OUT: PLAYING HOOKY IN SAN RAFAEL SWELL
“How was your hike?” asked Tamarie Smith, vet tech extraordinaire at Amigo Animal Clinic.
One of her bosses, Dr. Brian Wiseman, and I trekked into the San Rafael Swell the other day — in the middle of the week — while Tamarie and compatriots toiled away at the clinic.
“Great,” I replied, not wanting to rub it in.
“Where did you go?”
“Well, we’re not sure, but we had a great time!”
Tamarie laughed out loud, which she is prone to do, and that’s one reason Amigo is such a friendly vet clinic.
“You said you weren’t going to get him lost,” she said.
“We weren’t lost,” I replied. “We just didn’t know where we were, exactly.”
We didn’t know because I forgot the map. But as one of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll, once wrote: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
Actually, we found ourselves hiking over an expansive sagebrush bench devoid of sagebrush, then across Cliff Dweller Flat into Hyde Draw in the area known as The Central Swell.
Interstate 70 cuts through the middle of the San Rafael Swell here, and all trails in the Central Swell are accessible from I-70.
To get there, drive west on I-70 past Green River, Utah, to Exit 131. (Most maps show this as Exit 129, but it’s actually 131!) As you get off the highway, you’ll notice a Bureau of Land Management information kiosk with a map on it. From the map, you’ll discover that if you take the dirt frontage road on the north side of the highway (the side you’re on) and travel east for about three miles, you can find an underpass beneath I-70. It’s a narrow, one-lane cement tunnel, and there will be a couple BLM signs directing you to turn under the highway toward Cliff Dweller Flat and Hyde Draw.
Once through the underpass, a frontage road appears on the south side of the highway. At this point, Brian and I followed a dirt road forward, instead of turning left, or east, and following the frontage road directly into Cliff Dweller Flat, another four or five miles up the road.
The road less traveled — the one Brian and I followed — headed south into Red Draw. We pulled over in about 3.5 miles, since we were tired of the truck and ready for a hike.
As we exited the vehicle, Brian said, “Hey, are those wild burros?” Sure enough, in front of us to the east were three of them. Had we not seen them, we would have been baffled at the hoofprints we discovered throughout the area near the horse-pucky left on the ground.
Those prints sure didn’t belong to a horse. Way too small. They didn’t belong to the antelope we saw streaking in front of us only a mile back down the road.
No, they were the small round prints of wild burros. And, had we chosen to take the correct road toward Hyde Draw, we would never have known.
Brian and I trekked east and up one draw, then down and across the broad, expansive Cliff Dweller Flat before we reached a side canyon that led us into Hyde Draw. We couldn’t go much further because we’d spent all our time on the flat, but it was a gorgeous day and we’d discovered a new area of the San Rafael Swell to explore.
For those who enjoy the desert, the Swell is more than swell — it’s great. Of course, like most of the desert southwest, during the winter, spring and fall, the weather can be pleasant, and there are a wide variety of canyons to check out. During the summer, however, the sun is unrelenting. That’s the time to head back into the La Sal Mountains southeast of Moab, the Abajo Mountains further south toward Monticello, Utah, or the Henry Mountains near Lake Powell — all of which you can see from this viewpoint along the Swell.
According to BLM literature, the geologic history of the San Rafael Swell area began 40 to 60 million years ago when a massive uplift formed a geologic anticline.
This bulge in the earth’s crust eventually eroded to leave high mesas, deep canyons, domes, spectacular arches and spires. The terrain varies from the sheer cliffs and dazzling canyons to more gently carved badlands broken by shallow washes.
The BLM says that free roaming wild horses and burros inhabit the Swell. “Descended from animals left by early travelers and from those let loose with the coming of the automobile and mechanized farming, these horses and burros are protected by federal law and managed by BLM.”
We didn’t see the horses but we saw the burros, and we had a great hike, even if we didn’t know exactly where we were at the time.