The reality today is there aren’t many remote places left to really get away from civilization.
The San Rafael Swell is one of these remote spots that – while it’s getting on more peoples’ radars – is still large enough to find isolated areas where you will be totally alone and really feel “out there”.
The San Rafael Swell is an enormous geologic feature rising more than 1,000 feet above the desert, just West of Green River, Utah. Known for motorcycle trails, climbing, slot canyoneering and of course jeeping, the area is an ever more popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
We were lucky enough to do a five day trip which accomplished several goals – spring break for kids, wheeling some great trails and shaking down our rigs before our season kicks off.
So by now, you may be convinced already to head out for a trip to the Swells.
Before you go, understand the San Rafael Swell is extremely remote and unforgiving. You may not see people for days in areas. The water that collects is literally poisonous. Despite our best efforts to keep our dogs from drinking the little that is on the surface, two out of the three got sick on our trip.
At times, signage and directions are minimal or completely non-existent (yeah!! – like Moab 20 years ago). It takes navigation skills, good maps and proper preparation to safely and successfully explore this area.
You must take extra fuel. You must take extra water. Realize the hospital is hours away.
The San Rafael Swell may look untouched and pristine, but it has a long history of human influence.
The Native Americans left numerous signs of their presence from many generations of use. The most obvious are the Head of Sinbad and Black Dragon Canyon Pictographs which both feature some very “interesting” designs (go see them and tell me they aren’t drawings of aliens, I challenge you)! Within the Swell keep your eyes open for broken pottery and remnants of Native camps.
The earliest western influences came from outlaws and ranchers. Trying to sketch out a living in such a difficult environment will leave you in awe when you visit Swasey’s Cabin.
Mining for uranium is another fold in the complicated history of the San Rafael Swell. Remnants of uranium mining (some of which can be VERY dangerous) are visible on Temple Mountain and at the entrance to Red’s Canyon.
Mining Uranium always creates radon, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas which accumulates as a natural byproduct of uranium mining in abandoned mines. DO NOT GO INTO ABANDONED MINES. EVER.
Despite seemingly being just any other desert – and despite fairly constant human influence – the San Rafael Swell is quite delicate. Stick to the designated roads and trails.
Dispersed camping is available nearly everywhere in the Swells. You should use existing sites and stick to existing paths for camping. Bring a portable toilet for waste disposal and keep a clean fire (no burning of anything but wood). Plan on packing out everything else you bring in.
Due to mandated Travel Management Planning, numerous trails are currently threatened by closure.
The local BLM and county have fought hard to keep trails open, but lawsuits have a way of inevitably being successful. Get to these trails while you can and be extremely respectful when you are there. Don’t give the other side fuel for the fire!
While there are plenty of Jeep trails offering many opportunities for wheeling from mild to difficult, take the time to enjoy the many other outdoor activities that the San Rafael Swell has to offer:
San Rafael Swell is truly a step back in time. Let’s keep it that way!