Swell Hiking: Exploring Buckhorn Wash and the "Little Grand Canyon"

sanrafaelswell01With a few unexpected days off on my hands, I decided to get out of the city and beat feet to the San Rafael Swell.

Midweek, I encountered not one other person on the trail, and the drive down (under four hours, front door to campsite) made it an easy trip from SLC.

According to David Day, author of Utah's Favorite Hiking Trails, the Swell "is a huge elliptical-shaped bubble in the Colorado Plateau that formed some 65 million years ago during a time of great mountain building activity in the American West."

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What this means is that about half an hour's drive southeast of Huntington, beautiful canyon walls began to rise up on either side of the dirt road I was on.  Signs on the side of the road told me which sandstone layers I was passing. Whenever I go to the desert, I wish I were a geologist.

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Also, an archaeologist.  In Buckhorn Wash is an absolutely amazing wall of pictographs and petroglyphs, created roughly 2000 and 1000 years ago, respectively, by the Barrier Canyon and Fremont cultures.

san rafael snowWeather in the desert can be unpredictable any time of year:  I started out my hike up the San Rafael river with a jacket and gloves on, was down to a tank top by midday, and by evening, a small snowstorm (with lightning!) had blown in, leaving a dusting on the ground the next morning.

The river was low in mid-April, but I've heard this section of the San Rafael is floatable (which also makes it hard or impossible to cross on foot) when the water level rises. Near the San Rafael Bridge Recreation Site, where I camped, stands Utah's only remaining suspension bridge, now open only to foot traffic.

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Cattle graze in the Swell, and fences and corrals appear from time to time.  An occasional sign post indicates protected areas, while other trails are open to horses and bikes. It got me thinking about all the different types of relationships we humans have to the land.

Note:  The San Rafael Swell is vast, cell coverage is pretty much nonexistent, and it can be easy to get turned around.  Make sure you do your homework when it comes to planning a trip in this or any wilderness area: check in with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM Price Field Office: (435) 636-3600) for current information and safety questions. Carry all the water you'll need and be comfortable using a map to navigate.