By Sara Porterfield
The San Rafael Swell is located in east-central Utah, about 250 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. One of the most popular and spectacular areas for canyoneering is the San Rafael Reef, in the southeastern section of the Swell near Goblin Valley State Park. The section described here stretches from Muddy Creek on the southwestern edge to near Goblin Valley on the northeast side. This is a spectacular area with many beautiful and technical slot canyons to explore.
The easiest way to access this section of the Reef is from Goblin Valley State Park, north of Hanksville, Utah. This route involves less dirt road-driving than the northern route, though the road does cross, or in some cases follow, a wash that will flood during and after a rainstorm.
From Salt Lake City: Take I-15 South to exit 258/ US Hwy 6. Follow Hwy 6 through the Wasatch Mountains, the towns of Price and Wellington, and a long stretch of desert that parallels the Book Cliffs (and seems to go on forever), and down to I-70. Take I-70 West to UT-24 West (heading towards Hanksville, Utah) for about 25 miles. Follow signs for Goblin Valley State Park – you will take a right (west) on Temple Junction Road from UT-24, then a left (south), staying on the pavement, onto Goblin Valley Road. Immediately before the park entrance, take the good dirt road to the right. See below for directions to specific canyons.
It’s a good idea to stop in Green River to gas up before heading down to Goblin Valley. To get there, take I-70 East at the junction of Hwy-6 and I-70 for about 1 mile, and take the first Green River exit. I highly recommend the first truck stop on the left – clean bathrooms, hot water for coffee-making, and a solid selection of candy.
All of the land you are on once you leave the pavement is run by the BLM, so you can camp wherever you want. However, PLEASE follow Leave No Trace principles, especially those for desert regions (see: http://www.leavenotracedude.com/lnt-desert.shtml; http://test.lnt.org/programs/principles.php) in all of your activities. There are plenty of established campsites, so please use one of these (they are often at the end of spur dirt roads of varying quality). It is definitely useful to have a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle on these roads – I’ve gotten a van quite stuck in the loose sand of a wash, and thankfully there was a pickup truck around to pull us out.
There is no water available in the Swell, so bring what you will need (plan on 2-3 gallons per person per day, at least 1 gallon of that as drinking water). There are established fire rings in many of the campsites, and if you must have a campfire (see LNT ethics above), please bring your own firewood.
The closest town is Hanksville, Utah (1 hour or more) or Green River (1½ – 2 hours), neither of which has what I would call a bustling cultural center, though they will have your basic necessities. And Green River has the added advantage of Ray’s Tavern, a burger-and-beer joint that used to be the town’s bar, post office, and general store. Ray’s Tavern is a favorite of river runners taking off of the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River, so smelly dirtbags are welcome. Moab, the mecca of all things adrenaline-sport related and touristy (it’s okay, I’ve lived there) is three-ish hours from the Swell (all driving times are subject to road conditions). Water is available in Goblin Valley State Park, though you will have to pay the $5 entrance fee.
For all but the easiest canyons (Little Wild Horse and Bell), folks who wander into the Swell should have some canyoneering experience, or travel with someone who does. There are many, many ways to get into trouble out there, so please be careful. Even if you’re a 5.12 climber with AMGA certs, the canyons present some interesting puzzles.
The Swell is under a “No-Bolt Ethic,” so leave those bolt kits at home. Some bolts have been placed, though approach these with caution – sandstone is not the most bomber rock, and just because a canyon has bolts does not mean it was descended successfully and safely. Natural anchors are almost always possible, though not… conventional… (see: http://www.canyoneeringusa.com/rave/quan/sandbag.htm). A bundle of sticks wrapped with webbing once evoked exclamations of “Wow! What a bomber anchor!” from me.
Canyoneering is one of the most challenging, exhausting, rewarding, and beautiful ways to travel. There is always a puzzle to solve, whether it is figuring out how to build an anchor in a bare, sandy, straight-walled canyon or just exactly how to contort your body to squeeze through a narrow section. You never know what will be around the next turn of the canyon walls – a 95-foot rappel; a deep, emerald pool hidden in miles of desert; a beautiful sandstone amphitheater large enough to hold an orchestra. You will be sore, bruised, scraped up, your poly-pro in shreds, but I guarantee it will be worth it.
Fall: This is the best season for exploring the canyons of the Swell, or for any other desert activity. The cottonwood leaves are changing, the stars are bright at night, temperatures are perfect… so lovely. Days in October average in the high 70s to low 80s, with nighttime lows in the high 30s and low 40s. The weather is usually stable, sunny and clear, though I’ve experienced a month of rain from mid-September to mid-October (not normal). Water may be unreliable in the fall.
Spring: In the spring, the weather is very unpredictable: I have never had a canyons trip in March go according to plan (come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a canyon trip that went according to plan…). There may be sunny, beautiful days in the upper 80s, which turn with surprising speed to a snowstorm the next day. Be prepared for sun, rain, gale-force winds, snow, hail and thunderstorms. Still, if you hit the right window, spring in the canyons is beautiful, with many desert flowers blooming, such as prickly pear, Hopi Blanketflower, Prince’s Plume, Cliffrose, and Claret Cup cactus. Water is also more reliable in the spring, the flip side of this being any potholes you swim are REALLY cold. Bring a wetsuit (a good idea in the fall too).
Summer: Don’t go. Daytime Temperatures are constantly in the high 90s to 100s, with nighttime lows not too much lower. Travelling in a desert environment in the heat of summer can be very, very dangerous, and is not recommended. Water is unreliable and usually non-existent – I have been stuck out here, unable to find water, and let me tell you it’s no fun.
Winter: Cold, snowy, rainy… basically just not fun. Go in the spring or fall instead.
The weather can change quickly in any season, and one of the biggest dangers in the canyons is flash floods. Know the forecast, maybe carry a weather radio (it’s helped me out before, though reception is spotty), and most of all, keep an eye on the sky. If it looks like it’s at all clouding up, get out of the canyon, pronto. Remember, it could be raining way up the drainage and you can’t see it.
These descriptions are to whet your appetite. See Tom’s Utah Canyoneering website or Steve Allen or Michael Kelsey’s books for in-depth route descriptions. Allen’s book has particularly good driving directions.
Little Wild Horse & Bell Canyons
From the turnoff onto the dirt road from Goblin Valley Road drive about 5 miles to an obvious trailhead. Park near the pit toilet, and follow the trail into the wash.
These are the easiest and most accessible canyons in the Swell. There is some scrambling required, and traveling on slickrock may take some getting used to, but if you can handle a moderate hike you’ll be fine here. Little Wild Horse is a sinuous slot, a “classic” canyon. Head right at the junction to see Little Wild Horse first, then return down Bell. The route is pretty well-signed.
Ding & Dang
Another mile or so beyond the Little Wild Horse trailhead, you’ll come to a sharp bend in the road (from due west to south) and an obvious wash with large cottonwoods coming in from the west. Park here and hike up the wash.
Ding is a moderate canyon with some scrambling/climbing to get past several “jumps” in the canyon (where a fairly significant change in elevation occurs, usually when sediment has been backed up behind large chockstones at the floor of the canyon). You may need a handline or a spot for less experienced folks.
Descend Dang, after a hike around the back side of the Reef. One large downclimb/rappel, and several smaller, fun obstacles.
Cistern Canyon is a beautiful, easy canyon which can be reached from the backside of the Reef. See Allen or Kelsey’s books or Tom’s Canyoneering website for driving directions.
This is usually used as a return route from Ramp canyon, but can be done as an easy dayhike.
Beautiful and fun! Located to the west of Cistern and the most obvious canyon from the Quandary Canyon trailhead (near the dead car, see Allen’s book). I’ve both ascended and descended this canyon, and either is great, though I think I prefer to come up it. There is one walk-around to avoid some short pool drops near the bottom of the canyon, and a 5.5 climbing section. There’s a great slickrock campsite near the top of the canyon (see photo).
This is the business. Beautiful narrow slots, exciting rappels, and a very technical “keeper pothole” section, which can be avoided. Quandary is easily one of the most beautiful canyons I’ve ever been in. You need to know what you’re doing if you’re headed in here. There’s a beautiful natural bridge before the technical section, and a few small potholes which often have water. Also home to the most beautiful campsite in the world, but I’m not going to tell where exactly that might be.
This is the furthest west canyon before you reach the Muddy Creek drainage. Like Quandary, you must approach this from the rim above the dead car, and the views from the top are spectacular. There are a few different ways to experience Knotted Rope (see Tom’s website), but the direct route is a whole lot of fun, with many, many potholes to swim and puzzles to solve. Return via Muddy Creek.
Muddy Creek is a beautiful, deep canyon that drains a large area of the Swell. You can hike this canyon as a mellow day hike (though the walk back up the hill out of the creek is steep. Real steep.), or use it as the return route from Quandary or Knotted Rope. You will be wading in the creek off and on, so wear shoes that can get wet.
Not a canyon, but pretty amazing and definitely worth the $5 entrance fee to the park. It has a multitude of crazy rock formations you have to see to believe – “Goblin Valley” is a worthy name. Galaxy Quest, a quality film if there ever was one, was partially filmed here, so be on the lookout for Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver. The campsite is very nice, and is a great place if you’re only checking out a couple canyons (Little Wild Horse/Bell and Ding/Dang).
Tom’s Utah Canyoneering Guide, San Rafael Swell: http://www.canyoneeringusa.com/utah/swell/index.htm
Steve Allen. Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell.
Michael Kelsey. Hiking and Exploring Utah’s San Rafael Swell, 3rd edition.
USGS Topographic Maps: Hunt Draw, UT quadrangle, Little Wild Horse Mesa, UT quadrangle