They say the outlaw Butch Cassidy once hid out in the San Rafael Swell.
With the country opening up, the weather warming up and national park visitors lining up, we too wanted to get lost in this vast, ruggedly beautiful setting.The San Rafael Swell arose (literally) about 60 million years ago when tectonic plates collided, pushing the earth’s crust upward. Today it’s roughly 2,000 square miles of public land rising up to 7,000 feet above sea level in the heart of south-central Utah. Over time, wind and rain have sculpted The Swell into a scenic wonderland of variegated canyons, buttes, mesas and cliffs punctuated with sweeping pastures and meandering streams.
On our way down from Salt Lake, we took a little detour into the history of the area at the charming Museum of the San Rafael. We learned about the cultures of Native American tribes and early American settlers in the area, as well as current and ancient wildlife in The Swell’s otherworldly expanse.
From there, we took the freshly graded Green River Cutoff Road into the south side of The Swell and discovered the just-right BLM campsite tucked into magnificent rocky surroundings. Not a soul to be seen but ourselves. Matt and Lauren set up our camp kitchen. Seth and Max (who’s related to Butch Cassidy, by the way) set up tents and started a fire. Then Jeremy and Leta grilled pollo asado and warmed tortillas over the fire while Jay shook up spicy Mezcal margaritas for the crew with his road dog Oliver by his side.
The next morning we cooked up some breakfast sandwiches and packed up our rigs for a day of exploring in the nearby North Temple Wash & Mining Trail. Dust devils swirled in the distance against the pastel rainbow of colors on the starkly stunning strata all around us.
We passed dozens of abandoned mines, barracks and even ancient bed frames from the Uranium mining boom of the 1940s-50s that helped fuel early nuclear power and possibly even Marie Curie’s studies in radioactivity. We’re not overland experts by any stretch, but we’ve each invested in vehicles that can handle this kind of an excursion. It was our first time taking out Jay’s upfitted Sprinter Van, which handled the challenging terrain surprisingly well.
We checked out the North Temple Wash Arch and took in the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel that’s been around for thousands of years, and was likely painted with a surprisingly long-lasting blend of iron ore and animal fats.
Then it was time for a hike through the winding sandstone slot canyons and remarkable rock formations of Little Wild Horse Canyon, named after herds of wild mustangs that have roamed The Swell for hundreds of years. Our creative director Deaver met us there to take some fresh pics of our Fort Desolation gear.
Like those mustangs, we had more wandering to do. So we headed north to experience yet another breathtaking aspect of the area: The Little Grand Canyon. We set up camp on The Wedge Overlook and enjoyed the sweeping panorama of the San Rafael River Canyon—the deepest part of The Swell. For most of us, it was our first time camping on a cliff. We hoped Erik and Dani’s huskies had the same healthy fear of heights we did. (They did just fine.) We even caught a glimpse of the La Sal Mountains looming over Moab 60 miles away in the distance.
After a hearty steak-and-potato dinner around the campfire, we slept soundly in our tents between the sparse juniper trees. (Bonus: Nice, new bathrooms just a short walk from our camp.)
We woke up, whipped up chorizo-egg breakfast tacos and packed up for more exploring. Then we drove through the steep canyons of Buckhorn Draw Road and pulled over to see a dinosaur footprint from the Jurassic era that dwarfed all of ours.
We polished off our escape with a phenomenal drive through Black Dragon Wash, which felt like the Land of the Lost and put our trucks’ skid plates to the test. We stopped to explore the Black Dragon Canyon Pictographs—a large panel of seemingly abstract shapes interspersed with what looked like feathers and footprints. These rich cultural landscapes are a gift from the past and certainly deserve to be preserved for millennia more to come.
The San Rafael Swell made us feel like the only people on earth. It was just the escape we needed. But we had loved ones to see, a music festival to plan and more Fort Desolation progress to make back home. So we made one last stop for burgers at Ray’s Tavern in Green River and headed toward our next adventures in Salt Lake.