is located one mile directly west from Goblin Valley State Park. This area contains two of my favorite slot canyons in all of Utah - Ding Dang Slot Canyon and the Little Wildhorse/Bell Canyon Loop. There is excellent dispersed camping on the west side of the Swell off along Behind The Reef Road. This area is remote and rugged, you will need to take plenty of water and resources with you since canyon country is generally harsh.
Capitol Reef National Park - I’ve only done some day hikes in this National Park but was thoroughly impressed with the terrain. It’s a mix of Arches/Canyonlands terrain but with trees shooting up out of the bedrock…pretty unique. There are some impressive petroglyphs and BIG arches to explore. This doesn’t get as much traffic as the other 4 National Parks in Utah due to it’s location.
Highway 89 through Grand Staircase/Escalante If you find yourself in southern Utah along the AZ border, then be sure to do the incredible drive on Highway 89 through Grand Staircase/Escalante.
**My favorite place in Utah** Another killer drive in Utah is Highway 128 that leads north out of Moab up to I-70. There are so many incredible places to camp in this area. Plan ahead to look at maps online to see where you’d like to go. Areas of interest include Top of the World, Kokopelli Mtn Bike Trail, Fisher Towers, Dolores River Overlook, Onion Creek, Negro Bill Canyon Hiking Trail, Morning Glory Natural Bridge, Rose Garden Hiking Trail, and Dewey Bridge. The dispersed camping options are endless and there are a few formal campgrounds as well. I typically start at the northern section and drive south ending up at Moab. Enjoy this drive and unique terrain for dispersed camping, it’s one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Also check out Castle Valley. You can access the La Sal Mountain Range from Castle Valley and experience the most remote alpine mountain range in the Lower 48.
Although Zion National Park is a really beautiful area, I’d recommend not going there. You can no longer drive into the park. Instead, they’ve instituted a shuttle system which greatly complicates exploration.
Taos is KILLER and has a great vibe. The ski resort is nice and there are lots of bands coming through to play at Taos Mesa Brewing Co.
Bandelier National Monument - SUPER cool area with tons of ruins.
New Mexico UNESCO World Heritage Sites - New Mexico boasts the most UNESCO sites of any State.
- Chaco Canyon - by far the most impressive, and remote, Pueblo Indian structures I’ve ever experienced. For over 2,000 years, Pueblo peoples occupied a vast region of the south-western United States. Chaco Canyon, a major centre of ancestral Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250, was a focus for ceremonials, trade and political activity for the prehistoric Four Corners area. Chaco is remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture – it has an ancient urban ceremonial centre that is unlike anything constructed before or since. In addition to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the World Heritage property includes the Aztec Ruins National Monument and several smaller Chaco sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s worth paying for a campsite for one evening to experience this area.
4. Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness/Badlands - This wilderness area is sectioned off with a wire fence but you can dispersed camp right outside the wilderness boundary. There are quite a few sites which offer up privacy so be sure to explore the area to determine which site suits you best.