A kaleidoscope of red rock, the San Rafael Swell in Southern Utah is a destination you have to see. Approximately three hours south of Salt Lake City near Cleveland, Utah sits a vast playground of hiking and mountain biking.
When approaching from Cleveland, you will drive through plains as far as the eye can see. Looking east, the plateau in the distance towers above the flat plains and ranch corrals. The dirt road to get to the Swell meanders through the country like a snake.
There is a turnoff to stop and see the Wedge Overlook, which I highly recommend seeing. Imagine a miniature Grand Canyon and there you have it, the aptly nick-named “Little Grand Canyon.” Standing at the top of a majestic overlook, see canyons weaving in and out. On your way to the campsite located 100 yards from the historic bridge crossing the San Rafael River, you’ll drive down Buckhorn Wash. As you descend deeper into the Swell, the canyon walls narrow in on you and grow in magnitude. Stay on the Buckhorn Wash dirt road for approximately 27 miles until Swinging Bridge Campground. Watch for debris from flash floods on the road.
One of the best sites to stop and visit while driving to the campsite is the Indian Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel, approximately 4.1 miles from the campground. The pictographs are over 2,000 years old and you can make out a few animal shapes resembling a sheep or a horse (or whatever your imagination conjures up).
Continuing on your journey to the campsite just past the San Rafael River, you will cross one of the only suspension bridges in Utah, now a registered historic place.
There are endless places to hike and bike in the San Rafael Swell. The Mountain bike trail to Mexican Mountain parallels the San Rafael River and is very popular. On the southernmost part of the Swell, you have two of the most popular destinations: Little Wild Horse Canyon and Goblin Valley eighty miles south on Buckhorn Draw Road and I-70. Little Wild Horse Canyon, an eight-mile loop with approximately 800 feet of elevation change, will entice you. There are some passages that are so narrow you will have to hold your pack above your head to pass through. The wind is chilly when you are walking through the deep crevasse, but when you are in the open spots, it is essential to have plenty of water and sun protection.
Near the campsite, there are a few fun canyons to explore. Each has its own special beauty with natural bridges, forming arches, and desert life. The most popular canyons are Calf, Pine, and Cow canyon. After an hour of hiking up Calf Canyon, you will reach the ‘Double Caves.’ There are cacti, jack rabbits, lizards, desert toads, scorpions, and more. At night see the entire galaxy light up the sky and shooting stars visible after the moon sets. The Milky Way will be prominently located across the horizon. You will never want to leave because of how beautiful it is.
DAY 1: Drive South to the Wedge Overlook and proceed to Swinging Bridge Campground. Stop to see the Indian Pictographs.
DAY 2: Drive back up Buckhorn Draw Road to Calf Canyon and hike to see “Double Caves.” Head back to the campground to enjoy burgers and relax.
DAY 3: Drive south to get to Goblin Valley and Little Wild Horse Canyon. The hike will take approximately five hours depending on how hot it is outside. Camp at Goblin Valley for your last night to enjoy the Goblins at night.
DAY 4: Drive back home to Salt Lake City from I-70 to I-15.