The San Rafael Swell, Utah’s Pseudo-Secret Playground

Paul Gagner tugs on a stuck climbing rope in The Swell. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

Crossing I-70, a tongue of asphalt extending from Cove Fort, Utah, to Baltimore, Maryland, it’s easy to get lost in the road and forget your surroundings.

But take notice when your rig starts climbing a random “swell” in the middle of the Life Elevated State – Utah – because what you’re going up and over is 600,000 acres of unique American Southwest wilderness: the San Rafael Swell.

Upon seeing the Swell, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that during the days of the Wild West, it was a popular hideout for thieves, including Butch Cassidy and his gang.

Highlights in the San Rafael Swell include gorges, mesas, goblin-shaped hoodoos, “The Little Grand Canyon,” and walls with ancient pictographs.

What calls “a scrappy geological theme park,” the Swell is pseudo-unknown, yet growing in popularity.

The arena is cyclist and rock-climber friendly, full of ATV trails and perfect for primitive camping, and has plenty of family-friendly activities as well.

“It is getting more popular, but there are so many areas that are undiscovered. We say here, ‘the playground is open,’” says Tina Carter of Emery County tourism.

Here are some ways to enjoy this lesser-known Utah gem.

Goblins Galore

Like something out of Mars. Photo: Gleb Tarassenko/Wiki Commons

A good place to start is Goblin Valley State Park. It took the right mix of erosion, wind, water, and time to sculpt Goblin Valley, a hoodoo world for kids and adults that’s reminiscent of a Martian landscape.

This area also contains the popular canyoneering area Goblin’s Lair, which descends to the Chamber of the Basilisk. The Lair is rated for beginners, but technical gear and map-reading skills are necessary, as is a permit.

Slot Canyon City

For those who like to add a little squeeze to their adventures, slot canyons are the ticket. There are 26 recommended outings in the Central Swell, Eastern Reef, Northern Reef, Southern Reef and Southern Swell. Many of the canyoneering outings are moderate in grade and are neither too long nor too short.

According to Carter, the most popular slot canyon is Little Wild Horse. The 8-mile round-trip hike takes about four hours and can be traversed in either direction. It’s moderate enough for people of all ages.

All canyons in the Swell can be hiked year-round, except when thunderstorms are present, which cause flash foods in the slots.

The Wedge Overlook

View from the Wedge Overlook; it’s not called The Little Grand Canyon for nothing. Photo: Wiki Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Flash flooding over the millennia carved out the land within The Swell, creating The Wedge, which overlooks The Little Grand Canyon. The drop from the top is 1,200 feet, leading to the San Rafael River far below.

Also found in The Wedge is the Buckhorn Wash pictograph area. The 130-foot Buckhorn Wash art panel contains faded 2,000-year-old pictographs painted with red ink. The wall shows scenes from the ancient Barrier Canyon culture.

Additionally, The Wedge contains the Good Water Rim mountain bike trail. Mountain Bike Project describes the sandstone slab trail as so remote it’s in “the other side of nowhere,” with a track containing “almost constant turns and up-and-downs.”

Incredible Views & Sandstone Splitters

Sunset over the San Rafael Swell as seen from the Dylan Wall. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

The south-facing Dylan Wall in The Swell may cook in the summer – with temperatures climbing slightly above 100° F – but during winter the climate around this wall is often just right.

At night and in the early morning, temperatures drop well below freezing, turning filled water jugs into blocks of ice.

But as the sun’s rays peek into your tent, your whole world begins to warm, and getting out of your sleeping bag no longer feels like a chore.

When the surrounding countryside is flecked with snow, the black-and-tan Dylan Wall acts like a solar oven, drawing climbers to sink their paws into cracks several hundred feet in length.

It’s rare to see another party here, even though the area is profiled in the late Eric Bjornstad’s book “Desert Rock: Wall Street to the San Rafael Swell.”

Routes at the Dylan Wall attract desert crack climbers of most abilities, with ratings from 5.9+ to 5.12+. The views here are endless, and when you gaze out over the surrounding countryside, time stops.

There’s something for everyone in the San Rafael Swell, with fewer crowds than other Utah attractions, but just as much beauty. So the next time you’re on I-70, make the Swell your destination, rather than a scene out your car window.

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