Monday, September 22, 2014

Little Grand Canyon and the San Rafael Swell, Utah - Hiking

The San Rafael Swell, located in south-central Utah, is a region of geological uplift that offers some of the best desert solitude anywhere in the state.  The area is managed by the BLM and contains several wilderness study areas, but it does not enjoy the same protection that national parks or monuments do.  This means that  people are free to hike, camp, and ATV without strict regulations or permits, but the area is also a constant battleground of ideas and opinions about how to enjoy and manage it.

Sunset in the San Rafael Swell

A three hour drive from Salt Lake on Friday afternoon brought us to the Wedge Overlook at the "Little Grand Canyon" in the San Rafael Swell.  It is a destination that I have been wanting to explore for a while and this past weekend was the perfect opportunity to check it out.  Camping is available at numbered sites near the Wedge Overlook and we had just enough daylight to enjoy the views of the canyon before setting up camp and settling in for the night.

The Little Grand Canyon in the San Rafael Swell

We woke up before the sun on Saturday morning and headed back to the canyon rim to watch the sun rise.  We had the place to ourselves and the quiet stillness of the desert air surrounded us as we enjoyed the spectacular views.  We wondered why we hadn't been to the Little Grand Canyon before!

Sunrise at the Little Grand Canyon

The Little Grand Canyon at sunrise

Roger enjoying the views

Grant at the Little Grand Canyon

After sunrise, we headed south to check out the Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel, an easily accessible and spectacular panel of Barrier Canyon style art located alongside the road.  After enjoying the pictographs, we left the car at a small parking area and did a short hike through a portion of Pine Canyon.

Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel

Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel

Pine Canyon

Pine Canyon

The temperatures were very warm for late September so we decided to head down to the San Rafael River to check out the old swinging bridge and walk along the river for a bit.  The river banks were extremely muddy from recent floods and the hiking wasn't as lovely as we were hoping, so hopped in the car and headed a little farther south to enjoy the scenery and explore a shallow side canyon leading down the the river.

 Swinging bridge

Hiking in the San Rafael River

Side canyon meets up with the San Rafael River
San Rafael River

The wind picked up in the middle of the night and storm clouds surrounded us on Sunday morning.  We made breakfast and quickly took down camp before the rain began.  We drove to Wellington, UT and up Nine Mile Canyon (which is actually over 40 miles long) since the weather wasn't looking very promising for hiking in the San Rafael Swell.  Nine Mile Canyon was a beautiful drive and some of the rock walls in the canyon are covered with petroglyph panels, a few of which we were able to view with brief hikes from the road.

 Rainbow as we left the San Rafael Swell

Nine Mile Canyon petroglyphs
 Nine Mile Canyon
Nine Mile Canyon

Should the San Rafael Swell be a national monument or a strip mine?  Should it be covered in oil wells, cattle, or backpackers?  It depends on who you ask, of course, but the reality is that the area is not particularly rich in oil or minerals, it's not as awe inspiring as Zion or Arches National Parks, and it's too fragile to support unlimited ATV and off-road use.  Maybe it should just remain the San Rafael Swell, a beautifully ugly and delicate place, where you can wander and enjoy without taking anything from it.