Be Prepared for the Southern Utah Backcountry
How to safely enjoy the red rock desert and other remote Southern Utah destinations
“Come to our wilderness but be ready to rough it.” These words by Bates Wilson, who became Canyonlands National Park's first superintendent in 1964, are printed on modern day park brochures, and they hold true for current visitors.
Venturing into Utah's red rock backcountry is a rewarding endeavor for experienced, well-prepared adventurers. But being prepared to “rough it” is essential whether you're planning on going for a hike, backpacking trip or 4-wheel-drive adventure.
“Make sure people know where you’re going,” advises Dave Nimkin, senior southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “I think sometimes people who are unfamiliar with the area might be casual in how they approach it, but the conditions can take their toll.”
Here are a few things to keep in mind when traveling in the backcountry of Canyonlands or any of the rugged, red-rock landscapes of Southern Utah:
- Before exploring, stop by a ranger station or visitor center for up-to-date information, safety tips and advice.
- Ask a ranger to help you select a route that’s appropriate for your abilities and interests and issue the necessary permits. They may also be able to share crucial bits of local knowledge, like the road you were planning on driving in a sedan is only suited for rugged, high-clearance vehicles, or perhaps is impassable due to quicksand.
- Self-sufficiency is crucial in this rough country, so be prepared with food, water, protection from the elements, navigational tools like a map and compass, flashlights, first aid gear and other important items.
- The parks in southern Utah advise that visitors drink at least one gallon of water a day and bring the water with them since it can be difficult or impossible to find in the backcountry. It also reminds visitors to eat plenty of food during their journey, including salty snacks.
- People driving the 4-wheel-drive roads should have a full set of emergency tools and know how to use them. The park service recommends bringing a second vehicle in remote areas and being prepared to self-rescue.
- Let someone know your itinerary and the time you expect to return. Know the information for search and rescue, and bring a spot device. Learn more about how you can support Utah’s local search and rescue teams with a Utah Search and Rescue Assistance card.
Hiking Tips and Trail Ethics
Hiking in Canyonlands and other remote Utah destinations is different than hiking in many other places. Instead of a well-manicured dirt path, the trail is typically rugged and marked only by rock piles called cairns. The footing along trails can be tricky, with slick rocks and cliffs that become especially treacherous when wet or icy. Many trails involve rock scrambling and climbing ladders.
Exploring in this region requires solid navigational skills and a map and compass, even if you're also bringing a GPS. The park advises people not to hike alone.
Staying on trails and marked routes helps prevent getting lost, and it also protects the living soil biocrusts. Walk on trails, streambeds and bare rock to prevent damaging these fragile soils. Be sure to camp in designated areas at least 300 feet from water sources and follow all regulations, including packing out trash and not removing any artifacts from the landscape.
Every desert explorer should also be aware of the large number of culturally important archaeological sites in the area. Be sure to leave all structures, artifacts and historic sites undisturbed, and never touch rock art.
“Treat this place with respect because the kind of highs you get from experiencing it personally are really critically important so that others who come to visit can experience the same thing,” Nimkin says. “We all have that kind of personal responsibility to honor and respect these places for multiple reasons.”
Check the Weather
However you choose to explore, be weather wise. Summer temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter temperatures can plunge to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun is strong, so sunscreen and a hat are essential. The park service recommends bringing a minimum of one gallon of drinking water per person per day.
Late summer and early fall are “monsoon season” and can bring threatening thunderstorms and pounding rains. Flash floods occur during these times, and dry river beds can become raging and deadly torrents within seconds. Never enter a flooding area and never camp in a wash, even if it’s dry.
Lightning is another threat. The safest place to be is indoors, but if that’s not an option, being in a vehicle with the windows rolled up is the second-best option.
Discover More Utah
6 Steps to a Family MTB Trip on Canyonlands' White Rim
Want to take the family mountain biking on the White Rim Trail? Tackle 100 miles of biking and three days of backcountry camping in Canyonlands with the kids.
A Guide to the Many Faces of Utah's Green River
The mighty Green River carves a path through a dramatic and varied landscape of mountains, canyons and desert for 730 miles across Utah. Whether you have a few hours or a few weeks, experience the diversity of this river yourself by getting on the water.
A Photographer’s Guide to Mindful Travel
Utah's deserts are a photographer's dream, yet very fragile. Find out how photographers can take a few simple steps to care for this unique environment.
A Van Lifer’s Guide to Responsible Travel in Southern Utah
When Utah’s dirt roads are calling you, it’s time to plan your van life road trip. Here’s what you need to know to travel safely, protect Utah’s rural communities, and help preserve sensitive desert landscapes.
A Winter’s Desert: Visiting Southern Utah in the Slow Months
Experiencing the peace of canyon country in the winter is an attraction of its own.
Ancient Pictographs, Petroglyphs and Timeless Mysteries
Exploring Horseshoe Canyon isn’t for everyone. First of all, the effort to get there is an adventure in itself, but those efforts make the reward — namely, the chance to see up close some of the most significant pictograph panels in North America — even more noteworthy.
Backpacking in Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park offers a spectrum of backpacking opportunities — from short trips at designated backcountry campsites to longer, adventurous trips that require extensive planning and desert canyon navigational knowledge.
Boomer Travel: 76 Hours in Moab
Moab, Utah is a prime destination for Baby Boomer travel. Check out our specially-designed itinerary and plan your visit!
Chasing John Wesley Powell: Six Places to Explore Utah's Green and Colorado Rivers
One hundred and fifty years ago a one-armed Civil War veteran set off with nine mountain men on a scientific expedition to map one of the last blank spaces left on the U.S. map: The Green and Colorado rivers. Much of the river remains wild today. Follow Powell's journey here.
Dog-Friendly Utah: The Road to Mighty
Want to bring your furry friend on your next vacation? Utah is home to several great dog-friendly national parks and other fun destinations. Check it out and plan your trip!
Filmed in Utah: 7 Itineraries Through Hollywood's Most Iconic Settings
Whether hitting the Sundance Film Festival in Park City and Salt Lake City in January or visiting Utah throughout the year, you’ll find yourself near some Utah’s most iconic and most filmed places.
Following the Markings of Native American History
This road trip across Utah to view ancient petroglyphs and pictographs will give you an incredible window into the past.
HBO's Westworld. See it now, in Utah.
Where is Westworld filmed? Much of Castle Valley is actually located in Utah. Learn more about the setting of your favorite television series.
How to Support Local On Your Utah Road Trip
Many small businesses in Utah rely on tourism for survival. These expert tips help road trippers make a real difference in communities by supporting local.
Movies Filmed in Utah: Plotting a Cinematic Drive-Through
Follow a Germany-based film enthusiast on an extended road trip to discover the rich history of Utah cinematography.
Paradise and Slickrock
Utah's national parks seen through a lifelong relationship with Capitol Reef
The Complete Winter Camping Packing List for Staying Warm in Southern Utah
For most travelers, Southern Utah winters prevent comfortable camping, and occasional snowfall can make outdoor adventure a little more challenging. With a little extra planning, good layers, and the right equipment, however, you can enjoy Utah's national parks in the solitude of winter.
The Freedom of Wild Places
Clutching my hat with both hands, the wind roared and whipped by as I stood atop a rugged red rock formation, gazing out into the vastness of The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park.
Top 10 Family-Friendly Hikes in Utah National Parks
With so many destinations, and so many trails, it can be difficult to decide where to begin in Utah's Mighty 5® national parks. Here are 10 family-friendly hikes, two per national park, you cannot miss.
Touring the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway
Prepare to be captivated as you drive along Indian Creek Utah’s Corridor Scenic Byway. Explore the Needles District, Canyonlands NP and admire Utah’s natural beauty.
Traveling with Dogs: The Mighty 5 National Parks
At all of The Mighty 5® national parks, activities with pets are extremely limited, and every time your dog is out of your vehicle, it must be restrained in a crate, cage, or on a leash (of no more than 6 feet).
Turning the Lens on a Wintry Southern Utah
Discover some of the most picturesque places to photograph in Southern Utah, and learn some tips for how to shoot and travel responsibly.
Utah Liquor Laws Visitor Guide — Yes, You Can!
In preparation for your trip to Utah, here’s what you need to know about Utah's liquor laws, especially how and where to buy a drink in the city or in the rural parts of the state.
Valley of the Gods Bed & Breakfast
The Valley of the Gods B&B is a gem for travelers looking for a convenient, comfortable place to spend the night in Bears Ears.
Winter in Southeastern Utah: Arches and Canyonlands
Want to avoid the Utah national park crowds? Plan a winter Southeastern Utah trip. Experience more peace, quiet and solitude.