San Rafael Wilderness Study Area

Seven WSAs and one Instant Study Area (ISA) are included in the San Rafael Area. Seven are located in the San Rafael Swell, a large, uplifted, geologically fascinating area, while the eighth is located farther to the east along the Green River. The San Rafael Swell may be reached via Interstate 70 which bisects the Swell, from Utah State Route 10, located on the northwest side of the Swell, or from Utah State Route 24 which parallels the San Rafael Reef south of Interstate 70. The Horseshoe Canyon North WSA is generally approached from State Route 24. The Horseshoe Canyon North WSA occupies the rim lands and canyons between the Green River and the San Rafael Desert.

WSA elevations in the San Rafael area range from 4,000 to 7,400 feet. Vegetation is sparse in most areas, except in riparian zones along streams. Scattered pinyon-juniper woodland is the most common type of vegetation. The San Rafael Swell is home to Utah's largest herd of desert bighorn sheep. Other animals in the area include peregrine falcon, wild horses and burros, mountain lion, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. The best time to visit is during the spring and fall months as summer day-time temperatures normally hover in the high nineties and often exceed 100 degrees.

San Rafael Reef WSA

59,170 acres.  Named for its most prominent feature, this WSA encompasses the San Rafael Reef, a long sawtooth-like, sandstone ridge that rises abruptly from the floor of the San Rafael Desert. About 77 percent of the area is covered by pinyon-juniper/desert shrub vegetation; the rest is grassland and bare rock. About half of the WSA is considered important desert bighorn sheep habitat. The San Rafael Reef portion, with its huge areas of slickrock and many canyons, is ideal for hiking and backpacking. Most of the WSA has been designated as the San Rafael Reef Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect scenic values and unique vegetation. All of the WSA is closed to OHV use.


Immediately south of Interstate 70 along the eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell. Access to a number of slickrock and canyon-bottom hiking routes is available from dirt roads that lead from State Route 24 to the base of the reef. The western side is accessible from I-70 exit 129.

Crack Canyon WSA

25,335 acres.  The San Rafael Reef and its rugged sandstone domes and massive central ridge cut by deep, narrow canyons dominates this WSA. Desert bighorn sheep inhabit the area while mountain lion and wild horses may occasionally visit. Crack Canyon's major vegetation types are desert shrub-saltbush, desert shrub, and pinyon-juniper woodland. About half of the WSA is barren rock. Other portions contain rolling badlands that are a colorful mix of soil, cliffs, and rock mountains. The WSA is well known for several hiking routes through narrow canyons that bisect the reef. The intricate canyon system offers a variety of loop trips, both easy and challenging. Various pools, arches, and slickrock gardens add to the area's interesting visual character. Crack Canyon WSA is within the southern part of the San Rafael Reef ACEC. Three vehicle ways totally approximately 2.25 miles are open to OHV use. They are located near Hunt Draw, Muddy Creek, and between Wild Horse Creek and Crack Canyon on the west side of the WSA.


South of Interstate 70 just west of Goblin Valley State Park. Passenger car access to the WSA is available via State Route 24 and a maintained dirt road to Goblin Valley. A maintained dirt road along the west side of the Reef forms the western boundary of the WSA and provides additional access.

Muddy Creek WSA

31,400 acres.  Topography within the WSA includes deep-cut drainages, river-canyon bottoms, and stair-stepped mesas. It is sparsely vegetated with pinyon-juniper woodland and desert shrubs. Two herds of wild horses frequent the area and mountain lion may occasionally visit. The hike along Muddy Creek through "the Chute" is one of the most outstanding slot canyon routes on the Colorado Plateau. The central portion of the WSA along Muddy Creek has been designated as the Muddy Creek ACEC to protect its outstanding scenic values. All of the WSA and ACEC are closed to OHVs.


At the southern end of the San Rafael Swell. The WSA includes a section of Muddy Creek and several major tributary canyons. It may be reached from Interstate 70 exit 129 or from State Route 24 via Temple Mountain.

Sids Mountain/Sids Cabin WSA

80,970 acres.  This area is named after one of the Swell's earliest ranchers, Sid Swasey. Sids Cabin, built in the 1920's, is situated in one of the large, rolling parklands found in the WSA. The WSA is also characterized by rolling badlands and sandstone domes, deep canyon drainages, and unusual rock formations. Much of it is covered by sparse stands of pinyon-juniper woodland. The remainder is barren slickrock or desert shrub. This WSA is home to Utah's largest herd of bighorn sheep. The San Rafael River flows along the northern edge of the WSA through Utah's "Little Grand Canyon," which is visible from the Wedge Overlook. This section of the river is sued by recreation visitors with small inflatable watercraft and canoes during high runoff years. The WSA is part of the Sids Mountain and San Rafael Canyon ACECs. Several trails and canyon bottoms were identified in the wilderness inventory as OHV routes. These include the north and south forks of Coal Wash, North Salt Wash, the Devils Racetrack, parts of Bullock Draw, and the routes from Justesen Flat and Secret Mesa leading to Eagle Canyon. The northern portion of the ACEC and WSA (which includes Saddle Horse Canyon, Cane Wash, and the San Rafael River) is closed to OHVs to protect scenic and primitive recreational values.


North of Interstate 70 in the northwestern part of the San Rafael Swell. The WSA is accessible from Interstate 70 exits 129 and 114, or from maintained dirt roads leading east from State Route 10.

Mexican Mountain WSA

59,600 acres.  Major features within this WSA include the San Rafael River, a portion of the San Rafael Reef, and Mexican Mountain. Surface features include the rock slopes of the reef, the vertical-walled black and red-orange cliffs, buttes, cuestas, alcoves, and pinnacles along the canyons of the WSA. The WSA has a small population of desert bighorn sheep. Almost half of the WSA is barren rock outcrop. Most of the rest is sparse pinyon-juniper woodland with small areas of desert shrub, grassland, and riparian vegetation types. The San Rafael Campground is located adjacent to the WSA near the mouth of Buckhorn Draw. The San Rafael River flows through its center within the narrow, deeply incised Upper and Lower Black Boxes before flowing through the Reef. The area along the San Rafael River is part of the San Rafael Canyon ACEC. To protect the scenic, primitive, and recreation values, lands within the WSA are not available for OHV use.


North of Interstate 70 in the northeastern part of the San Rafael Swell. It is accessible from Interstate 70 exit 129, the Buckhorn Draw road, and the Mexican Mountain Road.

Devils Canyon WSA

9,610 acres.  Devils Canyon is deep, rugged, twisting canyon with several tributary drainages. It is surrounded by rolling and colorful mesas topped with pinyon-juniper woodland. A small herd of wild horses utilizes the WSA and mountain lion may visit the area. Visitors can park where the Copper Globe Mine Road crosses Devils Canyon and hike into the canyon system. Several vehicles ways were open to OHVs. These are located in Justesen Flats, Sagebrush Bench, and the Kimball Draw area.


In the middle of the San Rafael Swell just south of I-70. It is best reached from freeway exit 114 via Justesen Flats. From Justesen Flats, the rough dirt road that leads to the Copper Globe Mine provides access.

Link Flats ISA

912 acres.  Link Flats is one of a series of grassy flats falling between two major drainages. The area was considered for designation as a research natural area in the early 1960's based upon the presence of several plant types which were erroneously thought to be ungrazed by domestic livestock. The ISA contains approximately four miles of roads (one of which bisects the area) one mile of vehicle way which may be used by vehicles. The Link Flats ISA does not meet the basic requirements for wilderness designation. The area is generally flat with several small bluffs of Navajo sandstone. A small herd of wild horses frequents the area.


South of I-70 in the San Rafael Swell. Access to the area is via I-70 and the road to the old Copper Globe Mine.

Horseshoe Canyon (North) WSA

20,500 acres.  Horseshoe, Two Mile, and Keg Spring canyons are deeply entrenched, varying in depth from 150 feet at their heads to l,000 feet where they meet the Labyrinth Canyon portion of the Green River. The portion of the WSA above the canyons is characterized by open sandy areas and slickrock domes. The canyon bottoms are thickly vegetated, and some contain small pour-offs and deep pools of water. The desert shrub and sagebrush vegetation of the area is typified by large areas of barren slickrock or sand. Labyrinth Canyon is the eastern boundary of the WSA, and offers a popular, multi-day calm water canoe trip. Part of the WSA has been designated the Bowknot Bend ACEC in order to protect its relict plant community. The presence of critical soils and primitive recreation values on Bowknot Bend and along Horseshoe Canyon and Keg Spring Canyon have resulted in the closure of these areas to OHV use. One way was identified in the wilderness inventory and is open to OHVs. It extends approximately 3/4 mile into the WSA east of Keg Knoll and ends at a hiking trail to a five hole arch.


Along the lower end of Horseshoe Canyon between the Green River and the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of Canyonlands National Park. Access is from State Route 24 or the town of Green River.

Respecting The Land

Although these wilderness study areas may appear rough and barren, they support a fragile desert ecosystem which can easily be damaged by careless actions. You can help maintain the wilderness character of these areas by using minimum impact techniques when you visit.

Park vehicles outside of the study areas.

Minimize the crushing of vegetation by hiking or riding horses in wash bottoms and areas with sparse ground cover whenever possible.

Avoid travel through the dark, crust-looking, patches of cryptobiotic soils (cryptogamic soils) that serve to retard erosion when left undisturbed.

Set up tents on bare soil or slickrock rather than on vegetation.

Bury all solid human body waste at least a hundred feet away from water sources and pack out used toilet paper.

Camp, bathe and wash dishes well away from water sources.

Carry out what you bring in and pick up trash left by less thoughtful visitors.

Use a portable stove, or if you must have a campfire, use a previously constructed fire ring and burn only dead and down wood.

Leave prehistoric and historic artifacts and rock art as you find them.

Distribute the impact of recreation visitation by timing your trip to avoid peak use periods.

Safety Tips

The wilderness study areas are situated in remote, arid locations far from medical or other assistance. To help ensure a safe and enjoyable trip please consider the following recommended practices:

Never camp in a wash or stream bed and avoid hiking in narrow canyons when rain is a possibility.

Carry at least one gallon of water per person per day as there are few sources of potable water within the WSAs.

Take precautions to guard against heat exhaustion during warm weather by avoiding overexertion, drinking plenty of fluids, using sunscreen, and wearing a hat with a broad brim.

Let someone know where you're going and when you plant to return.

Take extra water and food in case your trip takes longer than planned and don't forget a first aid kit.

Volunteer Opportunities

Individuals with a long term interest in a particular area can "adopt" a WSA and help the BLM by monitoring visitor use, installing and maintaining boundary signs, and watching out for unauthorized activities. The BLM can also utilize individuals and groups for short-term special projects such as wildlife inventories, stabilization of historic and prehistoric structures, trash clean up, and trail maintenance. Please contact one of the offices listed below if you are interested in working as a BLM volunteer.

Maps And References

The Canyonlands Natural History Association sells a wide variety of maps and books about southeastern Utah. Write to CNHA at 30 South 100 East, Moab, Utah 84532, (435) 259-6003 for a free mail-order publications catalog.

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