If you’ve ever driven on Highway 191 and had the pleasure to gaze out the window to the west, the San Rafael Swell is that jagged jaw of toothsome rocks jutting out of the desert at odd angles like your senile dog’s overbite. To the south is Goblin Valley and to the north is Cedar Mountain and in the middle is a big mess of sandstone gorges, mesas, and valleys. A big, wonderful hikeable mess.
A short geologic history: The swell is a kidney bean-shaped section of uplifted, eroded sandstone in south-central Utah. A while ago, the earth started going through changes. It got moody and certain areas grew faster than others. There were weird smells. The Swell popped up like a boil. Nature did its thing and water eroded through sandstone layers all the way down to the Coconino Formation. The slot canyons left behind reveal the earth’s journey through puberty.
Driving there on the I-70 you might want to pay attention to the road signs. They don’t lie; there really, truly are no services for 106 miles. No bathrooms, water or honey-mustard gas-station pretzels. The Swell is not a state or a national park and does not provide luxuries like water and shade and paved roads. It is rugged and remote and unsparing in its opinion of you. But that’s what makes this place special. You’re on your own, bud.
Before you head into the Swell you can pit-stop in towns like Huntington, Castledale or Ferron on the west side of Green River on the east. You will need water, a full tank of gas and at least one spare tire. Practice accepting the fact you will have no cell service. Close all of your apps, even the one about hiking without apps: You’re going to the Swell.
Did you know that Utah has its own (little) Grand Canyon? It’s true! And what does every (little) Grand Canyon need? No, not a uranium mine. A rim trail. It needs a rim trail to see the heroic San Rafael river cutting through all that uplifted sandstone.
The trail follows the canyon edge in and out of sage-brush for about 15 miles. But don’t be scared. You can walk (or bike!) as far as you want and head back, or park a shuttle car down the trail at one of the campsites. It’s a fairly flat walk over some sandstone slabs with a few
dips here and there, and of course excellent views for the duration.
A wonderful thing about hiking the Swell is all the scenic driving you get to do before you even start. The trail is located in the northwestern section of the Swell, near Buckhorn Wash, and is best accessed through Huntington via Price. Make your way to Wedge Road (405) and park at the Wedge Overlook. There is very little shade on this trail, and it is not recommended in the blazing heat of summer.
Certainly, the most adorably named canyon in Utah, Little Wild Horse slot canyon is great for all the young fillies and colts in your life. Kids love the bizarro striations of the sandstone walls and parents love the fact that kids can run free without getting lost. But just to be sure, tag their ears so you know who belongs to whom. Hike as far as your little ones want to go then head back, or hike Bell Canyon as well and make it a loop. This is a non-technical slot canyon, meaning you don’t need ropes and wetsuits, but there is some scrambling and sometimes standing water to tread through. The trail is mostly shaded by the canyon walls so it makes a great hike for the summer but a bit chilly in winter. As always, never enter a slot canyon if rain is in the fore-cast. Flash floods happen so fast even wild horses can’t outrun them.
To get there, make like you’re going to Goblin Valley State Park, but then don’t. The turnoff is two miles before the fee station.
The name of this hike really says it all. Muddy Creek flows through a canyon that narrows enough to trap logs 25 feet overhead from some tidal wave of a flash flood. But never fear, the creek is usually mild and muddy, like walking for miles through cold chocolate milk. The hope is the water never gets above your knees but we can make no promises about that. Bring a dry pair of underwear, or no underwear at all! You’re in the middle of nowhere, USA, walking 15 miles through a silty stream. Do what you want!
Speaking of doing what you want, you don’t have to hike the whole thing. Go in a few miles, till your pants get soaked, then head back the way you came. Or shuttle a car to the bottom and go for gold… errr muddy brown.
Spring is going to be high water, and might involve swimming. Summer is the most comfortable for air and water temps, but bring some bug spray. Early fall: Yes! Late fall and winter: No, unless you enjoy walking on frozen stumps that were once feet.
Just down the street from Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons are Ding and Dang Canyons (originally named Shit and Damn Canyons before the Mormons got hold of them*). Far more adventurous than their popular neighbors up the road, Ding and Dang require a 50-foot rope and some canyoneering experience. The best route is to take a right from the fork into Ding, up and around to Ding Dang Dome and then down Dang. Just remember: up Ding to Ding Dang Dome then down Dang. Updingdingdangdomedowndang.
Dang sometimes has standing water to wade through, darn it, which can be chilly in the summer and deadly in the winter.
View of the red rock formations in San Rafael Swell with blue sky and clouds
Petroglyphs! Pictographs! Lots of ’em in the Swell. One intriguingly titled example is the Black Dragon Panel, a “winged creature” painted in red ochre. Some think it looks like a pterodactyl but it’s actually a grouping of four different images that weathered suggestively. Sorry, dino-philes.
Fremont Culture ruins! The Fremont Culture people kicked the Swell’s butt. They farmed, hunted, made pottery and drawings, and then got the hell out of dodge, leaving all their stuff behind. I guess it didn’t bring them joy?
Modern ruins! Miners gotta mine, ya know? Scattered throughout the Swell are abandoned exploratory flotsam and jetsam. You’ll know you’re near a mine when you see the ghost of a 1940s prospector driving a rusty bulldozer. (Pro tip: Don’t go in uranium mines. Even ghost-free ones.)
Learn more about the San Rafael Swell at utah.com/san-rafael-swell