Get Lost in the Middle of Utah

San Rafael Swell

Jake Wilhelmsen | Photos by Ethan Kiernan Jul 9, 2018

No place wants to admit that most of its charms can be enjoyed in a day. And maybe that’s not the ideal scenario but doable. You can do enough in 24 hours to say you’ve seen New York or Madrid. Forty-five minutes is more than enough to check Niagara Falls off your list.

But Utah’s San Rafael Swell is too big and wild to be effectively summed up in a one-day itinerary. There are too many sites and too many ways to see them — on foot, bike, horseback, off-road vehicle or in a kayak — and, frankly, it can be tricky to move between them all.

“It’s more remote than people think,” says Jonathan Hunt, park manager with Utah State Parks. “There aren’t very many marked trailheads and publicized areas. It’s big enough that you need to know where you’re going. If you’re looking for somewhere to come for a few hours, this is probably not the spot.”

That’s just the draw for people like Eugene Swalberg, public affairs coordinator at Utah State Parks. “You can still see wild burros in the Swell. And wild horses. It still has a rugged feel.”

So don’t plan on doing the Swell in a day — not even a long July day. On the other hand, if that’s all the time you have, you can squeeze in a lot of fun. What follows is one way, out of a thousand, to spend 18 hours in San Rafael country. And if you’re the type for whom being off the grid feels like freedom rather than agoraphobia, you’ll be back for more.

small cabin below rock cliffs
Swasey's Cabin
a dinosaur footprint circled by rocks
Dinosaur track
an old wooden well in the desert
Eagle Canyon Well

What Makes It So Swell?

First, some context. In geologic terms, the San Rafael Swell is an anticline — a dome of sedimentary rock pushed up from below. It took 20 million years to form; and the San Rafael River and occasional flash floods have spent the last 40 million years laying bare its colorful layers of sandstone, limestone and shale. Much of the landscape resembles what you find in Moab, though San Rafael’s geology skews more white-to-yellow than Moab’s orange-to-pink.

The Swell is essentially all of Emery County, just southeast of Utah’s center. It is bordered by Huntington State Park to the north, Millsite State Park to the west, Goblin Valley State Park to the south and Green River State Park to the east — all nice places to stay if you want some creature comforts.

Interstate 70 traverses the Swell horizontally. Just about all the other roads are dirt or gravel, cut for uranium mining 70 years ago and winding around where the landforms permit. There are no towns in the heart of the Swell, so gas up in Emery, Castle Dale or Green River.

sunrise over spectacular desert canyon
The Wedge at sunrise

Living on the Wedge

A decent way to start your day is rolling out of a sleeping bag to watch the sunrise at the Wedge Overlook, aka Little Grand Canyon. Eat breakfast with horned larks swooping past your 300-degree view of cliff walls turning purple, then brown, then red, orange, pink and white.

Multiple canyons converge below the Wedge, giving you a sense of what you’ll be dipping in and out of all day. You can hike and bike along the rim or find access points to do some free-form exploring.

large stone arch in the desert
Eagle Canyon Arch
twin bridges between rock walls
Eagle Canyon Bridges
ancient pictographs on red stone wall
Buckhorn Pictograph

Dinos, Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Another big draw at the Swell is the evidence of the area’s previous inhabitants. Its remoteness helps preserve some of these artifacts and makes them all the more special when encountered.

Way, way back when dinosaurs tramped around Utah they were nice enough to leave some footprints. As you head from the Wedge toward Buckhorn Wash, keep your eye out for one of these — preserved in stone. It’s located on the left after you enter Buckhorn Draw. (The world-famous Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is also in the Swell near Huntington.)

Ten minutes and 100 million years down the road from the footprint is the Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel with both petroglyphs and pictographs (pictographs are painted onto rock while petroglyphs are pecked into the surface). But it’s the life-size red figures painted more than 2,000 years ago by the Barrier Canyon culture that are most arresting. This and the Rochester Panel near Emery are the most famous rock art sites in San Rafael, with hundreds more created by the Barrier Canyon, Fremont and Ute Native Americans scattered throughout the area. 

rock formations in the desert
Goblin Valley
red canyon walls and rocks
Little Wild Horse Canyon
River running with mountainous cliffs in background
San Rafael River
tree growing between two rocks in a desert canyon
Eagle Canyon

In the Saddle

Up next, if you have the time, inclination and wherewithal, jump on your off-highway vehicle of choice. “The ATV trails are fantastic,” Hunt says. “Riding in the desert, you kind of feel like Indiana Jones.” Eagle Canyon, near Secret Mesa, is a great spot to start. It alternates between rocky climbs and smooth dirt roads as you pass under Interstate 70, with semis rumbling 100 feet overhead, and then ride past Eagle Canyon Arch and Swasey’s Cabin.

See also Behind the Reef Road, Temple Mountain, Fix-It Pass and Devil’s Racetrack. That last one, as you might guess, isn’t for first-timers.

Hoofin' It

“If people want to do hiking,” Swalberg says, “I send them down south to Little Wild Horse and Goblin.” Little Wild Horse Canyon is one in a series of slot canyons through San Rafael Reef just north of Goblin Valley. If you’re up for 7.8 miles you can hike up Little Wild Horse, loop around and come down Bell Canyon. But it’s still fun if you just go up a mile or two and turn around.

Crack Canyon is also fun and family friendly but a little harder to access via Chute Canyon Road on the north side of San Rafael Reef. For those who want something a bit more challenging than Little Wild Horse but still don’t want to get into ropes and harnesses, Swalberg recommends Ding and Dang, five minutes west of the Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon trailhead.

And Goblin Valley, maybe the most famous place in the unsung San Rafael Swell, is one of those spots that’s just perfectly weird — somehow both totally bizarre and impossible not to love, like jalapeño jelly or Christopher Walken. Thousands of red rock hoodoos rise from a flat valley floor like a bunch of mud monsters playing freeze tag. There are no marked trails and you’re free to climb and explore any way you want. There is a trail that leads behind the bluff that backdrops Goblin Valley to Goblin’s Lair, a cave-like structure where light filters eerily through a few holes in the roof. It feels a bit like a collapsing Gothic cathedral, so claustrophobes should probably stick to hoodoo hide-and-seek.

After all that, or whatever else you choose to do with your day in the Swell, bed down somewhere wild and quiet, where the sky is dark enough to light up the stars and think about whether or not you want to tell anyone about your new favorite secret place.

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