San Rafael Swell

  • Black Dragon Canyon is located in the San Rafael Swell.

    Somewhere around the New Year, I had a chance to make a quick trip down to the San Rafael Swell and to take my toddling daughter along for the ride. This would be her first hiking trip—she is only 14 months old—and I was excited to see how she would handle the uneven, rocky trails, and the separation from a warm, comfortable home, with toys, sippy cups, and most importantly, mom.

    We were tagging along with my father, little sister, and the family dog. Our goal was to find Black Dragon Canyon and Petroglyph Canyon near the junction of Highway 6 and Interstate 70. We wanted to get some pictures of the artwork, and of the surrounding rock formations. Beyond that, it was simply an excuse to get away and enjoy the marvelous outdoors that Utah offers.

    Along with Katie’s first time hiking, this was my first time in a while (I’m not going to count military marches), and I was more than a little excited to be scrambling through the redrock again as I had as a youth.

    The drive from Utah County to the San Rafael Swell was relatively quick, only three hours—I am used to 18 hour trips where 12 of them are spent on the road, just to nab some photos of an arch or a set of dinosaur tracks. But three hours is still long for a girl who is has just barely seen her first Halloween. So I was delighted when my little girl was pleasant almost the entire way. I owe my sister, Xanthe, for that one. She is great with kids, and Katie has taken an instant liking to her. We spent a little more time at each fuel stop in order to let her run around and explore the snow. That seemed to keep her happy. You can never appreciate too much having a baby that is easily amused and well-behaved on a long car trip.

    The temperature had dropped as we reached Soldier Summit, but now continued to steadily rise as we neared our sanctuary: the vast reaches of the magical Utah desert. I ought to let you know now that I grew up in Salt Lake, among other places, but almost all of my remaining childhood memories take place within the slot canyons, evergreen forests, and hoodoos of southern Utah.

    By the time we reached the San Rafael Swell, the temperature had finally started flirting with a warm 32 degrees Fahrenheit or so. Perfect for us seasoned wasteland-dwellers. Katie on the other hand was not so thrilled. She has been hesitant in her acceptance of snow, something I had not expected. When we moved here from North Carolina, I had fully expected her to delight in the wondrous Christmas snow. Instead, she—the daughter of a Floridian girl, mind you—had tentatively touched it once, and then signaled that she wanted mommy to pick her back up.

    And now she was staring dubiously at the frozen ground as we got out of the truck and started preparations for the short hike to Black Dragon Canyon. I mentioned that it was warmer now. Sure, warmer than the negative temperatures that we had been watching tick across the display of our vehicle on the way up Soldier Summit. But a temperature of a few degrees short of freezing is darn cold if you’re brand-spanking-new to it.

    Katie did remarkably well. At first, starting away from the truck, I was holding her. I would put her down in the dry wash, trying to urge her to hike with us, to explore. She would take a few steps, get uncomfortably mired in a patch of sand or half-way atop a teetering rock, and she would start to whine for help. Then I would pick her up and catch up with my dad, sister, and our border collie.

    It only took twenty minutes for her to become comfortable with the concept of hiking. She still struggled and fell every here and there, but she adamantly refused my hand from there on out. By the time we reached the black dragon, she was ignoring my attempts to help her climb, preferring to find her own way up the rocks. I just climbed beside her, ready to catch her when she fell.

    The rock art panels in Black Dragon Canyon are marvelous. There are ornate human figures, a dog, and of course, the dragon. They are located just over half a mile up the canyon, at the base of the looming north wall—though it requires a bit of a scramble up the mounds of fallen stone and deposited sediment in order to reach the base of the rock face. The rock art is surrounded by a log barrier that makes them hard to miss. The barrier has an opening at the trailhead that leads up the loose rock.

    Unfortunately, the dragon and its cohorts have been vandalized—someone outlined the drawings with white chalk. For some reason, past visitors have felt the need to add their own artistic signature to those of the ancient Indians; they scrawl or gouge their graffiti with complete disregard for the history and preservation of our dwindling examples of ancient southwest art. Just as bad, but somehow excusable to such people, they outline ancient rock art in chalk to better photograph them and make it easier to notice the figures from the trail. These practices destroy petroglyphs and pictographs and ruin the exciting experience of searching for and finding such sites for future generations.

    Finding rock art is a spiritual experience for me. There is something profound about the sincere representation of a person’s life, culture, and religious beliefs left scribed onto the side of a cliff for me, hundreds or thousands of years later to come along and ponder. The earliest forms of writing and recorded history were conceived on the walls of ancient caves and canyons, giving us a link to those who passed on so long before our modern world.

    I sat under the eaves of the north wall, Katie playing in the rocks at my feet, and I gazed up at the massive canyon that rose about me. The subdued red, brown, and gray of the sandstone contrasted sharply against the crisp blue sky. As I sat there I realized that I have not seen a sky so crystal blue in a long time; it almost seemed electric. I have been back east, and in the Middle East for quite a while now, surrounded by the haze and the humid gray of development and smog. Even Iraq lacked the color of the San Rafael desert around me. This was a therapy session for me.

    All too soon it was time to move on. We backtracked toward the truck, walking slow so that Katie could keep up with us. She would stop every thirty seconds or so and examine the pebbles on the trail. She likes to take rocks home for her mommy. We got back to the truck eventually and drove to the trailhead for Arch Canyon and the route to Petroglyph Canyon. I took twenty minutes to run up Box Spring Canyon located at the trailhead, taking pictures of the frozen creek, while the others ate.

    Then we were following a ravine that ran perpendicular to the reef, into Arch Canyon. The hike up the westward canyon is short, though steeper than Black Dragon, which is relatively flat up to the dragon itself. Arch Canyon splits a little ways in, going to the right while the tiny Petroglyph Canyon heads left. We went to the end of Arch first, eager to explore. The canyon ends at what could be a decent swimming hole dependent on the temperature of the water—in the cold of winter it served better as a skating rink as we ran and slid across its frozen surface in our hiking boots and running shoes. Katie daintily started out across the ice, and promptly did the splits as her feet flew out from under her. Bewildered but undaunted, she finally accepted my help as she stood and started out across the slippery surface again.

    Above the ice rink the canyon walls close in and create a dead end that would require climbing gear to mount. At the top of the canyon wall is a set of three small arches, two of them very close, the third farther down and to the right. These arches give the canyon its name. Arch canyon is labeled as possessing a triple arch, which is a misnomer as the arches are not connected to each other.

    We explored the end of Arch Canyon for a bit longer and then turned back to where Petroglyph Canyon branches off of Arch Canyon and heads in a southwesterly direction. Petroglyph is an extremely short, blunted canyon with its rock art along the black-varnished west wall, very close to the end. The walls of Petroglyph were darker than Arch, and very angular. There are two sections of rock art here, petroglyphs of herd animals and their tracks etched into the dark varnished area of wall, and then, harder to find, a faded panel only a stone’s down canyon of that. Sadly, this smaller panel had been vandalized in the past, gouged with a blade. Visitors who witness the vandalism of a rock art site should report it immediately.

    Katie was starting to fuss now as we entered the canyon in search of the rock art panels. It was later in the afternoon and she was getting cold and hungry. The early evening wind was becoming frigid, and though she was bundled up, my little girl was starting to feel the clinging cold on the ends of her fingers and nose. That cut our exploration short slightly; we took enough time to find the petroglyphs and take some photos of them, and then we took off, emerging back into the gulch beside the great San Rafael reef.

    I carried Katie back to the truck, anxious to get the little kid out of the cold, and to get some food in her belly. I hate hurrying through the sandstone deserts of southern Utah. I enjoy taking my time and soaking in the scenery. Like the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs and their timelessness and mystery, I have always felt that the desert hides great wonders that I will discover if I only stay long enough to watch and listen. I feel different after a weekend of bouldering or canyoneering. It is rejuvenating and awakening. I certainly enjoy the climbing itself. I enjoy the feel of the single-track racing by under my tires. I crave the adrenaline boost that fuels my last pull up a rock face. But there is something underneath it all when I stop and relax. Something subtle and quiet, almost religious.

    For Katie, I doubt that the experience was so humbling. Instead, I think that she concentrated on the rock-scrambling. That is all right with me. Culture increases as awareness grows. I am not worried that she will long remain blind to the history and ecology of her home. Until then, it is neat to see her develop a taste for the outdoors, to see her focus on one stone and the path that she will have to take in order to climb around or atop it. I am eager to see in two or three years how much her love for hiking and climbing has grown.

    Until then, I am going to continue to share the experience with her. I am going to continue to let her explore the vast deserts and sub-alpine forests of Utah. If she is as much of a sandstone junkie as I am when she grows up, I will know that I have done my job.

    Brainwashing at its finest.


  • A fun, gravel backcountry road follows Buckhorn Wash through the northern part of the San Rafael Swell, north of I-70.

    In the lower end of the wash you can find interesting rock art figures created by ancient Native Americans. The panel is signed and easy to find.

    A major landmark is where the road crosses the San Rafael River. A primative BLM campground is located in that area. The rock art is along the road some ways north of the bridge.

    San Rafael bridge: Lat: 39.081202, Long: -110.666153


  • Temple Mountain, in the San Rafael Swell, is a popular playground to ride dirt bikes, atvs and to camp, hike and explore. The rock art is in plain site but most people are not aware it is there. They drive right by and never see it.