Find rock art while exploring Utah canyon
GREEN RIVER, Utah — In its reluctance to yield to winter, autumn offers a mid-November perfect for scouting the Utah desert.
Even last weekend’s brief taste of cold and snow, which turned most desert roads into near-impassible muddy tracks, didn’t discourage desert wanderers intent on a day’s hike.
With the most of a short day at their disposal, several desert rats from Grand Junction recently bundled against the morning chill and headed west to Green River and the San Rafael Swell. With an eye on the weather, Black Dragon Canyon was chosen because of its proximity to Interstate 70, the easy-to-moderate difficulty of hiking and the intriguing panels of Barrier Canyon Style petroglyphs a half-mile or so up the canyon.
In spite of its particular renown, this historic Utah route usually is used lightly this late in the season. The hike up the canyon past the petroglyph panel is considered moderate, but since the road, which at times barely qualifies as one, spends much of its time in the bottom of the wash, there are a couple of places where you have to scramble up steep banks to continue moving forward.
It’s typical of all routes through the San Rafael Swell, which was one of the last places in the United States to be surveyed because of its isolation and difficult terrain.
The walking isn’t difficult, but it can be a test for novice and intermediate mountain bikers and ATV drivers. We encountered two bikers during the hike and in the steeper sections they weren’t moving any faster than the hikers.
Loose rocks, sand and watermelon-sized boulders through this thick layer of Triassic geology (the San Rafael Swell is on the western, upward edge of an anticline) make biking tricky and just technical enough to be challenging.
“On most rides I usually think I work on the climb in and get to coast on the way out,” said the lead biker, taking a minute to drink some water and look back at his partner. “But I have a feeling I’m going to have to work both ways on this ride.”
The ride also can be done as a 16-mile point-to-point ride starting west of the San Rafael Swell near the rock formation called Head of Sinbad north of Interstate 70. The route, which cuts through the anticline on dirt roads and two-tracks, is all downhill and drops 1,000 feet and 50 million years of geologic time by the end of the canyon.
Hiking in from the bottom is an easy half-mile or so jaunt from the cottonwood-shaded mouth of the canyon to the log barrier keeping cattle away from petroglyph panels.
You’ll find plenty to intrigue you, including several 8-foot-high Barrier Canyon Style figures appearing to stand guard over the nearby contemporaneous but different style of the Black Dragon, whose figure (which really is red) shows the effects of being exposed to centuries of wind and rain.
All the figures in the panels have been disfigured with white chalk, probably outlined by someone trying to make the figures stand out for a better photograph. Vandalism is vandalism, and the outlines detract from the shape and impact of the figures.
The canyon, indeed the entire 70-mile-long San Rafael Swell, offers much to explore in addition to the rock art.
The area has a fascinating history of settlement and mineral exploration, and you’ll find in your investigations many historic references to the Swell as a “peculiar scrap pile of minerals.”
Remnants of early exploration still are found in the narrow canyons that cut through the Swell. You’ll find rusted parts of early trucks and automobiles, abandoned pipelines, forgotten gold mining equipment, oil derricks and other fast-disappearing ruins from the uranium and oil booms that have swept across the San Rafael Swell since the late 1800s.
Even today, rockhounds seek out petrified wood, which is common in many parts of the San Rafael Swell and once considered by prospectors as indicative of uranium deposits.
According to the local history, prospectors in the early 1900s talked about finding entire tree trunks petrified after uranium-carrying waters soaked into the wood.
Early prospectors used these petrified trees as mining markers in the days before Geiger counters. Later, during the Cold War uranium boom of the 1950s, the federal government offered uranium prospectors a $10,000 bonus for finding and mining high grade ore.
Rock formations in the area carry attention-grabbing names such as Joe and his Dog, Sid’s Leap and Charlie’s Arch. Most of the formations along the San Rafael Swell were named by and for the Swasey Brothers — Charley, Sid, Rod and Joe — early ranchers and homesteaders on the Swell starting in the 1870s.
Interstate 70 bisects the shadow-trapping gorge of Eagle Canyon, which legend says was named when Rod and Joe were riding through the canyon from the Head of Sinbad. History recounts that Rod said, “Hell, Joe, this canyon is so deep not even an eagle could fly out of here.”
Eagles might find it hard to escape, but desert rats are eager to ferret out the curious secrets of the San Rafael Swell.