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Backroad adventure in the Swell.

The red rock wonderland of Utah's San Rafael Swell is remote, with no facilities and dusty roads. What are you waiting for?

* Why did 18th-century Spanish explorers avoid the San Rafael Swell and why did 19th-century mountain men have little good to say of this geologic maze in central Utah? Gazing from the Wedge Overlook into a gorge so impressive that it's known as the Little Grand Canyon, I wonder whether those early explorers ever stepped back to appreciate their surroundings.

Exploring the Swell is both an exhilarating challenge and a fantastic journey due to the sheer size--60 miles long by 35 miles wide--and complexity of the landscape, as well as the wealth of exploring options. A few roads skitter through the area, which was raised 60 million years ago as a huge bead of sedimentary rock. You can drive the main route--mostly gravel--from Castle Dale to Goblin valley State Park in a long day; plan on staying in local motels on either end of the drive to maximize your time in the Swell. A better option is to pack your camping gear and spread the drive over a couple of leisurely days.

As I head out early from Castle Dale, my first impression of the Swell is that of a broken-down chunk of tawny backcountry. At first I wonder if mountain man Jedediah Smith, who viewed the Swell in 1826 and found no reason to linger, was right. But at the Wedge

Overlook, where you can hike along the rim, I begin to think otherwise. True, most of the water that flows through this dusty land is roughly 900 feet below in the San Rafael River, but I savor geologic artistry and history, and the Swell richly displays both.

Little Wild Horse Canyon and Crack Canyon reveal the Swell's underpinnings. Several sandstone arches display erosion's handiwork. And sandstone cliffs reveal the petroglyphs and pictographs that ancient peoples chiseled or painted onto the rock, their meanings still mysteries.

Filling my lungs with the sage- and juniper-scented desert air floating up from the green ribbon of river, I turn my back on the gorge and set out to prove mountain man Smith wrong.

How much protection?

Others certainly consider the Swell--with its scenic geology, archaeological sites, wild horses, burros, and Utah's largest herd of desert bighorn sheep--a special place. Some have even proposed that its roughly 1 million acres deserve national park status. Whether it does, Dick Manus, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's field manager for this part of Utah, believes the Swell is on par with parks that have received that designation.

"I'd say it would rival many of our national parks," says Manus. "It's blue-ribbon quality."

But the Swell has become a lightning rod in the West's vitriolic debate over public-lands recreation. Packed into this geologic uplift, which once hid bad guy Butch Cassidy from the law, is a red rock playground for hikers, mountain bikers, and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts. Unfortunately, these groups sometimes have a hard time seeing eye to eye when it comes to how the BLM should manage the land.

Wide swaths of the Swell are candidates for congressional classification as national wilderness. Environmentalists say that such protection should have been afforded long ago and want Congress to act on pending legislation to carry it through. Off-road-vehicle drivers, barred from entering wilderness areas, adamantly oppose the designation.

Art chiseled in stone

Mulling over that debate, I backtrack a bit from the Wedge Overlook and drop into Buckhorn Wash, where I find a world-class gallery of pictographs and petroglyphs sprawled across 200 or so feet of canyon wall. The oldest images--archaeologists generally estimate 2,000 to 3,000 years old, although some say 8,000 years old--were painted in a manner now referred to as Barrier Canyon style (named after the place in southeastern Utah where a large display was found). On one tableau, known as the Buckhorn Rock Art panels, a prehistoric artist used the cliff's curve as a canvas for figures painted with natural pigments. More recently perhaps 1,000 years ago, Fremont

Culture--style artists chiseled petroglyphs into the rock.

My awe of the San Rafael Swell gains strength 30 miles south of the San Rafael Campground, in the Head of Sinbad area, as I stand before a pictograph staring out from a wall of buff-colored Wingate sandstone. The image, a figure topped by a wriggling snake and flanked by two other characters, looks as if it might have been painted last week, rather than several thousand years ago. After a mile's drive north of the petroglyphs, a short hike pays off--with a vast, spectacular view into the heart of the Swell: Buttes, mesas, and canyons fill the landscape far below me.

Leaving Sinbad behind, I cross Interstate 70, which bisects the Swell, and find more petroglyphs as well as Swasey's Cabin, a small log structure built in the early 1920s. Rather than linger, I head to my goal, Little Wild Horse Canyon.

West of Goblin Valley State Park (home to an eerie landscape of red sandstone mushrooms, goblins, and hoodoos), this slot canyon and the adjacent Bell Canyon make a nice 7-mile loop hike. Within minutes I find myself snaking through the sandstone abutments of the San Rafael Reef in a passageway that narrows at times to 3 or 4 feet wide, then widens to 30 feet or more across. Runoff from countless storms has worn the 50- to 60-foot-tall pink sandstone walls smooth, fluting some of its sections.

How big is the Swell? This drive hits the most accessible of its highlights, but I've only begun to explore its depths. Places like Three Finger Canyon and Black Dragon Wash, where hikers stumble across countless arches, will bring me back. I'm guessing that had Jedediah Smith been riding shotgun in my family car, he'd be begging me to bring him back too.

San Rafael Swell travel planner

The Swell is about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City; early October is one of the best times to travel here. Passenger sedans can negotiate most major gravel roads; high-clearance vehicles are best for getting to the Head of Sinbad area and Swasey's Cabin. Area code is 435 unless noted.

Before heading out

A good map is a must. Try San Rafael Swell ($9.95), a Trails Illustrated map published by National Geographic. For updates, stop by the Bureau of Land Management Price Field Office (closed Sun; 125 South 600 West, Price; 636-3600 or

The Castle Country Regional Information Center (open Mon-Sat; inside the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum, 155 E. Main St.; 637-5060) carries maps and guidebooks.

There are no services in the Swell: Pack plenty of water (at least 1 gallon per person per day) and food, a spare tire, and a full tank of gas. Do not park or camp in washes; sudden cloudbursts can cause flash floods. Be aware of flash flood warnings.


Museum of the San Rafael. This small museum offers primers on the Swell's geology and natural history. 10-4 Mon-Fri, 12-4 Sat; free. 64 North 100 East, Castle Dale; 381-5252.

Hiking and camping

Camping is allowed throughout the Swell. Fires must be made in established fire rings only.

Goblin Valley State Park. From milepost 137 on State 24, drive 12 miles southwest to the park. Camping in 21 sites (no RV hookups) with drinking water, showers, and restrooms. Reservations suggested. $4 day-use, $12 per night. 564-3633; reservations (800) 322-3770 or parks.

Little Wild Horse Canyon/Bell Canyon hike. Five miles west of Goblin Valley State Park. Watch for thunderstorms, as flash floods can trap you.

San Rafael Campground. The Swell's only official campground has 10 hot and dusty sites; there are picnic tables, fire rings, and chemical toilets but no water. $6 per night. 636-3600.


Area lodging is standard motel fare; for information contact the Castle Country Travel Region Office (800/842-0789 or

Best Western River Terrace. From $69. 880 E. Main St., Green River; 564-3401 or (800) 528-1234.

Greenwell Inn. Some rooms have jetted tubs and fireplaces. From $48. 655 E Main St., Price; 637-3520 or (800) 666-3520.

Village Inn. From $40. 375 E Main St., Castle Dale; 381-2309.
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Title Annotation:San Rafael Swell, Utah
Author:Repanshek, Kurt
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Previous Article:The Prize.
Next Article:Rockies resorts in fall.

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