San Rafael Swell

by TJ Bosworth, Utah Crew

 

Central Utah: Arid and desolate, but full of astounding sights from the cliffs of Black Dragon Wash to the valley views of Eva Conover. One can certainly get lost in a world of red and white stone formations that make up the entirety of the northern San Rafael Swell. Just a few hours’ drive from Salt Lake City, St. George, or even Grand Junction, the great San Rafael Swell is home to many of Utah’s stunning sights. No matter where you journey from, the Swell is sure to excite. Are you looking for the exciting trails that will give you a challenge with a bit of a view? Or are you and the family out for a nice relaxing weekend to see some ancient history? Whichever you prefer, allow this to be your guide through the towering cliffs and open plateaus, leading you on your way to a “Swell” weekend!

For the thrill seeker, your journey will begin off of exit 131 on Interstate 70. This is a well marked and well used exit so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Off of this exit, you can choose your camp. If you are towing your toys to the playground, I would recommend just to the north of the exit. There are plenty of spots in which you can turn your trailer around and set up a good base camp. If you are rough enough to tent it or have an off-road trailer, then consider yourself lucky. I am about to share with you one of my favorite camp spots in the entire state, only accessible by a normal size 4×4 vehicle; No large campers allowed!

From exit 131, you will want to head to the southern frontage road until you reach Reid Nelson Draw. This is where the size matters as you must squeeze through a tight tunnel underneath Interstate 70. After crossing under, you will find yourself at Locomotive Point. From here, you will want to wind around to the opposite side (west), near the beginning of Devil’s Racetrack. Once you reach the end of Locomotive Point, you will be able to drive north back into a little indent into the rock. Camping here will get you away from the crowds and the noise of the freeway traffic at night.

To begin the exciting journey through the Swell, start your day off with The Devil’s Racetrack. This nine-mile-long track is easy enough that you can make it through without breaking, while still providing a fun challenge to both new and experienced wheelers. Razorback is the well-known obstacle along the trail. Once you complete The Devil’s Racetrack, you will want you head southeast for a little ways to reach the trailhead for Fixit Pass. Although only holding one “obstacle”, it will challenge you more than almost anything in the Northern Swell. The second you begin this trail, you can see what lies ahead of you blocking your way to the pass. Loose gravel, dirt, and large boulders are what make up this section. Beyond the pass, you are rewarded with incredible sights that are miles away. End your day with the Cane Wash to Neilsen Dugway route that takes you back to the east end of Locomotive point.

To begin your second day of adventure, you will cross back under Interstate 70 and work your way to Swasey’s Cabin. Eagle Canyon begins here, taking you west to the I70 bridges. Shortly after the bridges, the trail splits. It would be worth your time to head left (west) at this fork to finish off Eagle Canyon and hit a few rocky patches. If you choose to do this you will end up turning around after crossing under I70 again and coming back to this fork. Otherwise, head right (east) to begin Eva Conover. This trail does not have any difficult obstacles, but the views are absolutely worth the easy-moderate rating. At one point, you will find yourself driving along a ledge with stunning views. After your descent down to Coal Wash, you have many choices: Option one is to head north/west along the South Fork of Coal Wash and run Dutch Flat Road to work your way over to Ferron. Option two is to continue east along the North Fork of Coal Wash that will take you back to Devil’s Racetrack where you can run it in reverse. Option three would be to head just a bit further beyond Devil’s Racetrack and run Fixit Pass again if you found it to tickle your fancy. Any way you end your journey, it is sure to be one to remember.

For the family adventure, you may begin driving in from Huntington, also known as the gateway to the Swell. From here, you will head to the Wedge Overlook where you can see the carvings of the San Rafael River referred to as the Little Grand Canyon. Be sure to stop at all of the plaques and read up on the history! After snapping some family photos, continue onto the Goodwater Canyon loop, a mild and windy trail that will take you back partway up the Wedge Overlook Trail. To continue your day, head back to the big parking lot at the trailhead of the Wedge Overlook trail and turn east to work your way to Buckhorn Draw. Along Buckhorn draw, you will find evidence of the Native Americans that used to inhabit this area long ago. Aside from the main Buckhorn Panel, you can venture into any of the slot canyons and have a chance at seeing lesser known pictographs and petroglyphs.

If you are ready to set up camp and have a little down time, work your way south along Buckhorn Wash to the San Rafael River and the old Swinging Bridge Campground. Just a couple bucks will give you a site in this lush campground right on the river (vault toilets available). This campground is also easily accessible for a trailer to be brought in. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the sounds of the river!

For the following day, take a leisurely drive out of the campground to the east along the San Rafael River Road also known as the Mexican Mountain trail. This 14-mile-long maintained road is quite stunning. To the south, you can see the valley where the river winds through, while to the north you will see towering cliffs. Once at the end of the road, you will be faced with Mexican Mountain. With its peak at 6,368 feet, it stands high above the valley below at just under 5,000 feet. There is also a walking path beyond the gate if you feel the need to walk around a bit. In about 2.5 miles you will reach Spring Canyon as the creek meets up with the San Rafael River.

Whichever type of adventurer you are, you will certainly find something to enjoy. The San Rafael Swell is full of trails beyond what I have recommended that can add days onto your expedition. If you wish to plan your own trip, be sure to check out the extensive guides on trailsoffroad.com! New guides are added frequently and are fully up to date so check back often for new information. Whether you live in Utah, or are just driving through, I highly commend you to visit this astonishing region.