Camping/hiking on the cheap in Utah, NM, CO, AZ, etc.?
June 4, 2016 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I have about 8-10 days I want to kill in the Southwest between events in Pueblo and Santa Fe. I would love to spend it camping, hiking, driving through scenic areas, working on photography, etc. I've read some other questions here and poked around my needs are kind of specific and I'd like advice on where to go.

One requirement is frugality. I think it's totally reasonable that a lot of these parks charge in the neighborhood of $20 for a campsite--I just can't really afford to spend several hundred dollars on campsite fees. So one requirement is that where I go have cheap or free camping. Cheaper park access is also a plus, though with 7 day access even a $25 fee is not bad.

I'm going to be alone. I've done a fair bit of hiking/backpacking/camping, including in the SW, but am also somewhat risk averse--not interested in ending up in remote wilderness with no water sources and 30 miles from the nearest human, for example. But it would also be nice not to be somewhere super crowded, if that's possible in June.

I'm pretty flexible as regards activities. I definitely want to do a lot hiking, but whether I do overnight trips away from my car or stick to roundtrips that have me coming back to the same place and camping there each day is not that important (I have equipment for either). Maybe the simplest for planning purposes would be a park where I could drive in to a campground and sleep there each night but that had a lot of diverse, say, 3-15 miles roundtrip hikes that I could cycle through before moving on. But that's not essential.

I've been to Zion, Grand Canyon, and Bryce, and would happily go back to any, but I haven't yet worked out a way I could do them on the cheap, and am worried they'd be really crowded. I'd love tips for new, slightly off the beaten path places too. I've also done the Needles district of Canyonlands and would enjoy going back there, and Cedar Breaks looks amazing, but I'm again running into cost issues. Would love tips on any (relatively) obscure places I might not know about and be overlooking.

Sorry for the wordiness! Advice would be much appreciated. I also don't have really specific goals for this trip--I just want to see beautiful things, get away from civilization a bit, get some hiking and photography in, and stay safe. So suggestions that depart a bit from what I'm considering are also welcome. Not much geographical restriction. I don't want any, eg, 16 hour drives, but if I can get somewhere comfortably in a day then it doesn't really matter where it is.
posted by pdq to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Camp and hike on BLM land, or in National Monuments, as opposed to National Parks.
They're much less developed, and there is much less traffic.
The scenery is also less .. curated: park locations are chosen for their density of beauty, and BLM is all the rest of it, with National Monuments being nascient National Parks.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:59 AM on June 4, 2016

You mention photography - look up South Coyote Buttes. North Coyote Buttes is where "The Wave" is, and hard to get permits for. But South is much easier. No camping right there, but you ought to be able to find some BLM land to overnight on.

Also Escalante/Grand Staircase is really cool, and has some great slot canyons - no permits required.

You might check into some rock climbing message boards for information on cheap camping in cool areas. Areas like the San Rafael Swell and up in there are pretty unvisited and less National Park-y, but stunning. Probably with cheap/free camping available.
posted by bluesky78987 at 10:07 AM on June 4, 2016

I was going to suggest White Sands National Monument, but if you're not interested in being far from other people and/or you're not confortable being in remote places alone, it might not be for you.

Still, it's surprisingly accessible. The campsites are only a few miles from the road, it's just that it's a few miles of hiking over snow-white sand dunes—some of the most trackless and barren terrain that I've personally witnessed. The trail is just a series of guideposts stuck into the sand at irregular intervals, some of which will have fallen over. And there's definitely no water. But the hike in and out only takes a couple of hours each way, and it's inexpensive and not crowded.

It's an eerie, silent, and beautiful place. Each campsite occupies its own little valley between two sand dunes, so you're not going to feel crowded as the sites are well screened from each other. And the sheer emptiness and quietness of the place is really impressive. It's unlike anywhere else, probably because it is sort of an island of weird salt-sand desert in the middle of a big patch of regular desert, so that the main things that live there are darkling beetles and cyanobacteria. And it's very, very beautiful in a very strange and stark way. I highly recommend it, if you think you're up for it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:08 AM on June 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

I definitely recommend spending a night or three at Wild Rivers, which is near Questa, NM, directly on your route between Santa Fe and Pueblo if you go the back way instead of I-25 (and you should: it's a very pretty drive on 159 in southern Colorado).

It's the convergence of the Red River and the Rio Grande, and the park is set at the dramatic meeting point -- dramatic deep canyons, photogenic gnarled trees, the scent of juniper and pinon, and trails that crisscross the region and dip down to the rivers. It's BLM, camping is primitive at $10, but it seems to be an undiscovered gem in the area.
posted by mochapickle at 10:22 AM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and at Wild Rivers, each campsite has its own open shelter. It gets awfully hot camping in summer in NM and the shelters provide welcome shade.
posted by mochapickle at 10:27 AM on June 4, 2016

Hyde Park outside of Santa Fe? It's a NM state park so, I think, like only $10/night? The park is surrounded by national forest land that's full of beautiful (high-altitude) mountain trails.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 10:28 AM on June 4, 2016

For the cost part of the discussion, seconding the suggestion of BLM land / National Monument. National Forest too. The general rule is camping on those lands is free and generally open to the public. Temporary closures and local rules sometimes apply, do your research. Also dispersed camping rules. The tradeoff is there's generally no amenities and you're further from the marquee sights.

This website of Free Campsites looks useful, but I can't vouch for it.

If you're watching your money very carefully you should probably calculate the cost of gas vs. staying close to where you want to go.
posted by Nelson at 10:37 AM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Chaco Culture is great, quiet, and inexpensive. The ruins are stunning and you can have them to yourselves, especially at sunrise.
posted by thenormshow at 12:42 PM on June 4, 2016

Check out Cedar Breaks if you're in southern utah. It's way less crowded than Zion/Bryce and is somewhat between the two. Warning, fairly high elevation and if you're not used to the height even the not too rough hike around the rim is brutal.
posted by Ferreous at 1:51 PM on June 4, 2016

Response by poster: Yeah, to clarify one thing - I am definitely open to dispersed camping (didn't know that was the name) and that sort of thing. When I cite an aversion to being 30 miles from the nearest human, I mean an aversion to being, like, 30 miles traversible only on foot, not like, I happened to be the only who drove down a particular road that night on a decently maintained Forest Service road and found a clearing to set up at.

Also, I'm driving a Toyota sedan, so no demanding 4wd-only off roading, sadly.
posted by pdq at 2:35 PM on June 4, 2016

Sorry, I just noticed you said cedar breaks, BUT I can help with this area a bit.

Just outside cedar city is Three Peaks recreation area that is run by BLM. Free camping, isolated enough from town that it shouldn't be noisy, and easy car camping access. You're close to a bunch of neat things in that area including Cedar breaks, Lund (a semi-ghost town) northwest of Cedar city, and The Kanarra Falls slot canyon hike. Those are all within an hour or so from that recreation area.

In the recreation area there are also some great scrambles and rock formations to climb.
posted by Ferreous at 3:11 PM on June 4, 2016

Furthermore, I only had a toyota yaris, and I was able to access all those areas easily, so car access should not be an issue.
posted by Ferreous at 3:15 PM on June 4, 2016

I did White Sands in an '02 Honda Accord.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:25 PM on June 4, 2016

Consider purchasing a Gazateer for the states you're going to be traveling in; they come in handy for finding public BLM land for dispersed camping.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:57 AM on June 6, 2016

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