The San Rafael Swell is one of Utah’s most ruggedly beautiful regions. Let’s keep it that way.
When the San Rafael Swell’s towering mesas, twisting slot canyons, multi-hued rock walls, and endless panoramas take your breath away, you’ll ask, “How on Earth did this amazing area get made?” That’s easy — the Earth. With 60 million years and a whole lot of rock to work with, Mother Nature had plenty of time to get creative with this one. Boasting a rugged beauty that varies more than the pronunciation of “Zion,” it’s hard to believe that the Swell’s been such a secret for so long.
Well, the secret’s finally getting out on the Swell and its surrounding areas, and whenever that happens, it becomes time to ask a different question: “How on Earth do we keep this area amazing?” In today’s world, more visitors to outdoor spaces unfortunately often means more damage to the ecosystem and natural beauty of the area. So how do we keep the Swell … swell?
It would be wrong to discourage people from taking in all of the Swell’s beauty, so let’s try something counterintuitive — let’s invite as many folks as possible and show them what’s worth protecting. As the famed writer, environmentalist, and Utah fanboy Edward Abbey once said, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” This list of hand-picked activities in the Swell will help visitors learn the history, see the sights, and hopefully become defenders along the way.
To love and protect an area, you’ve gotta get to know it first. There are plenty of ways to explore the Swell — this scenic drive is a favorite — but when it comes to really understanding and appreciating a place, you just can’t beat feet.
The Swell is a great place to hike, and with a whole lot of space to explore, visitors can find a little bit of everything. Looking for the kind of view that will take your breath away? The 15-mile out-and-back Good Water Rim Trail offers sweeping vistas of Little Grand Canyon that are sure to knock the scenic wind out of you (just not as much as … you know, Big Grand Canyon).
If you’re tired of the hikes that Earth has to offer, the entry fee to the otherworldly Goblin Valley State Park is a lot cheaper than hopping on a billionaire’s rocketship. The strangely shaped hoodoos will make you feel like you’ve punched your ticket to another planet, giving a whole new meaning to the 1998 Saturn you drove in on. Slot canyon cravings can be satiated nearby too. The family-friendly tandem of Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon is just a (really cool looking) stone’s throw away.
It goes without saying that you’re going to pack out whatever you pack in when hiking in the Swell, but we’ll say it anyway. Pack. It. Out. We’ve even developed a useful anagram to help you take your stewardship one step further! Just remember to always keep it S.W.E.L.L. and Stash Whatever Else Litters the Land. If you see some trash, pick it up! The next group coming through that canyon or overlook will appreciate the enhanced middle of nowhere-ness you’ve provided, as will the critters and plants. Be sure to stay on marked trails as well. Just like you, the plants of the Swell don’t like being trampled on.
We’ve covered “Ooh”s and “Aah”s, now it’s time for “Hmm”s, “I see”s, and “That’s interesting”s! The Swell has a history as ancient as it is amazing, and appreciating the scope of its timeline will certainly make you want to avoid being a dark mark on it.
How far back do you want to go? Pioneer times? Just step into the time machine that is the O’Ville Pioneer Village and you’ll see what it was like to be among the early modern visitors to the area. This collection of preserved cabins allows visitors to take a walk through history and appreciate their own wifi and hot water all the more. If you’re still feeling the pioneer spirit, blaze the trail to the John Wesley Powell River History Museum, where you’ll learn about Powell’s expedition down the Green River, which he famously didn’t toss plastic water bottles into. An example to live by.
Think pioneer times are for the birds? Then go learn about dinosaurs, aka pre-birds. The Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is home to the densest concentration of Jurassic age bones ever discovered. Over 12,000 bones from at least 74 dinos and other prehistoric creatures have been dug up there. Plus, it’s still an active research site, so you never know how many more are waiting beneath your feet! And despite their association with many plants that would go on to become fossil fuels, lots of these dinos had an eco-friendly vegetarian diet that’s worth emulating.
But wait, you skipped 145 million years between the Jurassic Age and the pioneers. Believe it or not, a lot happened in that time — check out the Museum of the San Rafael if you don’t believe us. Learn about the ancient Native American cultures that lived in the region and look at
the incredible artifacts they left behind, which were also not plastic water bottles. Another great set of role models.
The best part of the Swell? You can hike to the history! Drive to days gone by! ATV to ancient times! There are a number of family-friendly hikes and drives in the Swell that lead to rock art, and seeing the handiwork of the ancient cultures you just learned about is an unforgettable experience well worth the effort.
Most of the art in the area was left behind by the Fremont Culture, who made their home in the Swell between 2,000 and 700 years ago. One of the most detailed examples of rock art from this culture is the Rochester Panel, which can be reached by a quick (yet rocky) half-mile hike. The Rochester Panel displays pictographs of all kinds, from humans to animals, and some funky shapes that would make any doodler proud.
The Black Dragon Pictograph is another famous destination for craggy critics. The titular dragon and its accompanying pictographs were likely drawn over 2,000 years ago by the people of the Barrier Canyon Culture, the Fremonts’ predecessors in the Swell. Over at the Buckhorn Pictograph Panel, the two groups meet up for a paint party! This site features pictographs (paintings) from the Barrier Canyon Culture and petroglyphs (carvings) from the Fremont Culture on the same rock.
While you gaze in wonder at this ancient art, think about how lucky you are that it doesn’t say “Go Broncos!” or “Amy + Chris = Forever” or “Kanye 2020.” That these paintings and carvings are still intact today is a credit to both the craftsmanship of the creators and the care of the visitors who came before you. Repay that kindness to those who come after you and leave the art alone. That means not only withholding your artistic instincts for a moment (yes, even that cool ‘S’ you can draw), but also refraining from even touching the rock. The art is very delicate; even just the oil from your fingertips can damage it. Just pretend you’re at a fancy art gallery and there’s a stern curator looking down their nose at you, only that curator is an ancient painting of a dragon.
Be a Swell Steward
It’s not every day you come across an area like the Swell. The patience and persistence of nature are on full display there, as are the footsteps (both human and dino) of those that came before us. Where the forces of nature and the traces of ancient life meet, you’ll find the Swell, a temple and testament to nature and our role within it.
Let’s respect that role and pass through the rugged hills and twisting canyons of the Swell
without a trace. Treat it like you would any good temple and walk with reverence through its halls, not setting anything on fire, scratching your name into things, or leaving trash in your wake (good rules of thumb for any building). As the Swell grows in popularity, we visitors have a chance to get right what we’ve so often gotten wrong by allowing the rugged to stay rugged, the ancient to stay ancient and the Swell to stay swell.