The San Rafael Swell



A huge and fabulous setting needs to get President Obama's attention by saving it from the ravages of exploitation. Those behind this effort declare the San Rafael Swell the last great stand of wilderness. Such a sanctioning can only come from the Oval Office by way of the President's signature.

Consider this virtual tour in the series as one of those places that just might fit the saying, "Now you see and later you won't." At the very least, the 'Swell,' as this terrain is commonly called, needs a Wilderness protection status. So far there remains a deadlock on this matter, as well. (For instance, this URL's notice to the public covers the issue:

In south central Utah, Emery County. Closest city: Green River. Area: 2,000 square miles and measures 75 miles long by 40 miles wide. San Rafael Swell is a sprawling territory with a pronounced dome-shaped anticline containing reef-like features (similar to the Waterpocket Fold country and therefore reef-like) and a high plateau setting beset with canyons and mesas. I-70 divides this sprawling territory into distinct northern and southern sectors.

With reefs and an anticline region of exceptional beauty, San Rafael Swell is America's last and wild frontier. Divided into two main parcels of landscape. Its geography and picturesque terrain is perhaps one of the Southwest's best kept secrets. Focus: geology and human history (prehistoric to present).

Snapshot: The San Rafael Swell's singular topography consists of a giant dome-shaped anticline of sandstone, shale and limestone that was pushed up millions of years ago. That geophysical event also set the stage for what would become some of the most engaging scenery in the borderland between Utah and Colorado. The extensive and rugged landscape, set in the wilds of Utah, has a northern sector that is drained by the San Rafael River. The southern sector is drained by a number of smaller streams, eventually flowing into the Dirty Devil River in Hanksville. This muddy river, just a small tributary really, earns its odd epithet by the high level of silt that erodes and is washed into it. The larger San Rafael River joins the Green River before eventually flowing into the Colorado River. The Dirty Devil, exiting at Muddy Creek Gorge, then flows into the Fremont River. On the southeastern edge of its boundary is Goblin Valley, an equally engaging terrain. It's often said that Arizona may have the Grand Canyon as its main centerpiece attraction, but for a wealth of scenic places, Utah's San Rafael Swell takes the prize. As a whole, the San Rafael Swell's maze-like features can easily be visited many times with no repetition. Most of its ranging estate is managed by the BLM, although there are ongoing environmental movements to upgrade its status to a national monument. So far, those efforts have failed.

Guided Tour Essentials
This territory of (mostly) public land is known for its picturesque sandstone formations, desert waterways, expansive panoramas and deep canyons. An integral part of the Colorado Plateau's physiographic province, the Swell mimics a massive maze of winding canyon country beset with broken fins and lofty buttes in the heart of south-central Utah. Set into a large parcel of land 75 miles north to south and 40 miles across, this is indeed big country. It may just be the last wild frontier in North America, though it's commonly still used as grazing ranch land for cows and sheep. About the only thing remotely modern about the Swell is how its province is bisected by a busy interstate (I-70). Both landmass parcels of the Swell are distinct in other ways. The northern sector is home to the Little Grand Canyon, as well as Mexican Bend and Saddle Horse Canyon. The southern part is distinguished by peaks bordered by narrow canyons, among them Devils and Eagles canyons. The number of streams and the San Rafael River are important in the downcutting and fashioning of this geologic slice and prize of the Colorado Plateau, especially the Green and Colorado rivers, its principle drainages.

Eons ago, tremendous geologic upheavals formed a giant dome of rock––a swell––in the planet's surface. The elements beat down onto and against this dome, then eroded its formation into a wild, broken array of multicolored sandstone from different geologic periods. Wind and water carved this jumble of rock into buttes, canyons, pinnacles and mesas. This process of landmark building made the Swell one of the most beautiful pockets of terrain in the world; also, an isolated sector as a result of its rugged topographical contour. Its wide and high plateau setting is crossed by two entrenched river systems and surrounded by a ring of upturned strata. The canyons inscribed into the landscape are sometimes wide with stepped sides, while others are narrow and slot-like. An uplifted region of layered rocks, the Swell is oval-shaped and geologically classified as an anticline (a convex fold in the Earth's crust with its oldest formation beds at the core). Anticlines are usually recognized by a sequence of rock layers that are progressively older toward the center of the fold. Consequently, the uplifted core (of the fold) is eroded to a deeper stratigraphic level relative to the lower flanks. In short, the strata dip away from the center (the crest) of the fold. Much of the Swell's former landscape before the doming process has since eroded away, forming a mostly flat central plateau. However, the strata at the edges are left exposed and are often angled nearly vertically. This description effectively defines the San Rafael Reef, where many of the spectacular canyons are found, especially in the state's southeastern quadrant. Go-Utah photos, though revealing, don't quite match the realness of the Swell when viewed with one's own eyes. But photos certainly will do for memory's keepsake. . .

Bonus Details
The entirety of this region was formed when deeply buried Precambrian rocks were faulted during the Laramide Orogeny. (This orogeny marks a lengthy period of intense mountain-building in western North America that began 70 to 80 million years ago and ended some 35 to 55 million years ago.)

Compared to surrounding areas, these basement rocks below the present-day geologic and geographic features moved upwards. The movement caused overlying sedimentary rocks to fold into a dome-like shape. The resulting structure is analogous to a series of light- and dark-colored Indian blankets draped over a coffer (because of the geologic cache found here).

Since that time, the relentless force of running water has eroded the numerous layers, resulting in older rocks gradually exposed in the middle of the Swell as the younger layer eroded away, with younger rocks exposed around the edges. Many of the most impressive landforms are composed of more resistant rocks, including the Navajo Sandstone, Wingate Sandstone and Coconino Sandstone. Because the folding process is much steeper on the eastern edge of the Swell than in the west, this eastern edge is referred to as the reef of San Rafael. Indeed, part of the Swell has geographic features that resemble some other planet of our solar system, possibly Mars. There’s mega sandstone here and odd formations enough to suggest a planetary atmosphere!

An aerial overview:

Human History
Evidence of prehistoric-to-historic-to-modern Native American cultures abounds throughout the Swell territory. These tribes include (especially) the Fremont, Southern Paiute and Ute Indians. Glyphs abound as testimony to their presence. Historically, from about 1776 to the mid-1850s the Old Spanish Trail trade route passed through (or just north of) this region. Indeed, this heavily corrugated terrain was crossed by various expeditions during the exploration of the West. Nevertheless, the Swell received virtually no permanent settlement! It was simply too exacting of an already isolated territory. More recently, the area has seen sporadic mining operations, principally for uranium (most intensively around the Temple Mountain area discussed below). Smaller amounts of copper, silver, oil and gas are also sought here. Otherwise, ranching has been, and continues to be, the only major manmade industry on the land. Herds of wild horses and burros still roam parts of the plains, and bighorn sheep may sometimes be spotted in the canyons. Most of the human tracks across the area result from prospectors in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. Their makeshift and rambling routes provided the only access until 1972, when I-70 sliced its way through the diverse landscape. Various exits now allow easy entrance to the middle section and links with the old tracks. Hiking and exploring are the main reasons people visit and explore the Swell's attractive geologic features. For those who are willing to hike, there are trails to mountains, historic sites, old mines and numerous canyons. Most hikes are extended and strenuous. For instance, the popular hike to the Black Boxes of the San Rafael River. There are also easy jaunts such as paths leading down to Little Wild Horse Canyon (what many consider a must-see setting).

For anyone who has ever been to the Swell and viewed the myriad glyphs throughout its territory, I am sure the experience was not only profound, but the setting somehow enhances the sensation. Here are just some of the many and truly unique rock art images that are found here. . .

Temple Mountain
Other than the road to Goblin Valley State Park, the most accessible area of the San Rafael Swell is around Temple Mountain. Halfway to the park (6 miles from UT 24), a side route branches off westwards, slicing through the territory. It's also the only road along the entire eastern edge (apart from I-70). Multicolored walls of Wingate Sandstone rise up to 500 feet.

Two sections of the cliffs on the north side have quite impressive pictograph panels, mostly Fremont depictions (anthropomorphs with large trapezoid body shapes, splayed fingers and ornate headdresses).

The cliffs recede on the far side of the reef to reveal an angular landscape of numerous red ridges, ravines and cliffs, including a prominent peak to the north. The main reason to take this road is to reach sites in and around Temple Mountain. It's also the locale of a main mining area that was in use from 1910 to about 1960. At one time, large amounts of uranium ore were extracted from strata of the Chinle Formation. Many shafts, stone buildings, spoil heaps, rusty iron equipment and other debris remain in place, plus a large winch tower. A leisurely jaunt around the mountain, using old mine roads, makes for an interesting hike (taking about two hours). The rocky badlands beneath the mountain are also strewn with many pieces of petrified wood from the Chinle Formation, the same found in Arizona's Petrified NP. The old tracks branch off the main road at the site of Temple Mountain village where a settlement was built to service the miners. It once included a gas station and general store, though little trace of the town remains today.

A Viable Question Of Protection Status
Although the San Rafael Swell is managed by the BLM, this territory is otherwise not protected, though some sectors are now set aside as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA). However, since February 2010 another campaign for national monument protection is under consideration by President Obama's administration. Until then, it remains open to typical land use, mainly ranchers grazing their cattle (only in set aside sectors). This region is also dotted with squares of land managed by The Utah School andInstitutional Trust Lands Administration, as is much of the State of Utah.

And we need to protect this awesome setting. Remind the President of this fact!

If not for the beauty and solitude of the Swell, then we must be remember to protect the past and the people who once lived here and left us their painted images.

Bonus Details
For sci-fi and black ops buffs, somewhere in the Swell country the supposed new Area 51 is said to exist. If this story is true, the former Nevada super top-secret operation has relocated here. It is also rumored that a portion of the Swell is set aside for advanced technology and aircraft testing. Consider, for example, the Aurora (SR-91)―the name for a hypothesized United States reconnaissance aircraft said to be capable of hypersonic flight, also a prototype deemed a modern replacement for former top secret aircraft like the much earlier SR-71 Blackbird. Other strange and mysterious craft such as the hypersonic glider, the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 are also tested at top secret ranges. Area 51's Skunks Works (Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs) black operations (near Las Vegas, NV) might have been (according to speculation) relocated to the Swell country. This new is based on rumor, of course, because the Swell is even more remote and less likely to be encroached upon by visitors. Then again, frequent sightings of strange aircraft in this backcountry region are evidence enough for some people to think black ops programs are a reality and ongoing.

But I don't live in that other place anymore. There are also no photos of my new home. Please help save the Swell and we aliens who are kept as prisoners and yukky science stuff!

One last look as a reminder what's at stake. . .

Bisected by I-70, with Price, Utah, just 25 miles (40 km) north and Green River, Utah, 20 miles (32 km) to the east. The closest town is Castle Dale (to the west).

Contact Information: Try the Museum of the San Rafael Information Center, 96 N. 100 E., Castle Dale UT 84513. Phone: 435-381.5252. Fax and Email: non-listed.

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.

Happy Trails!


P. S. One final plea as a reminder sent to Washington:

Make us all smile by endorsing the Swell as the latest national monument, Mr. President!