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Utah’s San Rafael Swell: Exploring New Off-Roading Opportunities

Posted in Features on June 14, 2017
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Just down the road, almost literally, from the wheeling nirvana of Moab is the San Rafael Swell area of south-central Utah. This is an area that provides approximately 2,000 square miles of fantastic scenery, fascinating history, and fun off-road adventures. The only paved roads in the San Rafael Swell are Interstate 70, which bisects the Swell in an east-west direction for 67 miles, and a spur of I-70 called the Moore Cutoff. The major difference between off-roading in the Moab area and the Swell area is fewer people, and the area is more remote in regard to the distances to small towns with services. Utah towns that ring the Swell are: Price, Green River, Hanksville, Cainsville, Emery, Castle Dale, Huntington, and Cleveland.

Looking south into the Hondu Country from the Copper Globe/Link Flats trail Sulphur Canyon overlook. The trail is suitable for stock 4X4 SUVs.

Introduction To The San Rafael Swell
The area is called a swell because geologists estimate that 60 million years ago, the layers of rocks, sandstone, shale, and limestone, that constituted the surface of the Earth were pushed upward into a large dome-shaped area. Geologists call this type of development an “anticline.” The east side of the San Rafael where I-70 enters Spotted Wolf Canyon illustrates the rock walls extending for miles that are pitched up to 60 degrees or more. This area is referred to as the San Rafael Reef. After the uplift, erosion from water and other environmental conditions began to wash away the softer rock and shaped the landscape that we see today. The east and south side of the San Rafael Swell contain numerous narrow canyons and the central and western part contain open vistas, broad canyons, natural arches, rock castles, and towering spires. Most of the roads originate from old cattle trails and ’50s uranium mining roads.

Driving up the “Reef” west of the east entrance to Black Dragon Canyon in stock 4X4s.

Like the trails in the Moab area some of the roads in the San Rafael Swell have interesting and descriptive names. Names such as Devils Race Track and Fix-it-Pass bring to mind use of low-range and engaged rear lockers. Other roads are a bit more moderate such as Eagle Canyon and North Temple Wash. Still other roads are easy driving on graded dirt or gravel and lead to such interesting and photogenic locations such as The Wedge Overlook and the Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel. There is something for everyone in this immense and beautiful area known as the San Rafael Swell. Camping opportunities include commercial campgrounds in the towns that ring the swell, four state parks near the Swell, four designated BLM camping areas and primitive tent camping on BLM land. The Swell is a high desert environment and the best time to explore the area is spring and fall, as the summers can be quite hot and the winters very cold. This area offers a unique and remote opportunity to view new landscape and history. The San Rafael Swell is rural and remains a little old fashioned compared to other areas. That is the attraction.

San Rafael River entering the “Little Grand Canyon of Utah,” an area accessible by graded dirt road.

Eagle Arch
A favorite place to visit is Eagle Canyon as a fun four-wheel-drive adventure for a stock vehicle after passing the historic Swasey Cabin. This is a relatively easy drive from I-70 Exit 131 and then south on the Temple Mountain Road. Follow the signs to the Swasey Cabin. The cabin was built by pioneer cowboy brothers who are famous for exploring the area. From the cabin the road makes a steep and rocky descent into deep Eagle Canyon. Once you reach the bottom of the canyon, it is about half a mile to view the immense jug handle Eagle Arch. In another 2 miles the canyon bottom trail crosses beneath the twin I-70 bridges that span the canyon high above. The road climbs out of the canyon on the north side of I-70 with some small ledges as you climb up Secret Mesa and access to east and west I-70. This is a fun day trip.

San Rafael Swell Guidebook And Map
A guide book to 42 destinations titled San Rafael Swell Off Road is available in museums and book stores in the towns around the region of the Swell. The book is also available for $29.95, plus $5.00 for shipping, by emailing the author at

The classic view of Utah’s Little Grand Canyon is accessible by graded dirt road.
Slipper Arch in North Coal Wash is a great place for a lunch stop while four-wheeling in the area.
From the trail you can get great views of the huge Hondu Arch.
Devils Race Track is one of the trails contained in the San Rafael Swell.
Here, a couple of Jeeps pick their way through Fix-it-Pass.
There are fantastic views from The Wedge overlook.
Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel is a great stopping point.
This is one of four designated BLM camping areas in the San Rafael Swell area.
Eagle Arch is located in the bottom of Eagle Canyon.
At the bottom of Eagle Canyon you can see the twin I-70 bridges that carry traffic far above the canyon.
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