San Rafael Swell, UT
The western slope of the Colorado Plateau is a landscape like no other. Millions of layers of sand and an immense amount of time have created a labyrinth of canyons, soaring spires and improbably rock arches. Just setting foot among these sandstone statues gives you a feeling of stillness and tranquility. The air so silent it is almost deafening.
A lesser known place that embodies this stillness is the San Rafael Swell, UT. Its dirt roads are much less traveled and trails are faint if established at all. When the fast paced world is nipping at your heels, an escape to a different time will cleanse the mind. This is a place where brave and hearty native cultures survived in a harsh environment. Not much seems to grow, the plants and animals either bite, sting or poke. It’s a place where outlaws of the old west would hide among the canyons walls, rustling cattle from local ranchers. Time doesn’t seem to have affected this place like the rest of the world; it’s a sand hour glass that measures in eons.
If a night sky full of stars and a mouthful of sand are what you’re after, the San Rafael Swell will have an adventure to fulfill the appetite.
To get a glimpse of the geological phenomenon that is the Swell, look no further than the Wedge Overlook. Nicknamed the “Little Grand Canyon,” it is far from little. Sweeping views of the changing sandstone layers gives you a geologic timeline you can learn through your eyes.
To Get There:
From the north, a 20-mile section leads to BLM land and the Wedge Overlook. Turn on a signed intersection on SR-10, about 1 mile north of Castledale, from there drive east on a dirt road for about 12 miles. The road turns south at a signed intersection; follow the left fork for six miles to the Wedge Overlook. Bask in the glory that is the San Rafael Swell and catch a glimpse of more places to explore below.
For an immersion into the past without much effort, be sure to take the time to stop at the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. This incredibly preserved Native rock art will have you wondering what kind of existence the Fremont, Paiute, and Ute cultures endured. Images of rain gods and serpents will certainly invoke a feeling of reverence for a simpler time. Take only pictures and leave only footprints for future generations to remember the people who called this landscape home.
To Get There:
From the Hwy 10 from Castledale or Huntington turn off and follow the well-maintained gravel road east. The road is signed along the way for Buckhorn Wash. Follow the road east for 15.1 miles to the signed Buckhorn Wash turnoff. Turn south (right) and follow the Buckhorn Wash road for 6 miles to the pictograph panel.
The San Rafael is home to numerous layers of sandstone, each with a different level of climb-ability. Most of the routes are either on the Navajo or Wingate sandstone which tend to be the most solid of varieties. But remember this is still sandstone and adventure climbing at its finest. The Northern Swell has the highest concentration of climbs and the most quality lines will be found at the Dylan wall. Worthy of the longer approach these Wingate sandstone routes are long and steep, make it a day and enjoy crowd free cragging in the Wild West.
I am conflicted even writing about this very special place. The reason it’s so incredible is the rugged and timeless solidarity this region represents. A place where time is but a grain of sand. Love it like your own.