Contributed by Meghan Walker
I woke to the sound of loud rapping on the window of our van, with police lights flashing behind the curtains. I could barely register my husband nudging me through my sleepy haze, as the pounding on the window got louder. “Wake up!” Callan said, and as I sat up, it dawned on me that we were in trouble.
It was minutes before midnight – we’d only just drifted off when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) law enforcement rangers informed us that we were illegally camping. Our van was parked at an equestrian trailhead just off the highway outside of Moab near Castle Valley. We were prepped for an early start to climb Sister Superior, a hauntingly beautiful shark’s fin of a tower that lurks just behind Castleton, one of the area’s most popular climbing destinations.
Due to a road closure, the dirt lot we chose was the closest we could get to the start of the trail. In all honesty, we knew we were taking a risk parking at the trailhead. For one, there was a no-camping sign, but after several months of vanlife, we’d seen plenty of no-camping signs where vehicles and vans were parked overnight. As a result, we’d become more attuned to no-overnight-parking signs and chose to ignore the sign in the trailhead.
“Do you have any weapons? Guns, knives, explosive devices?” one of the rangers grilled me as I struggled to put on a sweater and step out of the van. I had to stop myself from laughing – it seemed absurd. “No, we don’t,” I said as I saw my husband grabbing our IDs for the other officer, who demanded to know why we dared to park in an area with clear “No Camping” signs. “Do you realize that Moab gets 3 million visitors every year?” the officer asked. No, we didn’t realize. “We can’t let just anyone park on the side of the road overnight, or this place would be a nightmare,” the officer said, his tone easing slightly.
The other officer told us he’d be writing a ticket, and as he ambled off to his truck, his partner softened and asked us about our climbing plans. I sleepily answered, trying to make sense of what was happening, vaguely hoping they might choose not to write us the $80 illegal camping ticket that was coming our way. The lead officer returned with our camping bill for the night (officially making it the most expensive campsite that we’d ever paid for).
Moab is a hub for all things outdoors. There’s rock climbing, mountain biking, ATV riding, Jeep off-roading, and a plethora of hiking all within 20 minutes of town. We arrived at one of the busiest times of the year, with the annual Jeep safari weekend descending on the small city. By one estimate, the population of Moab swells from 5,000 to well over 90,000 during Jeep week. As fellow tourists, we felt the impacts. However, when you’re living and exploring out of a van, finding a place to stay is fairly straightforward. There’s a huge swath of BLM land around Moab, which usually means there will be free camping options nearby.
Most nights, we made our way 15 minutes north of Moab to an area called Willow Springs, which is managed by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
It’s several hundred acres of trust land with around 70 “sites”, which really amount to small pull-outs along the road. Willow Springs’ popularity grew gradually over the years, but it was never chosen or dedicated for dispersed camping.
Bryan Torgerson, Resource Specialist for the Trust Lands Administration told us that Willow Springs has been popular for decades because of its proximity to Moab. “However,” he continued, “it has experienced significant pressure lately because dispersed camping on BLM lands is getting constantly reduced and there is a segment of the camping population that is looking for a traditional experience.”
The problem comes about when campers aren’t prepared for the “traditional experience”. There’s no water, no garbage pickup, and no permanent toilets. There are, however, 10 portaloos that Torgerson said were a direct result from campers not disposing of waste properly. There’s virtually no budget to manage Willow Springs, but SITLA saw a need to provide the loos.
“It’s the biggest expense for the area, but worth it to help protect the property,” he told us. SITLA will soon be relieved of their management of Willow Springs. Utah’s Forestry, Fire and State Lands agency will soon be taking over, and will then lease the land to Grand County. Torgerson told us that the county will be responsible for day-to-day management and camping. “We hope to get the exchange with FF&SL done soon because Willow Springs is in need of a different management plan,” Torgerson said. He added that the area needs more services, as most campers aren’t abiding by Leave No Trace ethics. “These are concepts that need to be reinforced because they seem to be getting lost with current Moab camping users.”
Each night, Willow Springs turns into a buzzing community of vanlifers, campers, RVs, and ATVs. It’s like a small city, populated by people escaping paid campgrounds and seeking a dose of nature. The dirt road into the area leads just off the highway to a series of dusty pull-outs, each one filled with a haphazard array of vehicles. We quickly discovered that in order to get a good night’s sleep, we needed to find a spot as far away from the dirt road as possible. At seemingly all hours of the night, ATVs, dirt bikes, RVs and vehicles would fly up and down the road, sending up a cloud of dust in their wake.
Typically, the place clears out pretty early each day, as people head out for their various sporting activities and to visit the nearby Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. There are large areas of BLM land just outside of Canyonlands National Park, which provide camping options in pull-outs and paid campgrounds. “We really try to encourage people to camp in places that are already disturbed,” said Rachel Wootton, Utah BLM spokesperson. “Those areas have already been impacted. We’re avoiding impacting new areas.”
The rules on BLM land are actually pretty loose: technically, it’s okay to camp in any area so long as there’s not a no-camping sign in sight. However, sometimes it’s easy to miss those signs. That’s why Wootton says it’s a good idea to call ahead or go online and learn about camping specifics before you venture into a new area. What’s best is finding an area that’s been prepared for camping.
“Designated sites have been built in those places for a reason,” Wootton says. “That way, you’re not staying in places where you’re unknowingly impacting archaeological or paleontological sites, wildlife, or plant resources that may be sensitive.” To prepare a site for camping, BLM workers will harden the ground in order to maintain water quality and avoid trampling vegetation.
In the landscape around Moab, there’s a layer of crust that covers much of the ground. It’s black and lumpy and is absolutely teeming with life. Known as biological soil crust, it’s alive with lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and cyanobacteria.
By holding the soil together, the crust helps to prevent erosion. It also holds and retains water, which allows nearby plants to tap into moisture during the hot, dry months of summer. Furthermore, it creates plant food by absorbing nitrogen from the air and turning it into nitrogen that plants consume. Once we learned about it, we started seeing it on the side of every trail. “Don’t bust the crust” is a popular saying to help remind people to stay on-trail. The damaged crust can take years to re-establish and can be devastating to a landscape if large areas are crushed.
“As Moab gets more popular, the season of people using the area also increases and it’s a strain on our designated camping,” Wootton says. “What did meet our needs 10 years ago does not meet our needs now.” With Moab’s growing popularity, Wootton says BLM and other agencies are looking at ways to better manage visitors each year. “With increased popularly comes an increased need for places to stay – that’s something we’ve tried to address with new business plans,” she explains. That could mean establishing more campsites, with both paid and free, dispersed options. “If we are going to charge fees, we need to look at what the amenities will be.”
One of the beauties of public lands is the freedom to set up camp almost anywhere, but with that freedom should come a healthy dose of personal responsibility. Travelers should seek to understand the environment they’re heading into. That picturesque empty field might look like the perfect campsite, but knowledge about the risks of human impacts cannot be understated. If you’re venturing into public lands to get away from it all, please let this be your reminder to do your research and do your best to camp in areas that have been established. The crust will thank you, and so will future generations.