THE SWELL LIFE
“You may not share my point of view, or see the world the way I do, I hope it doesn’t matter much to you.”
— Raul Malo, Sinners and Saints, 2010
From my point of view, the San Rafael Swell is, well, swell.
The swell is a large geologic anticline, a huge dome formed by pressure from underneath the earth’s surface, and it’s located just west of Green River, Utah, about 100 miles west of here.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, “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.”
It’s a swell place to recreate for all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts, from motorized backcountry users to mountain bikers and horseback riders, from geology, archeology and history buffs to hikers, climbers, painters and photographers. It’s especially swell now because it’s not too hot, not too windy, not too cold.
Of course, a trip last week discovered it’s a bit early for the desert wildflowers to show their colors. Nonetheless, the painted walls of the canyons within this magnificent swell showed a kaleidoscopic array of colors throughout the day, throughout the week.
The 600,000-acre San Rafael Swell is roughly 50 miles in length and 30 miles in width. There are plenty of places to get lost, partly because there is only one paved road through it: Interstate 70. The east-west highway carries traffic directly through the center of the swell, bisecting it into northern and southern halves.
Cut in two, there are still plenty of places to get lost.
Buckhorn Wash in the northern half of the San Rafael Swell is accessed by a graded dirt road passable for most vehicles, and it takes visitors through a fairly narrow, winding canyon bordered on both sides by high, rugged, colorful sandstone cliffs.
You’ll also find the San Rafael River running through an area known as The Little Grand Canyon in this northern half of the swell.
There are other cool places, such as Black Dragon Canyon, Cane Wash, Upper and Lower Black Boxes, and North and South Coal Wash. Many of these sites are accessible by most two-wheel drive vehicles, and they’re all drop-dead gorgeous.
Be forewarned, many roads within the swell cross soil types that are extremely muddy after storms. These roads may become impassable, so check a long-range weather forecast before traveling here.
The southern half of the swell is just as spectacular as the northern half, especially the winding, narrow slot canyons on the extreme southeastern edge of the San Rafael Swell (my point of view).
Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons are the most famous slot canyons here, and they were visited heavily last week. About a mile past these canyons lies Ding and Dang Canyons. Although not as dramatic, these twisting canyons are not as heavily visited by tourists with dogs, kids and cameras.
This Southern half of the swell also includes some incredible trekking through Crack Canyon, Chute Canyon, Eardley Canyon and a ton of others.
There is rich history throughout this swell. Ranchers and sheepmen were the first to find the petrified bones of dinosaurs and carnivores that had been trapped in the mud of a freshwater lake nearly 150 million years ago. Today, many of those bones can be viewed at the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, a National Natural Landmark located in the northern section. Since 1928, excavations here have uncovered more than 12,000 bones of at least 70 different animals.
The San Rafael Swell also contains evidence of prehistoric peoples who occupied the area between 11,000 B.C. and 1250 A.D. Fascinating examples of their rock art can be seen at the Rochester/Muddy Panel.
The history of the Cold War is written throughout the San Rafael Swell. Uranium and radium exploration and mining at Temple Mountain started as early as 1898. Uranium exploration and mining intensified after World War II, and the remnants of these mines are visible today.
Exercise extreme caution when exploring around old mines. Besides the danger of being caught in a collapsing tunnel or falling into a hidden shaft, uranium mines pose an additional hazard. Heavy concentrations of radioactive radon gas are known to accumulate at the entrances to mines in this area.
You can find excellent maps and good information about the swell by going to the BLM’s website.
To reach the Ding and Dang Canyons Trail Head, take I-70 west from Grand Junction. Travel past Green River and turn off the interstate onto Utah Highway 24. Go south toward Hanksville for 29.6 miles from the interstate. Turn right, or west, and follow the signs to Goblin Valley State Park.
In about five miles, turn left and continue following the Goblin Valley signs. Just before you reach Goblin Valley State Park, turn right on Little Wild Horse Canyon Road. Travel 5.4 miles until you come to the parking area and trail head for Little Wild Horse. The road is paved to this point. Stay on the main dirt road for another 1.2 miles to the Ding and Dang Canyons Trail Head.
It may not be as popular as Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons, but in my point of view, it’s pretty swell.