My hands were sweating and my knuckles were white as I palmed the white, rough sandstone wall in front of me. I am going to die, I thought to myself. I was clinging onto a very precipitous slope of crumbling sandstone on the southern aspect of the San Rafael Knob- a mesa and the highest point of Utah’s San Rafael Swell. Although the knob itself isn’t even half as tall as some of the mountains I have climbed- just shy of 8000 feet- it still ranks about 86 on Utah’s 100 highest points. It was also, as I quickly learned, one that I was not entirely ready for.
It all started Monday afternoon, April the 10th.
I was feeling a little antsy. Here in Gunnison, the high country still isn’t thawed out from the winter snows. I can’t ski anymore and the need to get outside had been steadily rising for weeks. Desert hiking was something that could relieve my situation. I thought about dropping into New Mexico to check out the Bandelier National Monument, or some canyons around Delta, CO. Problem was that a class trip took me to New Mexico the week before and I had already explored a lot of the canyons around Delta. Moab was out of the picture, too. I’m not the only one that wants to get into the desert during the spring. The temps are mild, water sources can be flowing and, as I have mentioned before, deserts are somewhat magical anyways. Problem is everyone wants to go to the Canyonlands and Arches national parks. They are full up this time of year. No, I wanted to do something off-the-grid. I wanted to go somewhere I could actually get lost, where I could feel that I am in the wild and I don’t have about 10,000 pesky rules (and other people) to worry about. But where could that be? The problem is that these places are, well, hidden! I was getting frustrated, my camping gear, as always, was ready to throw into the car and go, and I was about to resign myself to another night of watching Lost on my laptop when I got a text from my friend, Dwayne. “What are you doing this week?” it asked. “I was thinking of going to the Grand Swell”.
At the reading of this message my heart leapt into my throat- adventure awaited me after all! But what was this “Grand Swell”, anyways? I immediately assumed he was talking about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A quick google search pulled up something else, though. Some place called the San Rafael Swell filled my screen- but not with much. Sure, the place existed, but why hadn’t I heard of it before? How could an area roughly 45 by 70 miles and 1.5-2 hours away from Canyonlands escape my radar? And how in the world does a place with magnificient canyons, spectacular buttes and vistas, and outstanding pictographs and rock art, constitute a handful of vague google references? I was immediately hooked. This is IT! Something a mere five hours from home was calling out to me. It was time to explore. Dwayne said he could be at my house in an hour. I threw my gear in the car.
The San Rafael Swell is truly one of Utah’s biggest hidden gems. When I say big, I do mean BIG. As I said earlier, the area roughly encompasses 40 by 75 miles. It contains huge swaths of desert, canyons, rivers, rock art, hoodoos, buttes, and slot canyons. It is somewhat of a geological anomaly. The gist of it is that during the Laramide Orogeny (which you can read about here), a lot of ancient Precambrian dyke swarms (the “basement” rock) faulted. The overlying sedimentary rock, i.e, the sandstone and mudstone layers, formed an anticline as the faulted basement rock lifted it up higher
than the surrounding area. This created a playground of geological marvels. Yet, it is a place that most people don’t know about.
In fact, it is so far under the radar that most people that live here, five hours away from the swell in Colorado, have never heard of it. Even though I-70 bisects the swell through it’s eastern “reef”, most people only see a glimpse of it’s incredible and remote offerings as they travel to Hanksville or Moab to do some boating or camping in Canyonlands or Arches National Parks. They don’t even know that what they are seeing is public land. The BLM is the national agency that manages the land. The only office I could find for maps in the area was hours away in Price, UT. The office’s website had very little information on the area. Every search I tried to find resources on hiking trails or things to do only brought up vague points of interests or trails with no associated maps. I was going to have to head into the Swell with very little prep time, but I figured it would work out.
Once Dwayne got to my place, we threw his gear into my Jeep and we headed out. It was close to 8 pm, but we decided it would be nice to get to Green River, UT late that night, camp out in the State Park, and maybe find more resources before venturing into the Swell. We rolled into Green River about 1 am. The town was charming, but late at night with the desert and its remoteness, it was a tad creepy. After going down the main strip we followed a sign for the Green River State Park and golf course. We grabbed an envelope to pay for our site and threw down for the night. Dwayne crashed in my Jeep while I opted for crashing in my Big Agnes Fly Creek single man tent. The close proximity to the Green River made it somewhat chilly, but once I warmed up in my bag I slept better than a dog on a hot summer day. The next morning we wrapped up camp around 7:30 and then hit the town on a quest for breakfast and maps. At the largest gas station in town I found that I could get maps at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. Sure enough, in the gift shop right in the book section was one more copy of a National Geographic San Rafael Swell Map. I made the purchase, we finished our coffee and headed out of town…. after stopping at a taco truck, of course.
The day before, when I was desperately trying to find info on the area, I had come across several trip reports for a mountain called the San Rafael Knob. We decided we wanted to climb it since it was the highest point in the area and a little off-the-grid (as if anything here could even be considered “on-grid”). We drove to the exit as indicated on our fresh new map and then dropped down into Devil’s Canyon where we abandoned my vehicle and started up a wash towards the knob. The canyon itself was really nice. The grade was pretty level and only gently sloping up. You could tell that a lot of OHV’s used the wash from all of the tracks. I couldn’t blame them. Even though it was only about 70 degrees or so, it was still dry and, with the wind blowing it was a tad uncomfortable. While walking in sand. I would have taken an ATV, but I’m still glad I did it on foot. After about two miles we hit a small trail that shot straight up the side of the canyon. Once above the canyon rim you could see the knob in the distance.
After a while we reached the base of the knob and we had to figure out how to get onto the knob. The knob is basically a butte with sheer sandstone sides most of the way around. We circumvented the base until we found a place to scramble up. Once up top we could see that the butte operated as stacked layers. Think of it as a pillar of different types of rock that make up different layers of a cake. The layers erode at different speeds and form little ledges. If you’re fortunate you can find an area that has collapsed to get you to the next layer.
On the way up Dwayne kept getting bolder and bolder. I mean, if I weren’t afraid of heights I probably would have gotten pretty bold, too. Too bad I’m terrified of heights, though! I volunteered to take some glamor shots for Dwayne’s Facebook and then we found another scramble spot. The rest of the walk wasn’t very exciting and we basically just walked a “cake” layer until we could find a scramble spot to make it to the next level. This continued for three-ish levels and I thought I had the cat in the bag until we came across the last and most treacherous spot. Every report I had read on the knob mentioned a spot that was technically non-technical but where ropes would make some folks feel better about the move. I, in my naivety, was pretty sure that it wasn’t as bad as everyone had said. I mean, everyone was still climbing it without ropes! The move was on a South facing slope. It is pretty vertical and is made up of a semi crumbly sandstone. There weren’t many handholds and the texture of the rock, while grippy, only had wave-like variations in the stone. While you could place your hand on the stone to steady yourself, you didn’t have any ledges to place your feet and your hands could not really find anything to grip.
I was in a little disbelief. I kept looking around for a place to traverse this insanity but I could clearly see the trail on the other side of the section. Dwayne volunteered to go first and he did so with some tentativeness mixed with confidence. In about a minute he was across. I took a big gulp and took a step on the (to me) precipice. I leaned into the wall and managed to get about a fourth of the way across to a spot where you have to shimmy upwards on an narrow ledge with nothing in between… and I froze. I froze like I had never frozen before. This is where I thought I would die. When that thought went through my head I felt ice flow through my veins from the tip of my head to my toes. My hands went numb and I started producing so much sweat that I thought I would dehydrate before I fell to my death. After a few million years had passed I finally managed to talk myself back to where I had started. I was SO grateful to be safe that I didn’t even care that I wasn’t going to reach the summit. I told Dwayne to finish his summit and he did. For him, and for myself, it was a successful climb.
After the summit…and Dwayne’s awfully slow return across that section, we got off the knob relatively quickly. While Dwayne was on the summit of the knob he had gotten a message from a friend in Crested Butte (4GLTE on top of the knob since we’re so close to the interstate!). The friend was, of all things, coming to the San Rafael Swell to do some rafting! This was great news for us because not only did this mean we could do some rafting but it gave us a particular area to explore. We grabbed our handy, dandy map and found the only designated campground (although dispersed camping is still allowed) in the swell. We headed North for the San Rafael River Bridge Campground!
After 15 minutes on the freeway we exited to a very nice BLM dirt road and drove 30 miles North into the most spectacular portion of the swell. The scenery was beautiful from the get-go, but as we gradually dropped lower and lower in elevation, and as more buttes and canyons rose around us, the more the beauty stood out. The area was amazing and I couldn’t believe we basically had it to ourselves!
Once we hit the campground we quickly found ourselves a spot and setup camp. We had a little firewood, but not much, so we raided some abandoned campsites for some leftover wood. We ended up having a great time just sitting under the stars. The moon was waxing and nearly full and you could see the canyon walls all around us. The fire was the perfect size and the orange glow dancing around the brush on the outskirts of the campsite was warm and welcoming. We cooked some Mountain House meals and then stayed up for hours just talking about everything! Life, our fortuitous circumstances with our trip so far, things we aspired to do- it was the best kind of conversation and I think it was my favorite night of the trip.
The next morning we got up fairly early and made our way to a trail head called Sid’s Cabin. It is an in and out trail that drops from the canyon rim through some slot canyons and eventually into a wider canyon before ending at an open meadow to an old rancher’s cabin from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. Now, I didn’t find a lot on old Sid, but he must have been a big figure of the area. He had a mountain named after him, a cabin, creeks, canyons, and even a jump (story is he was drunk, got in a bet with a man that he couldn’t jump his horse across the canyon. Supposedly he did and his legend lives on today.). I love history and so does Dwayne, so we thought it would be a great little hike. After Jeeping about 40 miles in three hours (we MIGHT have gotten lost), we finally made it to the road that led to the trail head. Unfortunately, we had to cross the San Rafael River, the same one that we were going to be floating the next day, and the river was up! There was no way that we could cross it so we decided to just have lunch there by the river with some cows and come up with a new game plan.
We decided to travel up to “The Wedge” overlook. This area is a view point with campgrounds on a canyon rim dubbed Utah’s Little Grand Canyon. We thought it might be a great place to set up a tent. Also, Dwayne’s friends were en route to the swell that day with their duckies in tow. What a better place to make new friends while camping on a canyon rim???
When we drove up to the rim it was pretty, sure. There were lots of pinion pine and juniper trees, tall grass and cactus, but not much in the way for a stellar view. Then, all of a sudden, we were there. I mean, RIGHT THERE. The road just took a ninety degree turn right on the edge of a precipice. The canyon was absolutely stunning. It was a couple thousand feet deep with the San Rafael River meandering through it. It looked like a miniaturized version of the Grand Canyon but it was in no way, shape, or form miniature. The vistas were sweeping, the canyon deep. You could see all of the smaller little tributaries feeding the larger canyon. I couldn’t believe it was just here, in the middle of nowhere, with a freeway 30-something miles away and yet there were only about 20 people there, if that, along the rim! Immediately Dwayne went out on campsite recon and I drove along the edge looking at the scenery and sites as well.
After a half hour, Dwayne had his tent pitched to hold us a spot (he had cowboy camped the night before), and we boogied on down the canyon back to our campsite to grab our gear. On the way down, though, we stopped by a rock art site from the original canyon inhabitants 2000 some odd years ago. The Buckhorn Wash Panel was an amazing and not expected surprise- just like everything else had been so far. I have seen a lot of rock art- Mesa Verde, Bandelier, Chaco, Dominguez- but I have never, ever seen such large and intricate work like I did at the San Rafael Swell that day. The figures painted into the walls were intriguing and made you wonder to what the original inhabitants must have been trying to convey. From snakes biting off hands to shamanistic, somewhat devilish figures dancing with wings, the art was fascinating. No one knows who the Barrier People were or why they left or went to. Surely they are the predecessors to other Native American peoples that we know of, such as the Utes, but the fact that we know so little about these particular people just gives me a sense of wonder and goosebumps.
After admiring the rock panel, we made our way to our campsites. A Boy Scout troop was setting up (in the middle of the week?), and we were pretty happy to get out of there. No offense to the Boy Scouts, though! I just really cherish my peace and quiet when I’m in nature and I highly doubt that a few dozen pre-teenage boys would understand that. There was a road leading south of the campsite. We had three hours to kill before meeting Dwayne’s friends on the canyon rim (it’s still amazing to me that we can rendezvous last second with 4G in the middle of nowhere), so we went to explore some trails. On the way down the 14 mile bumpy road we realized we were pretty freaking tired. It was a long day of driving around and exploring in the heat. We had a Paco pad and a Lamzack inflatable hammock. We crossed a wash and there was a shady little cliff wall we thought would be good to lay under for a while. We threw down and slept for a while.
After our naps we loaded up and headed back toward the rim. Following the pattern from the night before, we raided every little abandoned campsite along the road for firewood (there was a lot). When we got to the rim one of Dwayne’s friends was setting up a tent site where we had left our placeholder tent hours ago. Bonus: the guy owns a restaurant and had some dogs grilling on the fire! Dwayne and I hadn’t eaten in a while so we scarfed down the dogs and talked for a while. I set up my tent as the light failed and we made our way to the rim of the canyon to watch the sun set. It sure set. It set the skies on fire and the walls of the canyon blazed in rich hues of pink and orange and red. It was so quiet that only a few birds and the sounds of the wind were heard. We were each lost in our own thoughts as we watched nature’s private show in raptured silence.
After the sun went down we meandered back to camp which was set about 200 feet from the rim. The last friend showed up not long after and we had a legitimate dinner, some cold ones, and talked around the fire. I went out to the canyon rim and took more shots of the canyon which was a little eerie. Nothing was stopping me from just walking off the edge of the canyon and it was SO dark. You could feel the void as if it were trying to swallow you. I got on my belly and crawled to the rim to experiment with some night photography. Afterwards, I made my way back to camp. We talked more and more. In fact we talked too much because we didn’t go to bed until about 3:30 in the morning. I didn’t set an alarm, but I realized that the kayak trip might be canceled. I went to sleep with the wind blowing softly in my tent and the sigh of the trees right outside the mesh.
The next morning it was the heat of the day that woke me up. It was late morning, after ten, and sleeping in a 0 degree bag in 80 degree heat does not bode well for good sleep. I crawled out of my tent just as Dwayne was telling me breakfast was ready. I slogged over to the tailgate of a truck and almost weeped at the sight in front of me. Fresh chorizo sausage, eggs, and homestyle potatoes was on the plate. I had been eating soupy instant meals for three days. The meal was scrumptious and even though it was a humble (but very well appreciated) meal, it really puts a lot into perspective. I love extended hiking trips because you have to work for everything. The view, your shelter, food, sleep, transportation. Everything has to be earned. When you go back home to your soft bed, air conditioning, tap water, and other conveniences in life, you really appreciate what you have.
After breakfast we decided to hike a side canyon into the main canyon and dip our feet into the San Rafael River. Since we all slept so late, and since the float would take at least 10 hours we decided to cancel the float. Well, it was about 5 miles in and it was also me and Dwayne’s last day- we were tired, sunburned, and ready to get back to the conveniences of modern living. We hiked about half of the way in with his friends and then we called it and turned back to the car. Although we found a cool little spring, my favorite discovery in this canyon was a lost and forgotten mine with a really cool, late forties old truck abandoned in front. The truck was rusted, shot up, and had some paint still chipping off. It was just so neat sitting there in the desert that I just had to get some shots. Interesting fact: a bunch of the Uranium mined for the first atomic bomb came from the area. I like putting stories to things and I can’t help but wonder about this trucks role during that time? Perhaps we’ll never know.
There is no doubt that this was a spontaneous trip. I am a pretty spontaneous person but even for me it happened fast. The result was a kind of bouncy feeling trip interlaced with wonder, incredulity, fulfillment, and a dash of danger. Things worked out very well and I was so happy to have made such a brash decision. Although it doesn’t happen all the time, sometimes a flash decision can work out to be a very memorable one- in a good way! As I battled the wind coming out of the canyon and watched the dirt cloud plume behind my Jeep, as I barreled back home towards Colorado I couldn’t help but feel good- good in my soul and content. Who knows when I will be back. Man, I may not ever come back! I do, however, think that is unlikely. The San Rafael, in all of it’s inhospitable harshness, was so kind to me. In a way I think I might feel like that old truck. Like the truck, I come from a land far removed from the desert and canyons but, if given enough time, I may start to belong.