Thrifty Trips: How To Do the San Rafael Swell in $40 or Less



If you’re looking for an inexpensive trip full of beauty and thrills, check out the San Rafael Swell, in southern Utah. You can experience the gorgeous landscape in a quick overnight trip without spending a lot of dough.

I recently traveled down to the Swell to see the Little Grand Canyon and hike some slot canyons. The overlook is stunning, with the river far below. The colors of the rock walls truly take your breath away as you stand on the cliff’s edge.

For our first night, we camped on BLM land, which made for some inexpensive camping. The next day we drove down into the Swell on our way to Little Wildhorse Canyon. The drive is on a long and winding dirt road that wraps down to the river bed, with plenty of petroglyphs to see on the side of the road.

A little further down the road, you come across an old bridge. We stopped to read about it and found out that 2,000 people showed up to the dedication ceremony back in 1937.

The drive from the Wedge Overlook to the mouth of Little Wildhorse Canyon is about a three-hour drive through the swell. Though it is a longer drive, it’s well worth your time. There are three different options for hikes once you get to the parking lot. You can do the shortest hike, Bell’s Canyon; the middle distance, Little Wildhorse Canyon; or you can do the loop which encompasses both canyons. I prefer the loop. It’s eight miles round-trip and takes about four hours to complete. If you start by going up the Little Wildhorse Canyon side, it’s a little easier and you’re not in the sun as long.

The slot canyon of Little Wildhorse can get pretty narrow at times, which is a nice shield from the sun. It’s a true natural beauty. There may be some puddles in the slots if there has been recent rain, which makes getting across them tricky, but you can also take your shoes off and wade through them — it’s awfully refreshing. Do plan ahead and watch weather forecasts to avoid flash floods in the narrows.

After you get through Little Wildhorse, the top of the canyon widens into beautiful desert scenery. It gets much hotter here, so if you’re hiking during the summer heat don’t lag too much and pack plenty of water.

As you meander along an old rancher’s road, you get to the top of Bell’s Canyon. At this point, you’ve completed about two-thirds of the hike. The last part of the trail is all downhill, which is easy to hike if you’re tired.

In the end, this is a good option for a short trip packed with adventure. There is a lot to do in just an overnight trip, though if you have an extra day or two, I would suggest visiting Goblin Valley before you leave.

Part of the draw of this trip, especially for college students, is the inexpensive price. The most costly item is the gas to get to the swell. If you eat on the drive there, you only need to bring food for breakfast and lunch the next day. And if you camp on BLM land, there isn’t a campsite fee. All together, $40 was plenty for a fun adventure.

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