Buckhorn Wash shows amazing sculpting powers of wind, water

A mad dash to Salt Lake City last week created an excuse to check out pictographs, petroglyphs and hanging bridges in the San Rafael Swell. On our way home from the city by the salt, John and Maddie Toolen and I took a detour outside Price, Utah, and headed southwest toward Huntington State Park, where we spent the night.

This grassy, 237-acre state park looks a lot like Highline Lake State Park here in Colorado, and offers boating, swimming and fishing. The park is located just outside Huntington on Utah
State Route 10 at the base of the Wasatch Plateau. (The metropolis of Huntington, pop. 3,121 according to the 2000 U.S. Census, is the largest town in Emery County.)

The next morning we headed southeast, turning south (left) out of Huntington (follow the BLM Public Access signs) to Buckhorn Wash all the way to Interstate 70 near Exit 131, cutting through the northern San Rafael Swell.

Great drive! The swell is dramatic. Slot canyons, mesas, pinnacles and arches are testament to the sculpting powers of wind and water, but the swell itself is remnant of a huge stone dome, uplifted 60 million years ago by internal pressures within the earth’s crust.

This is a well-maintained dirt road, but it could become impassable depending on the weather. In fact, all canyons in the Swell are susceptible to flash floods. The skies may be clear above you, but a cloud-burst upstream can turn a seemingly dry canyon wash into a muddy mess in very short order.

Don’t park your vehicle or camp in washes. Seek higher ground, but don’t worry too much.

This is dry, high-altitude desert, so this road is usually passable and as long as you check the weather forecasts before you come, you should be fine.

John had always wanted to see the old hanging bridge across the San Rafael River, and I’d wanted to see the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. Maddie was just lucky enough to come along for the ride. Like most teenagers, she really, really, really wanted to hang out with her dad and some old buddy of his all weekend long. Lucky girl!

Here are directions to the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. You’ll cross the San Rafael River on the way, so you’ll also get to see the old bridge, even though you can’t drive across it anymore:

Take Interstate 70 west from Grand Junction past Green River, Utah, to Exit 131. It’s about 130.6 miles from 4th and Main in downtown GJ.

Exit 131 is an old Ranch Exit. As you turn off the highway, you’ll find a Bureau of Land

Management recreation kiosk and map. You’ll want to head back east along the frontage road on the north side of the interstate for 3.5 miles until you come to the Hyde Draw turn.

Don’t turn here. That turn takes you back under I-70 to the south side of the highway. You’ll want to veer to the north and travel 15.8 miles to the San Rafael Bridge Recreation Site and campground.

At this point, you’ll spy the famous old hanging bridge, but don’t think Royal Gorge here. There are numerous creeks throughout the United States at least as large as this, that aren’t even named. The “river” here is, shall we say, diminutive.

Continue on this road another 3.5 miles to the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. Thanks to the Emery County Centennial Committee, BLM, Utah State Centennial Commission and numerous volunteers, it’s one of the most impressive panels of Indian Rock Art in the entire area.

These groups and individuals spent thousands of hours and dollars cleaning up the vandalism that once adorned these rock panels.

Several artists in two cultures separated by 1,000 years apparently created this rock art.

People of the Barrier Canyon Culture painted figures called pictographs at least 2,000 years ago.

People of the Fremont Culture pecked figures called petroglyphs into the rock face about 1,000 years ago. 

Who knows what all that rock art means, but those folks in Emery County did a great job of explaining as much as possible with a number of impressive interpretive displays.

Although we did not have the time to take a long hike, there are numerous canyons to explore in this area — some very long, some very short.

Local reader Richard Rininger traveled through the same area in mid-June and found an impressive dinosaur track only a few miles north of the pictograph panel. The trail head for Calf, Cow and Pine Canyons is located only a couple of miles south of the panel.

The best map of the area that I’ve found is the National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Map of the San Rafael Swell. You can get it at local sporting goods stores, or go to http://www.trailsillustrated.com.


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