Stars at Noon

The San Rafael Swell 'National Monument'

My brother ruined his camera in the Chute of Muddy Creek.

Charge was doing exactly what I told him not to - he was hiking with his camera essentially around his neck. We were deep into the chute, a labyrinthine sunless canyon as wide as a Suburban and filled waist deep with swiftly moving muddy water. He stepped into a hole, momentarily the water rose to his chest, and the camera never worked again.

Charge was upset, of course, and even I was peeved at him, peeved in the way perhaps an older brother is condemned to be. But later I thought, think of it not as an expensive misstep - think of it as a cheap lesson in the awesome power of the chute, of the San Rafael Swell that embraces it.

Muddy Creek slices through the San Rafael Swell (Utahns curiously pronounced 'Rafael' like 'Ra-fell') on its journey from the Wasatch Plateau to the Colorado River; near Hanksville, where the river meets the Fremont, which flows out of Capitol Reef, the much larger stream is called the Dirty Devil.

The Swell itself is a massive uplifted dome of striated rock that stretches over millions of acres roughly from Castle Dale on the north to Capitol Reef National Park on the south, and from the base of the Wasatch Plateau on the west to near the town of Green River on the east. Remote and utterly wild, the area has no towns and only a handful of permanent residents, and just one paved road penetrates the area - Interstate 70, which cuts through the Swell dramatically on the east, and descends its ramparts across an unbelievable landscape to the west.

The area was formed tens of millions of years ago first as thick overlaid layers of colorful sandstone sediment. The earth beneath the layers then swelled up into a massive dome, which eventually collapsed and eroded, leaving today's serpentine array of canyons, minarets, towers, hoodoos, goblins and various sundry geological formations. Today, adjacent layers of Navajo, Kayenta, Wingate, Chinle, Moenkopi, Sinbad, and Coconino sandstone entice the traveler with their striated colors.

Traveling west to east on I-70 across the Swell, drivers first encounter unending miles of the western face of the dome. Then the country levels off and begins to break away to the left and right of the road in a series of deep, largely inaccessible canyons. Over the top of the Swell, the freeway winds through Spotted Wolf Canyon in an unforgettable twist. Exiting the Swell, look back at the San Rafael Reef, the multi-colored mount of layered sandstone that arcs against the sky at odd angles. Canyons like Spotted Wolf pierce the Reef to the north and south as far as you can see.

Remote though it may be, the Swell is heavily visited during weekends in the spring and summer, and many of the campgrounds and easily accessed canyons and buttes are suffering from overuse and abuse by hikers, campers and especially off-road vehicles. Much of the area is only three hours from Salt Lake City, making it an easy stop-off on the way to points in Utah further south and east, or as a destination for those short on drive time.

What these pressures mean is that the area is at a sort of crossroads. The current land manager, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, does not have the resources nor the political independence to do the job it needs to do, and is caught between a vigorous battle from wilderness-loving environmentalists on the one side and wilderness-wary motorized vehicle enthusiasts on the other. Local, state and federal politicians have worked for years to craft a workable solution - most recently, that was a 'natural conservation area' proposal for the Swell which would protect some wilderness areas but designate other areas for mining and drilling.

Reflecting that diaspora, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt last Monday, in his State of the State address, said he would within weeks suggest to President Bush that he use his executive Antiquities Act powers to designate 620,000 acres of the Swell as a national monument. The suggestion was largely met with enthusiastic support. I was in the Capitol building that night, and when he mentioned the monument proposal lawmakers and spectators alike broke into applause.

For me, the idea of a national monument here is a quixotic one. I recognize the damage and difficulties in management here, but not yet am I ready to exit I-70 and see a visitor center.

I discovered the area about 10 years ago, when I was 21 and back from a two-month backcountry ski trip to Alaska. I was not fitting back into civilization well, and depressed, and one May weekend, acting on a tip from a friend, I drove south from Salt Lake City with my then-dog Lex, and got off the interstate at an anonymous exit - actually, it just said 'Ranch Exit.' I believe it was Exit 129, and south of the freeway, on a dirt road red from the sandstone, I watched unbelievably as the land around me sank into canyon that seemed like it was the belly of the Earth. I was hypnotized. Since that weekend I have been back to the Swell innumerable times, getting to know much of the area very well. Back in September, Laura and Porter and I went down to a party in the Swell to celebrate my friend Steve's birthday. Steve is an old roommate who several years ago painstakingly showed me remote and wild parts of the Swell I simply never would have found on my own. At his gala we ate well, partied at night, and spent the days combing through a handful of the thousands of canyons that mark the Swell, some of them wide and grand, others so deep and narrow and dark that locals say you can see the stars at noon. I was going to post this story back in the fall, but then I held it to focus on Olympics coverage; with Leavitt's announcement last week I thought this was a good time to introduce you to the San Rafael Swell.

In September, with a group of Steve's friends, we hiked from the Hidden Splendor Mine south towards the inside face of the Reef - a towering sandstone expanse of cliffs. We hiked along the Reef up to a pass where we could look over a huge slice of the Swell and points beyond, then descended the pass and entered Cistern Canyon, a narrowing canyon with springs at the head and walls at times only a yard or two wide. Towards the mouth of the canyon huge boulders block the way; we scrambled under these then watched as the canyon opened up - we were on the outside of the Reef.

From here the going got tough. No trail, few discernable landmarks, and no signs to mark the way. We floundered up sand dunes and breakaway hills to find Ramp Canyon, the way back into the Reef and our campsite. The opening of the canyon proved to be an elusive enigma - it was next to impossible to spot among the crumbling heights of the Reef, and more than once we stumbled into a promising-looking canyon only to find that it ended abruptly in a box canyon. Tired and nearly out of water, we found the entrance to Ramp Canyon as shadows lengthened across the desert - it began as a waist-deep cut in the rock that grew precipitously with each turn; we knew we were in the right canyon when the walls of each side sloped 45 degrees to our right, creating an unusual overhand that jibed with a trail description we had. But more difficulties ahead - a waist deep pool of water at the base of a 7-foot high dry fall; a twisting canyon floor at times no wider than our shoes, and a sloping 45-degree rock face that required a rope belay for safe passage. Limping and dehydrated, we made it back to camp at sunfall.

I've had scores of such experiences in the Swell, and the difficulty of the journey is always more than tempered by the wonder of discovery and the sense of power in the planet. Like the best of Utah's landscapes, it is both beautiful and frightening, and the hard-fought rewards it offers are a measured both in parched tongues/scraped shins and the immeasurable weight of the realization that the world indeed still has such wild and charming spots.

And there ain't no visitors centers, and there are practically no trails, and there are no tourist hotels, and there are really no paved roads, and the area is still open to a sort of exploration for understanding by our time. Will monument status change that?

After the camera was deemed unfixable, Charge (yes, that's his name, and yes, I gave it to him at birth) put it away and committed the Chute to memory. It was not an altogether pleasant one, though I say that with some reserve. He and I and my friend Staci, and my dog and her two dogs, had set out in the canyon on a June Saturday morning during the end of the runoff season. We had a car at the entrance to the canyon, and another cached at the exit of the canyon, and we knew that in between lay about 15 miles of down-river hiking. We had sleeping bags and excellent gear and provisions for three days, but were perhaps unprepared for the way the canyon enveloped us, enveloped us without a trace; that's a bad way to put it: what I mean is that in the canyon there is no way to gauge your progress. Until we popped out of the canyon and saw Charge's truck, we had no idea where we were.

On Saturday we hiked into the river and into the canyon, which narrowed gradually. We hiked nearly the entire day, stopping briefly for lunch, and stopped at the only sandy beach area we found that offered protection in the event of a flash flood. I figured we had maybe five hours of hiking left. Early in the morning we pulled on our still-wet boots and hiked back into the river.

But it wasn't five more hours. Around the corner from our campsite the canyon narrowed even further, and the current picked up, and Porter struggled to stay afloat. He would find a sandbar to rest on, and as we walked past him he would jump into the river, be carried past us, and then turn around, paddling desperately toward us. Eventually Staci's dog Biggie, who is big, would float downriver from Porter, who would rest against him instead of being carried even further downstream. When we emerged at Charge's truck nearly eight hours after we started the hike that morning I felt as though we had been changed irrefutably. I had.

This most recent time in the Swell, at Steve's birthday party weekend, Laura and I left the group Sunday and drove east into the rapidly warming morning. We drove out of the Swell, through the Reef, down the Temple Mountain Road, over by but not through the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park, then along the hoodooed side of Wild Horse Mesa to the now well-marked mouth of Little Wild Horse Canyon. Little Wild Horse is one of the greatest hikes in Utah, accessible to folks of all ages and a surprising level of physical fitness. It leads into a sumptuously rounded slot that reaches again back into the Swell. A few winters ago I took my parents into Little Wild Horse - my mom'll probably tell you now it nearly killed her, and my dad'll say it was not the greatest afternoon of his life. But they followed the canyon through its serpentine curves and shoulder-wide staircase curves until deep ice-covered plunge pools blocked the way. I followed them out and helped mom down a ledge she had scrambled up but couldn't get off of. In September Laura and I hiked the canyon end to end, with Porter on a leash, and I could not help but notice that it seemed the canyon had more people in it than I'd ever seen. That's the ultimate price of beauty, I suppose: popularity. The late, great Utah writer Edward Abbey once quipped that a pretty woman is constantly under siege. Perhaps it's the same for a pretty canyon. Maybe a monument status really is best for this land. Deep in the canyon, deep at its deepest, darkest point, I looked up like I always do but could not see the stars at noon.

Some Other Things

* National Geographic profiled Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front this month in preparation of the Olympics. Check out the story for an in-depth and original look at the valley.

* Just five days out from the Opening Ceremonies and things are definitely in high gear in Salt Lake City. Much of downtown is roped or blocked off, police are everywhere, jets are circling the city, Olympic visitors are out in force, the Athletes Village is open, and massive banners hang from the sides of the city's tallest buildings. It's quite a sight.

Check out this week's San Rafael Swell photo gallery.

Jeff's Bio

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