Originally posted July 2020: Revised and migrated March 2021
Travel Date June 2020
We stopped at Red Canyon Utah on our way from Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park. It is a beautiful less traveled area of Utah with free camping and amazing trails. The hiking at Red Canyon offers the same great arches and hoodoos as Utah’s National Parks but without the National Park crowds.
Where is Red Canyon Utah?
Red Canyon is located along highway 12 en route to Bryce Canyon National Park. Most visitors to the national park travel highway 12 and Red Canyon is where the highly anticipated red rock hoodoos start appearing along the drive.
The drive into Red Canyon towards Bryce Canyon on highway 12 passes through two picturesque tunnels.
The Red Canyon National Forest Visitor Center is located east ten miles of Panguitch Utah and only 13 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Utah is the closest town to Red Canyon.
Red Canyon Utah Camping
There are several NFS campgrounds in the Red Canyon area but we did not see any offering electric or water connections. Dispersed camping is also available in the area. Cabins and full hookup campgrounds are available in nearby Bryce Utah.
Red Canyon Campground
The Red Canyon campground is located across Highway 12 from the Red Canyon Visitor Center. It is operated by the National Forest Service and offers drinking water, showers, flush toilets, and an RV dump station. Sites include a tent pad, fire ring, and picnic table for $20 per night. All sites are first-come-first-serve.
Free Camping near Bryce Canyon National Park: Dixie National Forest Red Canyon
Our summer plans included visiting National Parks but we were unable to find a campsite within Bryce Canyon National Park during our visit. Instead, we chose to boondock for free on nearby public lands along Tom’s Spring Road. Check out our free camping tag to read about other places we’ve stayed for free.
What is boondocking?
Boondocking, aka dispersed camping, aka dry camping is camping without electric, water, or sewer connections. Pippi has solar panels and large storage tanks for fresh water and wastewater so lack of connections doesn’t affect our quality of life. To learn more about how we added solar and upgraded our electrical system, check out this blog.
Boondocking on public land is free for everyone, usually with 14 days stay limits to protect the land and prevent permanent residents from dominating the available spots. Established free campgrounds with amenities are less common but do exist. We’ve seen campers in cars, tents, and all makes of RVs enjoying public lands.
Tom’s Spring Road
We used Campendium, a free crowd-sourced app, to find free camping near Bryce Canyon. Tom’s Spring Road had good reviews from rigs as large as Pippi. We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and found the area was more crowded than we expected. We spent some time trying to find a spot with enough space and the right orientation for optimum solar and satellite.
During our brief scout trip in the car, we quickly realized the well-maintained gravel road contained very fine silt like dust that covered the vehicle regardless of speed.
We learned during our stay at this location that the dust would mushroom up with each step on our evening walks so that our legs were dusty from the knees down even when walking in grass. In short, there was no avoiding the dust.
Our RV neighbor at Tom’s Best Spring Road was very friendly and told us she had been camping there more than the 14-day limit because no one enforced the rules and they enjoyed the cool temps at the higher elevation. The area was beautiful and utilized by grazing cattle.
How long can I boondock?
Our solar performed great during our stay. We were able to use our appliances regularly without supplementing the sun’s power with our generator. We were also able to boondock for ten days without refilling our freshwater or emptying our waste tanks.
Ten days was our boondocking record at this point. We continue refining our conservation practices to stretch our stays even longer.
We determined the limiting factor to be fresh water and decided a portable water jug would be a nice way to add a few gallons each day without having to move Pippi.
What is there to do in Red Canyon Utah?
Red Canyon Utah offers many things to do including hiking, biking and visiting the nearby national park.
Since we had no future commitments and planned to stay in this spot as long as possible, we took our time exploring Red Canyon and Bryce. Some days we worked on the computer or did household chores (minor maintenance tasks, laundry, cooking or cleaning). I spent a few afternoons in the hammock reading and napping.
We also saw our first rain shower of the trip. Tom’s Spring Road was a great recharge location.
Ruby’s General Store in Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon was the closest town and we scouted Ruby’s, the local general store. We decided we could make do with the items in our pantry and freezer. Thankfully we had stocked up at the Super Walmart in St George.
Ruby’s had a decent selection of groceries and supplies but the prices were definitely tourist prices. I can’t imagine a local paying $3 for the same canned beans that cost $1 in St George.
If we were only traveling for one week out of the year, I am sure we’d happily pay for the convenience of a place like Ruby’s. Since we travel full-time, I am not willing to accept these prices and can plan our shopping trips to avoid them. Check out our About page to learn how we are able to travel full time.
Bryce Pines Famous Pie
The restaurant choices in Bryce Canyon were limited with mediocre reviews. We only ate out once in our ten days. We visited Bryce Pines which had billboards advertising their homemade soup and pies. Their TripAdvisor reviews were also quite good so we decided to try it.
We went with the intention of returning another day for their homemade corned beef hash breakfast. During our lunch trip, they didn’t have any of the advertised soups prepared for the day. The preparation of our simple fried appetizer platter took an extraordinarily long time.
They had a limited number of the pie flavors on the menu available so we shared a slice of apple pie a la mode. The pie was good but not the best I’ve ever had.
After our painfully long lunch experience, we decided to forgo any future trips to Bryce Pines and ate at home the rest of our time in the area.
Red Canyon Visitor Center
The Red Canyon Visitor Center in the Dixie National Forest was located about five miles away from our campsite so we took the opportunity to visit. United States National Forest Service manages both the visitor center and the nearby Dixie Forest.
Sadly, the visitor center was closed the day we visited as a result of an employee calling in sick. A volunteer working on landscaping asked if we need help and shared the reason for the closure. Luckily they had brochures and information boards outside and accessible. I would recommend stopping even if the visitor center is closed.
Hiking in Red Canyon Utah
We chose a 2.3-mile hike from the Visitor Center which combined three short trails (Pink Ledges, Hoodoo, and Birdseye’s trail). The walk started out along the rim of pink/orange/red rock formations.
During this hike, we saw our first hoodoos up close. If you have a little less time or energy, the Pink Ledges and Hoodoo combination offers many great views of hoodoos as a quick payoff.
Pink Ledges Trail: Hiking in Red Canyon Utah
The Pink Ledges trail has numbered interpretative signs with a corresponding guide available at the visitors center. The guided stops share history and geology facts along the way. Pink Ledges connects to the Hoodoo Trail.
Hoodoo Trail: Hiking in Red Canyon Utah
Hoodoo Trail is a great way to see hoodoos up close without the National Park crowds. The area around Bryce is definitely hoodoo country. These trails were not difficult and were a great way to get away from crowds but see some great views.
What is a hoodoo?
Hoodoos are unique tall spire-shaped formations caused by thousands of years of erosion. They are associated with Bryce Canyon National Park but are abundant in the nearby Red Canyon as well.
Birds Eye Trail: Hiking Red Canyon Utah
We wrapped up our loop on the Birds Eye Trail which winds above Highway 12.
The trail offers great birds-eye views of the surrounding pink and orange rock formations. To complete the loop, we walked the paved Red Canyon Bike Trail back to the visitors center.
Cassidy Trail: Hiking Red Canyon Utah
If you have more energy and time available, the Cassidy Trail from the Visitor Center is a great option. We didn’t hike the Cassidy trail but did research and consider it. I was still nursing my knees back to health after Zion National Park. To learn about our Zion trip, check here.
The Cassidy and Rich Trail is a five-mile loop with 451ft elevation. It offers a variety of vegetation, including ponderosa pine forest, as you walk between Red Canyon, Losee Canyon, and Casto Canyon.
Biking in Red Canyon Utah
There is an abundance of mountain biking trails available near Red Canyon. To find out more check out the NFS list. We decided to bike the Red Canyon Bike Trail and Thunder Mountain.
Red Canyon Bike Trail
While driving into Red Canyon we noticed a really nice paved multi-use trail that paralleled the road. At the visitors center we saw a map of the Red Canyon bike trail and it ran more than forty miles all the way into Bryce Canyon National Park. I enjoy riding my bike on the pavement so I was excited to check it out.
I spent an afternoon exploring the paved path along the roadside. It was not completely flat easy pedaling but the hills on pavement were a lot more enjoyable than gravel and sand. The path is very nice and I’d definitely recommend.
Thunder Mountain Bike Trail
Kevin found the Thunder Mountain bike trail in his MTB project research and determined the primary parking area was just across the highway from our campsite. From this parking area, you could either bike or drive a few miles down a gravel road to the trailhead.
Kevin encouraged me to bike the gravel road portion with him and then possibly hike a portion of the Thunder Mountain trail. My bike is a hybrid and doesn’t have enough tire grip to consider tackling even an intermediate trail not to mention my lack of experience. Later in the summer, I would upgrade my tires and start building my trail confidence.
I joined Kevin on the gravel road which passed a primitive NFS campground and an educational area designated the “Red Canyon Desert Botanical Area”.
Kevin headed onto the Thunder Mountain Trail solo and I headed back to the car at the other end of the gravel road. First I stopped to check out the “botanical area”. It was a natural area with a 1-mile circular path through the area. I did see a good example of spiral barked trees (I do not know the species name) but otherwise didn’t see much eye-catching vegetation. I also saw my first Utah prairie dog biking the gravel road but he was too quick for a picture.
Kevin saw some epic views on his ride and thankfully he took some pictures for those of us that stuck to the paved trail. Turns out Thunder Mountain is a mountain biker bucket list trail.
Final Thought on Red Canyon Utah
Red Canyon Utah was our launching spot to explore the Dixie Forest and Bryce Canyon National Park. Red Canyon offers great hiking and biking among both pine forests and the famous pink and orange hoodoos without the National Park crowds. Red Canyon is definitely worth a stop on your next Utah road trip.