One swell hike

San Rafael Swell the perfect hike to start the new year

Hiking below tall, sculpted sandstone walls, visitors to Black Dragon Canyon in the San Rafael Swell are treated to a land of untamed beauty and ruggedness, yet the trail along an old Jeep trail is gentle and forgiving.

A solitary hiker treks through Black Dragon Canyon in the San Rafael Swell, about 100 miles west of Grand Junction. The most pleasant times to be in the Swell are early spring and autumn, but frequent sunny winter days here provide a wonderful opportunity for a day trip. Go prepared, though, and dress warmly, as high canyon walls can blot out the sun, and lower temperatures quit dramatically.

Remnants of an old uranium mine claim can be seen along one of the spur roads in Black Dragon Canyon. The Cold War was a hot time in the San Rafael Swell, with 50,000 uranium mining claims filed here between 1950 and 1956. Use extreme caution around these old mines, though.  Radioactive radon gas, old, unstable explosives and hidden mine shafts can expose you to the leftover hazards of historic mining in this fascinating geological wonderland just west of Green River, Utah.

Numerous etchings at the Black Dragon Canyon Rock Art site suggest this was part of an ancient calendar system.


Black Dragon Canyon

Drive time and distance: 115 miles; 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Length: 6-plus miles in and out.

Hiking time: 3 to 4 hours.

Elevation: 1,325 meters (4,347 feet) to 1,650 meters (4,513 feet).

Difficulty: Generally easy along an old Jeep trail.

Seeking a new adventure to start the year, two hale and hearty Coloradans headed a hundred miles west for a hike through Black Dragon Canyon in the San Rafael Swell on January First.

The “Swell” is that massive geologic uplift you drive through on Interstate 70 as you travel past Green River, Utah, to anywhere further west. It is a huge anticline formed by pressure from beneath the earth’s surface more than 70 million years ago. Erosion from wind and water, and continual changes from below, have exposed the jagged, upturned Navajo sandstone and cut deep canyons that are ideal for an adventure.

Normally this area is best visited in the spring and fall, but it looked swell with its thin winter coat of snow. Stunning, in fact.

Although temperatures were as low as here in the valley, the sun shone brightly as it peaked in and out from above the soaring canyon walls towering overhead.

The trail head and mouth of Black Dragon, at an elevation of 1,325 meters (4,347 feet), is only 1.3 miles off the interstate, but don’t blink, or you’ll pass the turn. 

To reach this area, travel west on I-70 from Grand Junction to Green River, Utah. As you pass this garden spot of eastern Utah, you’ll be staring at and racing toward the massive formation of the Swell in front of you. After you pass the Price and Hanksville exits, you’ll also travel over the diminutive San Rafael River. Slow down because shortly thereafter, you’ll see mile marker 147. Pull off to the right-hand side of the highway here.

There is no exit at this spot, only a minor dirt road on the north side of the interstate. You’ll see a closed gate with a Bureau of Land Management sign behind it.

Drive through the gate, but make sure you close it behind you, then proceed about a mile along this dirt road until you see the Black Dragon Wash sign. Please note: There are some icy, bumpy spots along this way, so you may not want to drive the family Caddy here. 

Turn left (west) at the sign and follow this dirt track for about three-tenths of a mile to a sign that says “No Camping Within the Canyon.” Park here. You could drive further, but then you need to get out of the car anyway. The only one to have stretched at this point is the passenger who had to catch the gate.

Hike into the canyon for about 10 minutes, and you’ll spy a neat old wooden fence, constructed by the BLM to protect a really cool rock-art panel from any further degradation.

According to experts, numerous etchings at this site seem to suggest they were part of an ancient calendar system.

You can continue through this canyon for about three miles until you come to a fork. The left fork will take you up and toward the south, where you’ll find a couple of old mining sites.

Be careful. Don’t mess around with these mines. Besides the danger of being caught in a collapsing tunnel or falling into a hidden shaft, uranium mines can expose you to added hazards: heavy concentrations of radioactive radon gas and other odorless, undetectable gases known to accumulate at entrances and inside these mines; old, unstable explosives; rusty nails; you name it.

You see, the Cold War was a hot time in the Swell. Between 1950 and 1956, 50,000 uranium claims were filed with the Emory County (Utah) Recorder’s Office. Some folks got deeply rich. Most just got deep, rich sunburns.

Instead of hiking uphill toward the mines, you can stay in the main canyon. This eventually leads to a spectacular area known as the “Jackass Benches.” Local mountain bikers love this area, as do four-wheel-drive and all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts, who all share the roads in this area.

There’s also a spot to hike over toward lower Box Canyon (to the north) and the San Rafael River, then eventually back to your car if you’d like to make this a loop hike. 

Remember, however, you’re traveling in a high-elevation desert in the winter. It’s absolutely stunning right now, with the low angle of light, snow, rocks and shadows, but snow can cover rock cairns and tracks and hinder route finding. Also, it’s cold, and that loop is long (about 15 miles).

Some roads in the Swell have a clay base, which can become impassable for days when wet from rain or melting snow, so park and hike if you’re unsure.

That’s what the spur road up to the mine is like: impassable when wet. We trudged up on snow to get a few photos, then scooted back to the truck. 

We’d had our first adventure of 2014. 

It was swell!


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