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Canyon-exploring in Utah's San Rafael Swell.

Canyon-exploring in Utah's San Rafael Swell

If the San Rafael Swell were anywhere other than southeastern Utah, where aweinspiring landscapes are the norm, it would probably be a national park.

But it lacks such a lofty designation, so visitors bent on seeing nearby Canyon-lands, Arches, or Capitol Reef often overlook this little-known--and usually uncrowded --territory of carved washes and eroded sandstone.

The region is well worth a visit, either on its own or en route to Utah's other natural playgrounds--especially in the mild days of spring. Summer in this high-desert land (about 7,000-foot elevation) can be scorching, and the risk of flash floods from thunderstorms can make canyon exploration hazardous. But this time of year (and again in fall), you can visit just about anywhere in the Swell, either by car or mountain bike, canoe or kayak, on foot or horseback.

No matter how you tour the area, you should go equipped with good maps (see page 74), and stop by or call the Bureau of Land Management office in Price: 900 N. 700 East; (801) 637-4584. The BLM can supply the latest information on weather and road conditions, and tips on route planning.

Best ways to discover the Swell

Seen from the air, the San Rafael Swell is a kidney-shaped uplift, about 60 miles long and 30 miles wide, veined with canyons and flanked on the east by the San Rafael Reef, a sawtoothed rampart of uptilted sandstone exposed by 60 million years of erosion. Virtually all 1,000 square miles are public lands administered by the BLM.

Until Interstate 70 bisected the area in 1970, access was limited to unpaved and out-of-the-way dirt roads. The highway does provide quick access and good overlooks, but it doesn't let you fully appreciate the Swell, since many of its most captivating areas lie in deep canyons you can't see from the road.

By car: interstate to dirt roads

I-70 is still the only paved road in the Swell, but several nameless, well-graded dirt roads get you into the region--even without four-wheel drive, though such a vehicle certainly expands your range. Remember to carry plenty of water and extra fuel. (For more tips on desert driving, see page 108 of the March Sunset.)

To enter the Swell from Price, about a 2 1/2-hour drive southeast of Salt Lake City on State Highway 6, head southwest on State Highway 10 for about 13 miles. Turn south to Cleveland on State 155.

You can continue east 13 miles on the dirt road to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry (follow signs from Cleveland), where more than 12,000 dinosaur bones have been unearthed since digging began in 1931. Open 10 to 5 weekends after Easter, the BLM-managed quarry has a visitor center and picnic tables. Or drive southeast to the tip of Cedar Mountain, where picnic tables command a sweeping view down over buttes and canyons.

Head due south from Cleveland, and you'll drive into the heart of the Swell. From the Wedge Overlook, about 20 miles south, you can gaze down 1,000 feet into Little Grand Canyon; this chasm carved by the San Rafael River is diminutive only in relation to its better-known namesake.

Driving down Buckhorn Wash, you'll find a microcosm of the good, the bad, and the ugly: sheer sandstone walls and streamside cottonwoods, off-road vehicle tracks gouged in the canyon floor, and ancient Fremont Indian rock art blemished by graffiti and gunshot. (April visitors take note: thousands of ORV enthusiasts usually descend on the Swell during Easter weekend.)

For more driving tours, send for an excellent new brochure on the Swell; it's free from the Castle Country Travel Council, Box 1037, Price 84501.

By foot: follow the canyons' twists

Narrow canyons, cut by seasonal streams, breach the rampart-like San Rafael Reef on the Swell's eastern edge. Exploring almost any of them by foot can be entrancing, especially if you're accustomed to wide-open mountain hikes.

You'll find few established trails; instead, simply let your route follow the twists and turns of the canyon walls.

Bring plenty of water, as you're unlikely to find any along the way. Flash floods aren't likely this time of year, but be on the alert for thunderheads building near planned hiking routes. If you do see threatening clouds start to form, stay out of the canyons.

For help in locating canyon hikes, see Michael R. Kelsey's book Hiking Utah's San Rafael Swell (Kelsey Publishing Co., Springville, Utah, 1986; $7.95).

In a canoe: join a guided tour

For an intimate look at the Little Grand Canyon, you can join a 15-mile guided run down the San Rafael River in a canoe or kayak. Peak season usually lasts from mid-May to mid-June, when snowmelt fills the fairly gentle river. There's plenty of time to relax and take in views of imposing cliffs and Indian rock art, or take short hikes up side canyons.

Red Rock River Co., 2144 Highland Dr., Suite 150, Salt Lake City 84106; 484-9022. Two-day trip ($125 per person) includes equipment and meals.

Whitewater Sports, 3495 W. 8245 South, West Jordan 84088; 255-2295. Price varies depending on size of group, food arrangements, and transportation.

By horse: best for experienced riders

Nimble-footed horses can take you along rocky canyon rims and down into remote washes. Two outfitters offer horsepacking trips in the Swell this spring; because of the rugged terrain covered, these trips are best suited for experienced riders.

Canyon Rim Riders, Box 68, Orangeville 84537; 748-2448. Four-day trips ($500 per person) around Sid's Mountain area in northern part of the Swell. Covered wagon carries supplies. Also one-day rides ($125 per person). Groups of three or more get 30 percent discount.

Hondoo Rivers and Trails, Box 98, Torrey 84775; 425-3519. Five-day ride (wagon carries supplies) in southern part of the Swell ($450 per person), and a four-day ride with pack horses in northern half ($360). Call for details on May dates and charter trips any time.

Don't miss the goblin playground

For a look at fantastically eroded sandstone columns, visit Goblin Valley State Park, just southeast of the Reef. High buttes composed of layers of white and red sandstone surround the park; you can get a closer look on two short trails (1 1/2 and 2 miles). But the real attraction, particularly for children, is the valley of goblins, gargoyles, and other creatures that your imagination conjures up. A covered picnic area overlooks the magical scenery.

The park has the only developed camp-ground (18 sites), with rest rooms and showers, so it's a good overnight base for exploring the Swell and Reef. Overnight stays cost $8 per site; the day-use fee is $3 per vehicle.

To get there from I-70, take State 24 south 24 miles to the Goblin Valley turn-off. Drive west 5 miles; turn left at the sign for the park, which is 7 miles ahead.

Helpful maps

The Utah Travel Council (Council Hall, Capitol Hill, Salt Lake City 84114; 533-5681) has excellent new maps of the San Rafael Swell area--unfortunately divided in two. You'll need maps for northeastern and southeastern Utah ($2 each).

For canyon hiking or other activities that require more detail, you can use the 1:100,000 USGS maps for Huntington and San Rafael Desert. (Curiously, only the Huntington map covering the northern half of the Swell has contour lines.)

Protecting the Swell

This summer, the BLM plans to release its recommendations to Congress for designating wilderness areas on some of its Utah lands. The plans are expected to include a large portion of the spectacular Reef and adjacent lands.

However, critics who have seen draft recommendations say the BLM has omitted critical areas threatened by ORV use. Those vehicles, says George Nickas of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Wilderness Association, "are the biggest immediate threat to the San Rafael Swell."

At our press time, efforts to establish a San Rafael National Park were underway. Joe Bauman, one of the leading proponents of the park, has written an informative account of the Reef, drawing on many years of exploring its nooks and crannies. Called Stone House Lands (University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1987; $14.95), the book also includes good hiking suggestions.

Photo: Bike-toting van approaches bridge crossing San Rafael River. You'll find well-graded roads like this in the Swell; mountain bikes can negotiate more rutted routes

Photo: Interstate 70 allows quick access to Swell's interior from east or west; state highways encircling Swell offer alternative approaches

Photo: Peering into shady narrows, hikers explore water-worn slickrock in Little Wild Horse Canyon, just west of Goblin Valley State Park

Photo: Ancient Indian pictographs, like these in South Temple Wash (7 miles north of Goblin Valley, off State Highway 24), adorn rock walls throughout San Rafael Swell

Photo: Cleft in Reef lets I-70 pass from desert (in distance) to Swell. Family walked about 50 yards from highway rest area for this view

Photo: You can pitch your tent just about anywhere in the Swell (this site overlooks Little Grand Canyon), no permits required
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Date:Apr 1, 1988
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