Treat Yourself to a (San Rafael) Swell Winter

By Brian Higgins
November 10, 2022

Come winter, Utah’s mountains offer some of the best skiable terrain in the world, and the fluffiest snow to ski it on. Most people take that as an invitation to spend their winter ski-bumming, but you’re smarter than that. You know that while everyone’s busy skiing, one of the most unique landscapes in all of the Southwest is sitting by its lonesome, just waiting to be explored. 

The San Rafael Swell (or just “The Swell,” to locals) has long been known as a less crowded alternative to places like Moab and Utah’s five national parks. The secret’s been getting out on the Swell, but it’s been getting out slowly. And if it was a secret that the Swell was less crowded than other southern hotspots, the real secret is that it’s an amazing destination for a winter getaway. Don’t believe it? Go see for yourself. Here are the best winter activities in the Swell to enjoy while you give your skis a well deserved vacation.

Revisit the Ice Age

Did you know that the Swell is a hotbed of dinosaur fossils and research? And no, the dinosaurs didn’t live during the Ice Age, but they were in one of the “Ice Age” movies, and that counts. Anyways, you won’t have to contend with an ice age of your own at the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry visitor center and exhibits. All you have to do is enjoy the modern luxury of indoor heating while you look at cool dino bones and learn all about the creatures who came before us.

The quarry, which is part of Jurassic National Monument, is an active worksite where paleontologists are still conducting research and searching for fossils. They’ve already found over 12,000 bones from at least 74 different prehistoric animals, and the safe money is on them finding more. You won’t be able to do any digging yourself, but don’t worry, you can still enjoy a self-guided nature walk and check out the fossils on display at the visitor center. It’s not as hands-on as a dig, but it costs a lot less than a paleontology degree. 

If you’re still curious about the natural history of the Swell, there are plenty more places to indulge yourself. For those who want to stay out of the cold, there’s the Museum of the San Rafael. You can check out more dino bones (you can never have too much), and also learn about the native animals and cultures that have called the Swell their home throughout the centuries.

Speaking of Native cultures, there are plenty of interpretive sites to explore in the Swell if you’re willing to brave the outdoors. The Rochester Panel, Black Dragon Pictograph and Buckhorn Pictograph are all accessible via short hikes, and boast rock art left behind by the Barrier Canyon and Fremont Cultures. The meaning of the art has been lost to time, but since ancient cultures didn’t have that fancy indoor heating, some of it probably translates to “I need a hot chocolate.”

But it doesn’t actually say anything like that, because all the visitors before you knew they were seeing something special and decided to keep it that way. Return the favor and keep these incredible sights the way you found them. That means no touching (finger grease can damage the walls) and certainly no additions, no matter how good your favorite team is doing this year.

Go Stargazing

Here are two fun facts for you. Fact A: The San Rafael Swell and its surrounding areas are home to some of the darkest skies in the world. Fact 2: Winter skies offer the best stargazing, since cold air holds less moisture and reduces haze. It doesn’t take a genius to put A and 2 together and figure out that winter in the Swell is home to some seriously sweet stargazing. 

The best spot to hang out and wait for space to do its thing is Goblin Valley State Park. It’s a certified International Dark Sky Park, so on a clear night, you’ll be treated to a truly amazing show. Even on a cloudy night, you’ll still be hanging out in the dark in a place named after goblins, and that’s just good fun.

With the general lack of light pollution, you really can’t go wrong when picking a spot to stargaze in the Swell. But here are some other facts to consider. Fact 1: It’s cold in the winter. Fact B: It’s cold at night. That’s right, 1 + B = cold. Winter stargazing makes for a frigid affair, so what’s the solution?

Well, a warm coat and a thermos full of your favorite hot drink is a good start, but being close by a yurt or cabin won’t hurt either. At the Buckhorn RV Park and Resort, you’ll be able to stargaze by the fire and then retreat back into your nice warm cabin for a cozy night of sleep. And if you’re too tough to sleep in one of those ritzy “log cabins,” spend the night in a yurt instead. Yurts are available to book in both Goblin Valley and Dead Horse Point State Parks, and wouldn’t you know it? Dead Horse is a Dark Sky Park too. And if you’re already shivering thinking about a winter’s night in a yurt, don’t worry — they’re well heated and cozy as can be.

Take a Hike

With a milder climate than the mountains further north, the Swell usually doesn’t see enough snow to stop you from hiking. But the dustings it does get usually make the red rocks stand out even more, and give the whole landscape a quiet, serene feeling that you won’t find in any other season. In fact, your winter hike in the Swell might just kick the convertible hiking pants off all the trails you did in the summer.

If you’re looking for a jaunt that’s as easy as it is scenic, check out the Good Water Rim trail. Overlooking Little Grand Canyon (which is exactly what you’d expect it to be), the trail runs for 15 miles and offers stunning views of the canyon and the winding San Rafael River far beneath. You don’t have to go the full 15 miles, though; you can walk as long or as little as you’d like. In fact, you don’t even have to hike at all! Just drive to the Wedge Overlook and enjoy the vast wintry view. 

For those who’d rather get down and dirty (and snowy and possibly wet) in the heart of the Swell, the Little Wild Horse Canyon hike is a family friendly slot canyon that remains accessible in the winter. It’s a non-technical canyon, but keep the weather in mind, as you may be hiking through standing water or encountering ice after a storm. You can also add Bell Canyon to make it an “8 mile” loop, but it’s longer and has a bit more scrambling. Those with little wild creatures of their own might want to stick to Little Wild Horse.

Not too far away you’ll find another erratic equine themed hike — Wild Horse Window. This 3-mile trail is especially nice in the winter since it crosses through the open desert. That’s a pretty hot adventure in the summer, but in the winter you can enjoy the scenery without seeing mirages on the horizon. The hike leads to a large natural bridge/cave which is also known as the Eye of Sinbad. Picnic under the Eye for as long as your freezing butt can handle, then head back the way you came. 

Enjoy the Solitude and Recreate Responsibly

The best part of winter in the Swell? With few exceptions, it’s a lot less crowded. And that goes for the surrounding areas as well. The Swell is just a hop, skip, a jump and a drive from three of Utah’s national parks — Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef — and state parks like Green River, Utahraptor and Dead Horse Point. As the quiet of winter paints these natural spaces in a whole new light, you might find it even easier to be awed by nature’s handiwork. 

The cool winds and empty spaces might also make it easier to reflect on our place in nature. We’re only ever passing through, and in order to show our gratitude for these amazing places, it’s our job to leave them as we found them. That means picking up whatever you packed in, keeping your mark off of any ancient artwork and showing respect to all the living things you encounter, from locals to lichen.

As our world shrinks and places like the Swell get more and more popular, it’s more important than ever to recreate responsibly. Let’s respect these places for what they were before we got there, and preserve them for the people who will pass through after us.

OK, thanks for listening to our speech. It’s basically our version of Linus’ “True Meaning of Christmas” monologue. We are talking winter here, right? We had to do it. And it’s OK if you just remember the cliffnotes. Just keep the Swell as swell as it’s always been, and we can all enjoy its landscape, season after season.