San Rafael is a Swell Getaway

Frosty precipitation continues to pile up in the Wasatch as winter refuses to yield in April. This may be welcome news to die-hard skiers and snowboarders, but several Utah ski resorts are already past their use by dates and some folks are daydreaming of warmer temperatures and the season’s inaugural sun burn, which they’ll brazenly describe as a “base tan.” For those in the latter camp, it’s time to head south. A visit to Utah’s national parks will reveal the hordes had similar ideas, so beat the crowds and the cold by heading to the San Rafael Swell.

Credit: Utah Office of Tourism

In geologic terms the Swell is a sandstone and shale anticline about 30 miles west of Green River, but to sun-seeking outdoor enthusiasts, it’s a seldom-visited haven for camping, hiking, biking and exploring. An easy three and a half hour drive down Route 6 from Salt Lake City is all that separates you from enjoying a spring getaway in the Swell, so gear up and get going.

Three Ways to Play

Hiking in Goblin Valley State Park With surreal rock formations that could make Salvador Dali blush, Goblin Valley State Park is perhaps the Swell’s best-known area. Still, the three trails meandering through the endless maze of hoodoos offers limitless possibilities for exploration. You’re allowed to hike off trail throughout the valley, giving you free reign to chart your own path through an IRL Super Mario World. Just don’t be one of those imbeciles who vandalizes the natural wonders and ruins it for everyone.

Credit: Utah Office of Tourism

Just outside the park, Little Wild Horse and Din and Dang Canyons offer an excellent, non-technical introduction to slot canyons. Little Wild Horse is the easier, but longer of the two, though either are suitable for moderately strong hikers. As always, bring plenty of food, water and sun screen. The trails are well marked, but you’re still in the desert.

  • Goblin Valley State Park: Goblin Valley Road, Green River, UT, 84525
  • Little Wild Horse Canyon Trailhead: Co Rd 1013, Green River, UT 84525

Mountain Biking the Good Water Rim Trail

Overlooking the yawning Little Grand Canyon, The Good Water Rim Trail flat out delivers some of the best views in Utah. The singletrack itself features continuous turns, grade reversals and ledge-filled climbs and descents over its 15-mile length, though it never becomes difficult enough that it should deter intermediate riders.

The Good Water Rim Trail starts at the Little Grand Canyon’s Wedge Overlook, and because it follows the rim of a canyon there’s only 800 feet of elevation change over the course of the ride. That said, it’s exposed and can be hot, so bring plenty of water, especially if you plan to follow the six-mile dirt road back to the trailhead you started at.

  • Start at Wedge Overlook: Castle Dale, UT 84513

Credit: Utah Office of Tourism

Exploring the Past on Buckhorn Wash (Draw) Road

Indulge in a bit of history while you’re in the swell, starting with the Buckhorn Draw Pictograph Panel. The pictographs are more than 2,000 years old, painted by people of the Barrier Canyon Culture with powdered hematite pigments. The pictographs are accessible from a parking lot right by the wall, making the site a great late-day stop after a hike or bike ride. Follow Buckhorn Wash (Draw) Road south for 5.8 miles, and the pictographs will be on the left side.

For a more modern and cryptic historical experience, spend some time exploring the MK Tunnels. The tunnels were created with explosives by the Morrison Knudson Company under supervision of the Department of Defense, purportedly as part of an exploratory process to build a complex similar to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, though ultimately the area’s sandstone was unsuitable for such a structure. Traveling South on Buckhorn Wash (Draw) Road you’ll see an informational sign at a small turnout. From there, a trail leads up a hill towards the tunnels.

  • Buckhorn Draw Rd, Green River, UT 84525

Where to Stay

There are innumerable camping areas near the swell, including a wealth of primitive, dispersed sites on BLM land. Here are a couple easy to find established camping areas for different budgets.

  • The Wedge at Little Grand Canyon:There are 10 numbered camp sites in the area. The first-come, first serve camping is free and features a pit toilet and picnic tables.
  • Goblin Valley State Park: Camping at Goblin Valley is a bit more developed. The 24 camp sites are $30 per night, and there are two Yurts you can reserve for $100 per night. All sites feature centrally located restroom and shower facilities.

See all of our outdoors coverage here.

Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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