By Golden Webb
The San Rafael Swell is a spectacular region of spires, buttes, canyons and mesas that was only recently discovered by the outside world. By outside world I mean anyone who doesn’t live in Carbon or Emery Counties, run a cattle or sheep outfit, and go by the name of Slim. The Swell has been mined and ranched since the days of early pioneers, and for decades was ignored by outdoor enthusiasts. But then I-70 was blasted right through its heart, right through the San Rafael Reef, and people traveling to and fro began to poke their heads out their windows and say, “Wow, look at that pretty canyon, Eunice.”
In the early 80’s a guy named Steve Allen began to shine a light into its more remote, inaccessible regions, and what he uncovered was a piece of real estate as spectacular and unique as any Zion or Capitol Reef. Rumblings have been heard from environmental groups, whispered ideas, about turning The Swell into a national monument or designated wilderness area. Whether or not it should be is beyond the scope of this article. The point is there’s some spectacular, enchanted country in there, and the Chute of Muddy Creek may be the most spectacular of all.
Muddy Creek starts high on the Wasatch Plateau, fed by sweet springs bubbling up among the alpine meadows and aspen groves. From such humble beginnings it ultimately flows 90 miles, slicing through the desert to join the Fremont near Hanksville and become the Dirty Devil River. Along the way it has cut deep into the Coconino Sandstone of the western San Rafael Reef, carving a narrow slot that is similar to the Black Boxes of the San Rafael River to the north. But where the Black Boxes are dangerous, challenging, unpredictable swims through deep pools, rock-falls, and logjams, the Chute presents no more obstacles than the occasional frog-kickable pool and slick mud.
If walking downstream, the hike begins at Tomsich Butte, an old area of mining activity. One can still see the openings to mine shafts in the sheer cliff faces south of the stream, like windows in a great stone monolith. The route follows an old mining track for a few hundred yards, and then its 50 percent wading, 50 percent sagebrush whacking until the walls close in and The Chute begins, about 1.5 to 2 hours from the car park.
The hike is as straightforward as possible, as you simply walk down-canyon, through the stream, over rippled mud, through sand bars and atop an occasional boulder or two. When I was there the Colorado Plateau was in the midst of its late summer monsoon season, and heavy rains up on the Wasatch Plateau had swelled Muddy Creek to a substantial flow of water. In early summer and fall the creek should be at most ankle-deep throughout, with a few holes requiring wading, but during my sojourn there the banks were full and I found myself swimming on numerous occasions. Where there were banks the sand and mud was blanketed with fragrant drifts of pine needles and cones that had washed down from forests high above, giving the canyon a strangely pleasant watery, dusty, Christmasy smell.
About four to six hours of constant wading brings you to the logjam, a clump of desiccated logs suspended between pinching walls 25 feet above the stream. This is the narrowest portion of the Chute. It will take another hour to exit the narrows, and once out of the narrows about an hour and a half to reach the end of the hike at the Hidden Splendor Mine.
The mine was ironically named. Whatever was found in the mine was perhaps temporarily splendorous, but the good times were short-lived. The Chute of Muddy creek, just upstream from the hole in the ground, was the true Hidden Splendor, a jewel crafted by time, water, and the hands of God into something splendid indeed.
How to Get There
The road to Muddy Creek is suitable for light-duty vehicles when conditions are good (i.e. no rain, mud, ice, washouts, etc.), but its recommended you use a high-clearance or 4WD.
Take the signed Goblin Valley exit on Highway 24, punching your trip odometer to 0.0 as you do so. Follow the road 5.1 miles to the signed Goblin Valley junction, continuing west on the paved road. At mile 7.2 is a “Tee.” Stay on main road to the right. At mile 15.8 is another junction. Stay to the left. At the signed junction at mile 18.5 stay to the left. At mile 19.3 go left toward Mckay Flat. At mile 27.5 stay to the right. Go left at mile 32.4 toward Hondoo Arch.
The road goes over a small hill, Hondoo Arch becomes visible straight ahead, and Muddy Creek is below. At mile 32.9 the road divides. The hike starts at the end of the track to the left.
From Tomsich Butte to Hidden Splendor Mine is about 15 miles, so plan on 8 to 10 hours walking time. Some could do this in one long day, but they’d need a car shuttle at one end. Most people hike into the Chute a ways and then return the same way.
If you do the complete hike and want to leave a shuttle at Hidden Splendor Mine, you’re going to want to turn left (south) at the junction of the Mckay Flats road and the Hidden Splendor road (mile 27.5 above). It is 9.8 miles to the Hidden Splendor Mine area. Follow a track from a water tank west across an old airstrip to Muddy Creek.
- USGS 7.5 minute series: Tomsich Butte; Hunt Draw; The Frying Pan; Ireland Mesa
- USGS 15 minute series: Wild Horse; Emery
- USGS metric series: San Rafael Desert; Salina
- Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell, by Steve Allen
- Canyoneering 2: Technical Loop Hikes in Southern Utah, by Steve Allen
- Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 1st.-4th. Editions, by Michael R. Kelsey
- Hiking and Exploring Utahs San Rafael Swell, 2nd. Ed., by Michael R. Kelsey