The San Rafael Swell, a 70 by 40-mile geologic upheaval located in southeastern UT, has been cut, shaped, and formed over thousands of years into a crazy assembly of sandstone buttresses, canyons, and plateaus. The northern Swell, located north of Interstate 70, offers fantastic hiking, backpacking, biking, and camping at all levels of fun.
What Makes It Great
The Wedge Overlook is a good place to begin exploring the northern Swell. The view from here offers a bird’s eye perspective of the Little Grand Canyon, a 14-mile path cut from the Earth’s crust by the San Rafael River that’s regarded as one of the best San Rafael hikes. This 1000-foot deep gorge reveals towering sandstone cliffs that overlook the canyon’s bottom which is lined with cottonwoods, rabbit brush, and greasewood. The Wedge Overlook also offers great views of Sids Mountain, Assembly Hall Peak, and the highest point in the Swell, Window Blind Peak.
The San Rafael Swell offers camping throughout. Camping at the Wedge in designated sites offers some of the best sunrise and sunset views just feet from your tent. Some of these sites have tables and fire rings while others are completely primitive. These campgrounds are free of charge and are available on a first come, first serve basis. There is a pit toilet located at the center of the Wedge Overlook. A Bureau of Land Management fee campground with pit toilets, tables, and fire rings is located near the San Rafael Swinging Bridge at the east end of the Little Grand Canyon. All campgrounds here are dry so be sure to bring plenty of water, especially in the hot summer months.
Good Water Mountain Biking Trail
Mountain biking any of the dirt roads in the Swell is suitable for the whole family, but for those looking for single-track action with minimal climbing, the Good Water Trail on the Wedge will do the job. Designated for foot and mountain bike traffic, this trail is perfect for those with intermediate biking skills and some endurance. Beginning at the Little Grand Canyon Overlook heading north, the well-marked trail splits from the dirt road within a few hundred yards.
The path contours the rim of the Good Water Canyon, a wash that enters the Little Grand Canyon from the north, and resembles the shape of an ancient pine tree. The trail weaves its way through forests of gnarled juniper, over flat blocks of limestone, and into meadows of grass and sage. This 15-mile loop, from the Overlook and back, will likely take a few hours but it can be shortened by exiting the trail at one of several points where it merges with the campground road.
More Things to Do
Human presence in the Swell goes back thousands of years. Evidence of the Barrier Canyon and Fremont Culture are on display at the Buckhorn Draw Pictograph Panel, which can be seen on your drive or ride down to the river from the Wedge. From the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries the Old Spanish Trail trade route passed through the Swell on its northern flanks. More recently livestock and uranium mining have brought in the most traffic. You can visit the historic San Rafael Swinging Bridge built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to aid cattle crossing the San Rafael River.
Just beyond the Swinging Bridge and BLM campground is the east trailhead of the Little Grand Canyon. Horseback riding, day hiking, and backpacking the canyon are possible year-round. From this trailhead or the one at Fuller Bottom on the western edge, follow a well-used footpath along the river making your way beneath the towering cottonwoods and through the tamarisk. This pleasant hike has minimal elevation change and is moderate, making it one of the most popular San Rafael hikes for visitors.
If you choose to backpack the length of the canyon you will find many sites suitable for camping. The river can be muddy so plan on bringing a water bucket to let the sand settle out before filtering or carry in all the water needed. Floating the class I-II 14-mile length of the Little Grand Canyon in kayaks from Fuller Bottom to the Swinging Bridge is a popular activity open to those with the basic boating experience, and is completely dependent on a water flow rate above 200cfs.
Toward the south end of the swell, near Goblin Valley State Park and the northern stretches of Capitol Reef National Monument, backcountry roads access excellent features like the slot canyons of Little Wild Horse and Ding and Dang and the excellent Hondu Arch.
What You’ll Remember
The sunrises and sunsets from the Wedge are gorgeous. So if you’re camping here, an evening or morning walk is recommended. Not only that, but it’s a great spot from which to start all your memorable adventures around the Swell from hiking to mountain biking and kayaking. With scenery and adventure on par with any of Utah’s National Parks and within a two-hour drive of Green River and Salt Lake City, the northern San Rafael Swell offers a less crowded alternative for those who are willing to make the journey to the more remote spots on the map.
Who’s Going to Love It
Hikers and campers looking for great views or looking to add a little history to their travels. Folks who want to get out explore Utah on foot, by bike, or along the water without all the crowds other destinations bring.
Directions and Logistics
This is a very isolated area so come prepared. Be sure to drink plenty of water and fill up your gas tanks before heading in. There are no fees to enter the San Rafael Swell. Since the roads are gravel, travel can sometimes be difficult after a storm. There are access roads to the San Rafael Swell from S.R. 10 near Huntington and Castle Dale. Visit Utah’s Castle Country for mile-by-mile directions to the Wedge Overlook, Little Horse Canyon and a number of other regional San Rafael attractions.
Byways and Base Camps
The Energy Loop: Huntington-Eccles Canyons Scenic Byway
The Wasatch Plateau is one of Utah’s most important geographical features, marking the division between the vast Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. The Energy Loop road trip combines Huntington Canyon and Eccles Canyon and provides an excellent introduction to the spectacular wilderness of the Wasatch Plateau high country.
Price is a great base camp for visits to Goblin Valley State Park and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. Discover more of the region’s fascinating history at the Prehistoric Museum, USU Eastern or Western Mining & Railroad Museum in nearby Helper. You’ll find some amazing pictograph and petroglyph rock art at places like Nine Mile Canyon, Wedge Overlook, and Buckhorn Draw.