Located in south-central Utah about 30 miles west of the town of Green River is the San Rafael Swell. The swell covers an area approximately 75 by 40 miles, and consists of a giant dome-shaped anticline of sandstone, shale, and limestone that was pushed up 60-40 million years ago. Over time, powerful flash floods have eroded the sedimentary rocks into numerous valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes. Although there are some officially managed areas in the Swell like Goblin Valley State Park, much of the area is wide open for self-guided exploration. We decided to use a few days of our Spring Break back in April to go check the place out.
After a night spent in Ely, NV, we continued east into Utah. We headed south into the Swell on Route 24 just west of the town of Green River. We took the turnoff to Goblin Valley State Park, but didn’t plan to camp there, since most of the campsites in the park are reserved well in advance. Instead, cutting through the reef, we took Temple Mountain Road in search of a place to setup a tent on public lands.
Big RVs full of OHVs were camped all along Temple Mountain Road, filling every available spot. We headed west behind the reef until we got to an area that was too rugged to bring a big trailer. The challenge now was to find a place that was flat enough for a tent, somewhat out of the wind, and not in the path of a potential flash flood. We finally decided on a small patch of ground just north of the entrance to Crack Canyon.
Getting out of the wind was not an easy task, and I don’t think our chosen spot made much of a difference. We did our best to use our vehicle as a windbreak, setting up our gear downwind. Even still, cooking was difficult, and our chairs kept falling over. We spent a noisy night in the tent, the rain fly flapping in the breeze the whole time.
We packed up camp quickly the next morning and drove just a little further down into the canyon. It was nice to be so close to the trailhead and ready to go! Navigating into the canyon was easy, as all washes funneled their way down to the canyon bottom. We made sure to note our route in, though, as finding our way back to the vehicle on the return trip would be more difficult with the maze of incoming washes.
Once down in the canyon, the narrow walls towered above us. It was an amazing sight to see, and gave me the reassurance that driving two days to go for a hike was all worth it. The terrain and rock formations were always changing with so many interesting things to look at and contemplate. Many rocks warranted climbing for further exploration.
We went as far as the first dry fall. My son climbed down to check out the narrows, but didn’t go too far without us. We decided not to bring the whole family and dogs down the climb, just in case we couldn’t climb back up. We weren’t equipped for a long walk back around the reef! Those looking for a bigger hike can walk the whole canyon to the south end of the reef. It’s even possible to take a neighboring canyon back for a loop hike. We just retraced our route back to the trailhead, and with plenty of more time in the day, made our way back to Goblin Valley State Park for some more hiking.
- National Geographic map of the San Rafael Swell
- Hiking & Exploring Utah’s San Rafael Swell guidebook