San Rafael a Swell of a Drive

Sometimes the best 4WD trips are those taken mostly on a whim. Such was the case with my recent visit to the San Rafael Swell of Utah. It is a fascinating area, and one that offers a tremendous amount of four wheeling opportunities.

Running right up the interior of Emery County in central Utah, the San Rafael Swell is part of a large and intriguing land mass. Tens of millions of years ago massive upheavals in the planet’s crust created a “dome” of rock—a swell in scientific terms. Over time the elements carved away at the rock leaving valleys, canyons, mesas and other formations. The heart of it all is called San Rafael Swell. Imbedded in the Swell is a section called Little Grand Canyon for its resemblance to the more famous attraction.

This land form, covering about 2,000 square miles, is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. In addition to the San Rafael Swell, the area boasts San Rafael Reef, Goblin Valley State Park on the south-eastern end, and numerous other natural features.

Bordered by state highway 24 and US 191 to the east and state highway 10 to the west, the entire area covers about 2,000 of the county’s 4,400-plus square miles. Several communities surround the Swell, with Hanksville to the south and Price on the northern end two of the larger towns. Emery County estimated 10,631 souls in 2014.

I was vaguely familiar with San Rafael Swell when I set out in May. My destination was Moab. But if you know me, you know I can’t pass up the chance to check out some new terrain. If I can add another tour to my list, that’s even better. I love introducing new trails and excursions to my guests.

Over the course of three days, I put on more than 500 miles. Driving conditions varied from fairly easy dirt trails to very challenging boulder climbs. In the north, the San Rafael River was running too deep to cross safely. I was forced to back track on the trail.

While you can enter parts of the natural area from highways 24 and 10, I-70 that bisects the county in an east-west fashion provides quick access with at least three exits that take you into this unique area. From there you can explore using established routes like Moore Cutoff Road and Cottonwood/Buckthorn Wash. The whole point of this exercise was to challenge myself and find new places. So most of driving was on the smaller, unmarked trails.

I saw the two arched bridges that span I-70 up close and personal—from down below. Stopping at the Wedge Overlook afforded me a fantastic and memorable view of San Rafael Swell. It does look a lot like a mini-Grand Canyon – only better if you have only seen the Grand Canyon from the south side!

From the mid-1800s into part of the 20th century, assorted families eked out a living in Emery County. You get a sense of their livelihood in the names of features you encounter. You’ll find Rod’s Valley, Swasey’s Cabin, Clyde & Neil’s Pond and Justensen Flats, to name just a handful.

As for trails, you can try Devil’s Race Track, with its “most difficult” rating. (I didn’t try that one; might hit it the next time.) Or Fixit Pass, so named because, according to legend, every time you drive through it, you have to fix something.

Several tunnels allow off-road traffic to cross under I-70. However, you have to be careful, because they’re not that large. One was only 8’ x 8’—just wide and tall enough for my lifted Land Cruiser to squeeze through.

Not all the time was spent on the trails. Hankering to visit Hanksville, I popped into that community, located in the southern end of the county. While there I also spent some time in Goblin State Park. Back on my first day, I dropped in on the BLM office in Price for some maps and good advice.

It was a whirlwind tour, but very much worth it. Having just scratched the surface, I know there’s a lot more to discover in the San Rafael Swell area. Remote with some campsites and campgrounds sprinkled about, this destination offers a great escape for anyone looking to travel the back trails of America. Meaning, it’s ideal for a 4WD excursion.

Like any trip, preparation is key. Pack as you would for any drive to a remote area. Buddy up with at least one other vehicle, and tell your family where you’ll be and when you expect to return. Because cell coverage is spotty, an alternative communication device would be handy.

National Geographic publishes a really good map of this area. It’s available at the BLM office for about $10. Made of waterproof and tear-resistant paper, it uses the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) mapping system. It was easy to incorporate the information into my GPS and pinpoint my location at any time. Very cool.

The San Rafael Swell area is one of those undiscovered gems you hope for while four wheeling. Since returning, I’ve spent a lot of time digesting all that I experienced. One thing is certain: I will be back. Perhaps you can join me next time.

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