Utah Overlanding Guide: Routes and Destinations
Before Instagram, when postcards were still a thing, Utah produced some of the best. Known for its stunning natural beauty–think giant red rock arches and jagged mountain peaks–as well as ample outdoor recreation opportunities, Utah is one of America’s premier adventure destinations.
Utah is famed among off-road enthusiasts for its challenging slick-rock 4×4 routes. And with its diverse landscape, from the rugged red rock of Moab to the alpine peaks of the Wasatch Range, the state offers a wide variety of overlanding routes. Whether you’re looking for a challenging off-road excursion or a scenic road trip through the state’s many national parks and forests, Utah has you covered.
In this guide,I’ll introduce you to some of the best overlanding routes and destinations in Utah, from the rugged backcountry of the San Rafael Swell to the scenic byways of Capitol Reef National Park.
Utah Overlanding Overview
In this Utah overlanding guide, I’ll highlight the top destinations and routes, but keep in mind that this guide is not exhaustive. Utah is a big place and there’s way more to it than can be covered in one article. The goal of this guide is to provide you with an introduction to the possibilities to help you plan your Utah overlanding adventure.
It’s also worth mentioning that some trails and locations in Utah are very popular, and can get crowded during peak season. The more research you can do in advance to find off-the-beaten path trails and destinations, the more likely you’ll be able to find some solitude.
Utah is home to several renowned national parks, including Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Arches National Park. These national parks offer breathtaking landscapes and opportunities for off-roading, overlanding, hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
And don’t forget about Utah’s state parks. Popular state parks include Dead Horse Point State Park, which offers terrific views of the Colorado River, and Goblin Valley State Park, which is known for its unique rock formations. While off-grid camping and driving opportunities are more limited, the state’s state parks offer interesting way points to visit on longer trips.
Utah also boasts a significant amount of Bureau of Land Management lands that are open to the public for recreational use. These lands typically have more lenient regulations for off-road travel and camping, making them ideal destinations for overlanding trips and other outdoor adventures.
Below we’ll point out some popular Utah overlanding routes as well as some parks and other destinations that might be worth visiting on your expedition. One word of advice, which applies to trips in any vast landscape: don’t try to pack too much into one trip. Utah is huge and it’s easy to become overly ambitious. Make sure you take time to stop, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Utah Overland Destinations and Trails
Utah offers countless routes to explore the backcountry. We recommend mapping out your own itinerary and visiting destinations that interest you, whether that’s traveling on paved roads or venturing onto backcountry trails.
One of the perks of exploring Utah is the abundance of public lands, which offer more flexibility when it comes to camping. However, it’s important to be aware of and adhere to the regulations set forth by the agencies that manage the lands you’ll be traversing. With careful planning and respect for the environment, a trip to Utah can be a truly unforgettable adventure.
Revered among rock crawling enthusiasts, Utah’s Moab Desert is also a great destination for overlanding. The area offers a wide variety of challenging trails and backroads that are perfect for those who are looking to explore some of America’s most picturesque wilderness.
The Moab Desert is located in southeastern Utah and is known for its red rock formations. The desert is situated near the towns of Moab and Arches National Park, which is home to over 2,000 natural stone arches. The desert is part of a larger region called the Colorado Plateau, which is characterized by its high plateaus, deep canyons, and colorful rock layers.
The Moab desert is known for its unique geologic features, including the towering red rock cliffs of the La Sal Mountains, and the deep canyons of the Colorado River. The desert is also home to a diverse array of plant and animal life, including cacti, Joshua trees, and desert bighorn sheep. The desert is also a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, with activities such as hiking, camping, and rock climbing being popular in the area.
The area’s rugged terrain and remote wilderness provide a true backcountry experience, and the beautiful natural landscapes make it a popular destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The Moab desert is also home to a number of campgrounds, which provide plenty of locations to stay overnight. Parts of Moab are very popular, so if you plan to stay in a developed campgrounds, it’s a good idea to make reservations well in advance.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah, and is known for its colorful cliffs and rock formations, as well as its historic orchards and pioneer communities. The park covers over 378-square miles and includes a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold.
Overlanding opportunities in the park include backcountry camping and exploring the park’s many dirt roads and four-wheel drive trails. One of the most popular overlanding routes in the park is the Cathedral Valley Loop, which takes visitors through some of the park’s most iconic landscapes, including the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon.
You can check current road conditions by calling 435-425-3791. Press #1 for information, and then #4 for road conditions. There is one primitive campground along the loop, Cathedral Valley Campground, which typically requires a high-clearance, four-wheel drive to access.
Capitol Reef is less well known than some of Utah’s other famed national parks, so can be a nice place to find solitude during peak season.
San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell is a large geologic formation, 75 miles long by 40 miles wide, that consists of a dome-shaped ridge of sandstone, shale, and limestone. The swell forms the backbone of the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area, wilderness lands managed by the BLM.
The recreation area features magnificent badlands of brightly colored and wildly eroded sandstone formations, deep canyons, and giant plates of stone tilted upright through massive geologic upheaval. It is an area of rugged terrain and unique geology, characterized by towering sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, and sprawling deserts. The swell is home to a diverse array of plant and animal life, including large herds of pronghorn antelope and desert bighorn sheep, as well as a variety of reptiles, birds, and small mammals.
San Rafael Swell is a popular destination for overlanding due to its remote wilderness and challenging terrain. The area offers a wide variety of off-road opportunities, including rocky 4×4 trails, backcountry roads, and remote camping spots. The swell is also home to a number of historic sites, including ancient Native American rock art and pioneer homesteads.
In addition to the natural characteristics, San Rafael Swell also offers a variety of recreational activities such as hiking, biking, and rock climbing. The scenic byway through the swell (paved), known as the Temple Mountain Road, is a popular spot for photography, offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. It is also a popular spot for stargazing, as the lack of light pollution makes for excellent viewing of the night sky. It is a great destination for those looking for a true wilderness experience and a chance to explore the natural beauty of Utah.
Utah Backcountry Discovery Route (UTBDR)
The Utah Backcountry Discovery Route (UBDR) is a 1,200-mile off-road trail that runs through some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the state of Utah. The trail starts in the town of Monticello in the southeast corner of the state and ends in the town of Baker, Nevada, on the border with Nevada.
The UBDR passes through a variety of different landscapes, including desert canyons, high-elevation mountain passes, and dense forests. Along the way, you’ll see breathtaking views of red rock formations, crystal clear creeks, and alpine lakes. The route also passes through several protected areas, including Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and the Dixie National Forest.
The UBDR is considered one of the best overlanding routes in the United States due to its combination of challenging terrain and stunning natural beauty. The route is suitable for experienced off-roaders with high-clearance vehicles. The trail offers a true backcountry experience, with long stretches of remote wilderness and minimal signs of civilization.
White Rim Trail
The White Rim Trail is a rugged 100-mile off-road trail located in Canyonlands National Park, in southeastern Utah. The trail runs along the White Rim, a narrow sandstone bench that circles the Island in the Sky mesa, offering spectacular views of the surrounding canyons and the Green and Colorado rivers. The trail is accessible from two main trailheads, one located at the Island in the Island in the Sky Visitor Center and the other located at the Needles Visitor Center.
The White Rim Trail is known for its rugged, remote, and diverse terrain, passing through a variety of landscapes including red rock canyons, rocky outcroppings, and sandy washes. The route offers remarkable views of the Canyonlands’ iconic rock formations, like the Washer Woman Arch, and the vast expanse of the surrounding desert. The trail also offers a chance to see wildlife such as desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and even the elusive desert big-horned owl.
The White Rim Trail is considered one of the best off-road trails in the United States and is a popular destination for off-road enthusiasts and overlanders. The trail is suitable for experienced off-roaders with high-clearance vehicles. It offers a true backcountry experience, with long stretches of remote wilderness and minimal signs of civilization. The trail also offers a chance to camp in the backcountry, providing a unique way to experience the natural beauty of Canyonlands National Park.
The best time to do the White Rim Trail in Utah is during the spring and fall months, specifically between March and May, and between September and November. During these times, the weather is mild and comfortable, making it the perfect time to explore the trail. The temperatures are not too hot, allowing for comfortable hiking and camping, and there is also a lower chance of thunderstorms, which can be a concern during the summer months.
The trail can also be done in the winter, but temperatures can drop significantly, making it more challenging. In the summer, temperatures can be extremely hot, making it more difficult to complete the trail. So, the spring and fall months offer the best combination of mild weather and stunning scenery.
The Maze District is a remote and rugged area located in the southeastern part of Canyonlands National Park, and it is known for its challenging terrain, stunning views, and unique geologic features.
The Maze district is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles and is not recommended for inexperienced drivers or those with low clearance vehicles. Sounds fun, right?! The area is home to a network of dirt roads, rocky trails, and wash bottoms that can be challenging to navigate. Some roads in the Maze district are impassable during wet conditions, so it is important to check the weather forecast and road conditions before embarking on your journey.
Once you reach the Maze district, you will be greeted with a landscape of red rock canyons, towering mesas, and natural arches. The area is known for its rich history, with evidence of human habitation dating back thousands of years. Visitors can explore ancient Puebloan ruins, rock art, and other cultural sites. With few amenities, the Maze district is a true wilderness experience. You’ll need to pick up a backcountry permit to stay overnight
If you are looking for a mapped out route, check out the Maze District Adventure Route.
The route is a challenging and remote four-wheel drive road that winds through a remote and rugged area of the park known for its towering sandstone spires and deep canyons. The route is not recommended for novice drivers or those without high clearance vehicles, but for experienced off-road enthusiasts, it offers a true backcountry adventure.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a vast and magnificent wilderness area located in southern Utah. At 1.87 million acres, the monument is managed by the BLM, and offers numerous truck trails and four-wheel drive trails. This offers many options for charting out your own overlanding route.
The area has long been targeted by extraction industry – in particular mining interests – but was set aside as a national monument (for a second time) by the Biden administration in 2021.
When you visit, you’ll be exploring the territory of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people, who were skilled at cultivating the rugged land and constructed granaries to preserve their crops. Today, their descendants from tribes such as the Hopi, Paiute, Zuni, Ute, and Navajo, still have a deep connection to this land, as evidenced by the rock art panels, occupation sites, campsites, and granaries left behind.
Additionally, the Monument’s large size, resources, and remote location offer unparalleled opportunities for scientists, researchers, and educators in fields such as geology, paleontology, archaeology, history, and biology. Furthermore, the unspoiled natural area also offers many opportunities for peaceful recreation and solitude.
Other Utah Overlanding Resources
Utah BLM Lands
The United States Bureau of Land Management oversees millions of acres of public lands in the state of Utah – approximately 42 percent of Utah’s lands, totaling to 22.8 million acres, are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. That’s a lot of land. This includes a diverse range of landscapes, from deserts to mountains and canyons to wetlands. They provide a variety of recreational opportunities for off-roading, overlanding and other outdoor enthusiasts, including hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing.
BLM lands great opportunities if you are looking for a more remote and rugged experience than what is offered by national and state parks. I bet you are. Dispersed camping is allowed on many BLM lands, with fewer limitations than other areas, making them a great option for those looking to explore the backcountry.
Check out BLM’s website on Utah for more information and ideas.
Utah National Forests
Utah’s national forests offer some of the most beautiful and diverse overlanding opportunities in the United States. From the dense forests of the Ashley National Forest and to the red rock canyons of the Moab-Monticello District of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, there much to explore.
The forest service manages a system of designated roads and trails that are well-maintained and clearly marked, making it relatively easy to navigate the backcountry. The National Forests in Utah are also home to a diverse array of wildlife, making them a great destination for wildlife viewing and photography. Here’s a full list:
Utah National Forests
Ashley National Forest
Caribou-Targhee National Forest
Dixie National Forest
Fishlake National Forest
Manti-La Sal National Forest
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest