San Rafael Swell


The San Rafael Swell is a large remote area in central/eastern Utah, that is split in half by Interstate 70. It extends from near Hanksville to the south all the way north to near Price, and from Green River on its eastern side for about 70 miles west, encompassing over 2000 square miles. Access is usually made via I-70, or Price for the northern Swell, while I-70 and highway 24 provide access to the southern portion of the swell.

The Swell is very diverse. The eastern and southern reef sections contain many great narrow slot canyons, while the interior of the Swell boasts expansive flat areas, broad canyons, cliffs, and towers. There are many remnants of old uranium mines, homesteads, and signs of Indian occupation. It goes without saying, but always stay out of, and away from any old mines you may come across. They are unstable, and may contain deadly gases.

Due to the remoteness, always have extra food, water, and fuel when venturing off pavement. Most areas of the swell require a significant drive from pavement to access them.


Native Americans clearly visited and inhabited parts of the Swell. Buckhorn Wash, Cottonwood Wash, Rochester Art Panel, and other areas show the pictograph and petroglyph evidence they left behind. Even the drier eastern reef of the Swell has a few panels indicating Indians at the very least past through that dry and desolate area.

Early pioneers and settlers carved out small ranches in the area during the late 1800's, and there is still a fair amount of cattle that call the Swell home during various seasons. Several cabins from the original settlers are still standing and interesting to visit.

By the late 1800's and early 1900's, Uranium was discovered in the Swell, and mining began. Temple Mountain was one of the first areas mined and a small settlement setup nearby to support the miners. This was on a small scale until the Uranium boom of the 1950's, when miners flocked to the Swell. Between 1950 and 1960, thousands of claims were made and most of the roads that are used today were created in attempts to find Uranium. Most of the claims never struck it rich, though Hidden Splendor was a success story, selling for $9 million in 1954. It must have been an exciting time to be a prospector in the Swell. By 1960, most of the mines were abandoned and shut down. There are many remnants from this era visible throughout the Swell.

It wasn't until 1970 that the interstate (I-70) was opened across the Swell. The engineering that went into designing the road is impressive, and the stretch from Green River to Salina is the longest stretch of interstate in the US that does not have any services. (110 miles) With the interstate, access to the interior sections became substantially easier, and recreation in the Swell ramped up.

In more recent times, off road enthusiasts, hikers, climbers and canyoneers have discovered the Swell and its charms. Many of the more remote areas have become Wilderness Study Areas, with some talk of the area being designed a national monument.

Amenities & Camping

There are none! In all seriousness, take all the fuel, food, water, and supplies you will need. Green River, Price, and Hanksville provide the nearest services. Hanksville is quite small, with a few gas stations, a small grocery store, and a couple of restaurants and hotels. Many of these close during the winter. Green River, being on the interstate, has a fair number of services, while Price is a full service small town.

The BLM maintains a campground at the San Rafael Bridge in Buckhorn wash, but it has no services other than picnic tables and a pit toilet. No water.

Aside from the BLM Campground, camping is pretty much a free-for-all. Lots of amazing spots. Don't create new fire rings or trample vegetation, there are plenty of washes or existing sites to camp in. With all camping: Practice low impact techniques, and pack out all garbage.

Season To Visit

Due to the large elevation difference between the reef, and the interior of the Swell, something can be found to do most anytime of the year. For technical canyons, spring and fall can be pleasant times, but may require wetsuits. Summer can be hot, and may be better suited to hiking and exploring the higher elevations. In winter, hiking and exploring the eastern and southern reefs can be perfect.

Bugs can be brutal in the spring and summer months, go prepared.

San Rafael Swell Classics

There are many great hikes, climbs, and canyons in the swell.

Hiking Little Wild Horse, spending the day at Goblin Valley, or visiting petroglyphs in Buckhorn Wash are great recommendations for family fun. For the more technically inclined, canyoneering the Upper Black Box, Quandary, Knotted Rope and many others offer great beauty and fun. Some of the technical canyons contain keeper potholes. Go prepared!


Canyoneering - San Rafael Swell Canyoneering

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