A Swell Time
Spotted Wolf Canyon. Head of Sinbad. Old Woman Wash. Little Ocean Draw. The names of the features of the San Rafael Swell are as varied and interesting as the terrain. From towering red rock walls, mesas, wind-weathered buttes, plateaus of grassland and deep slot canyons, the two thousand square miles of some of wildest and emptiest country in the lower 48 is a diverse and stunning display of nature.
This last weekend saw Chad and I, and friends Pete Harris and Holly Malone, set up camp to explore this remote and lightly traveled area. Of course two days doesn’t even begin to make a dent but did give us a good flavor of this very special place. As we drove across vast grasslands to the start of our hike, we felt as though we were on safari. Pronghorn antelope darted across the double track in front of our vehicle while in the distance a herd of wild horses galloped playfully, swooping up and down the sides of a hill. At the end of our safari treat we parked the truck and began our hike across the pristine landscape, following narrow trails forged only by the local inhabitants of the four-legged kind.
The only evidence of man was a few rusted cans under a pinyon tree - an old cowboy camp. Headed to a remote slot canyon we relied on map and GPS to navigate our way through a series of draws cutting through grasslands dotted with pinyon and sagebrush. Refreshed by the overnight rains the earthy smell of sagebrush wafted around as we made our way downwards into a gravelly floored canyon. Gradually the canyon walls closed in and after three miles of hiking we arrived at the narrows.
As the slot twisted and dropped its way through the rock, we slithered through, contorting our bodies to follow the shape of the earth. At times we removed packs passing them along the line as we squeezed through a really tight spot. The previous night’s downpour had collected in deep pools requiring cold wading.
As we moved slowly into the bowels of the canyon we cast our eyes to the ever shrinking slice of sky above. This particular canyon has a large catchment area and is highly susceptible to flash floods. As we noticed clouds building we began to question our continuing on. To complete our planned loop would require another 2 hours in the slot and several rapels from which it would be impossible to return. There were also many unknowns ahead - perhaps deep pools requiring swimming or a chockstone or debris blocking our way. In the face of a potential storm we quickly came to a conclusion: although it is a lovely place to visit, none of us wanted to be flushed into Lake Powell. It was time to backtrack.
Having climbed upstream and exited the narrows we stopped for lunch and dryed off our feet and clothes. We slowly made our way back, taking time to investigate every nook and cranny along the way, experiencing the beautiful land of the San Rafael Swell to its fullest. As we hiked up the draw we were rewarded with a close encounter with a beautiful mare and her foal. Although they wouldn’t let us get too close they were quite inquisitive and followed us for a while.
Further along we found more evidence of sheepherders or cowboys - a very old cairn, spotted with lichen and moss, standing sentinel over the valley below.
Even the drive back along the interstate is so spectacular it blows the mind. Here the road cuts through the 'reef' at Spotted Wolf Canyon as it heads back east, less than two hours from Grand Junction.