Guide to San Rafael Swell

Guide to San Rafael Swell

San Rafael Swell was formed eons ago, when geologic changes created a massive dome-like shape (anticline) in the earth's surface. Sandstone, limestone, and shale were pushed up, only to be eroded over the centuries into numerous canyons, mesas, gorges, and buttes. Overall, the San Rafael Swell covers an area of over 2,000 square miles. Around 217,000 acres of this area is known as the San Rafael Recreation Area and is managed by the US Bureau of Land Management. The swell is divided by Interstate 70 into two sections. The northern section is drained by the San Rafael River; the southern section is drained by Muddy Creek. San Rafael Swell contains numerous unique areas to visit. Below, we've listed a few of the best ones.

The Wedge (Little Grand Canyon)

  • Main attraction: Views of the San Rafael River

The Wedge, also known as Little Grand Canyon, is a scenic area 1,200 feet above San Rafael River. The Wedge Overlook is considered one of Utah's most scenic overlooks. At the overlook, you'll get fantastic views of the San Rafael River as it flows through Little Grand Canyon, below. Near the Wedge Overlook, you'll find restrooms, handicap access, and plenty of areas designated for hiking and mountain biking. Note that The Wedge is very isolated and no services are available. You'll need to have a full tank of gas and plenty of food and water before visiting.     

Little Wild Horse Canyon

  • Main attraction: Narrow canyons
Little Wild Horse Canyon is probably the best known slot canyon in San Rafael Swell. It's an extremely popular hike for folks of all skill levels. The canyon is easy to access and is just a few miles from Goblin Valley State Park. As you hike thorouh Little Wild Horse Canyon, you'll wind through a number of serpentine twists and tight narrows.

You can hike the most interesting sections of the canyon in around a couple of hours, although you can combine the hike with Bell Canyon, which makes the total distance about eight miles and time to complete around six hours.

The best time to visit Little Wild Horse Canyon is March through November. Dogs are welcome. Note that, as previously mentioned, this canyon is very popular. This is not the place to go if you're looking for solitude. At times, the trail through the canyon can be crowded. In addition, like most slot canyons, it is prone to flash floods. Make sure you check the weather before going to Little Wild Horse Canyon.

Goblin Valley State Park

  • Main attraction: Hoodoos

Located on the southeastern edge of the San Rafael Swell, Goblin Valley is one of the most unusual places you'll ever visit. It's covered with all sorts of unusual geologic formations, such as sandstone goblins and three square miles of hoodoos. The park is a great place to hike and mountain bike, with a dozen or so hiking trails and miles of interconnecting mountain bike trails (the Wild Horse Trail System).

Goblin Valley State Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, meaning that it is an excellent place to do night photography, astrophotography, or simply spend an evening stargazing.

You can also do some canyoneering in Goblin's Lair, a 70-foot sandstone cave, located on the east side of Goblin Valley. You'll need some experience canyoneering, and you'll need a backcountry permit, as well.

San Rafael Reef

  • Main attraction: Slot canyons

San Rafael Reef is located along San Rafael Swell's eastern edge. The area is filled with multi-colored cliffs and panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. This is a great location for landscape artists and photographers looking for inspiration. San Rafael Reef is also home to numerous slot canyons, such as Chute Canyon and Crack Canyon. Canyons in San Rafael Reef can rum from 200-feet deep to around 1,000-feet deep. Because of the abundance of canyons, San Rafael Reef is a very popular place for canyoneering and rock climbing.  

For more information on San Rafael Swell, give us a call.