The San Rafael Swell is a huge anticline, measuring 80X40 miles (125X65 kms). Most of the land is arid or desert, but a few areas in higher elevation support some sub-alpine vegetation. The rock layers are all tilted and many rings of cliffs surround the Swell, all radiating around the center of the Swell. The outer most cliff bands are known as the San Rafael Reef, and it contains many jagged fins, towers, and peaks. The scenery is fantastic, and contains towering mesas and mountains, thin rock pinnacles, slot canyons, larger deep canyons, huge rock walls, arches, slickrock, etc. etc. The Swell offers everything from gentle hiking to extremely difficult peak climbing.
The San Rafael Swell has something for everyone (except for maybe glacier enthusiast!). Hikers will enjoy the gentle canyon hikes, and what few trails there are. Backpackers will find years worth of exploring to do. Canyoneers will enjoy the challenging slot canyons. Climbers can find peaks, towers, and mountains of all grades of difficulty, including some of which remain unclimbed at the present day.
Hiking in the San Rafael Swell takes navigation skills since trails are not usually available. Make sure to have a good map, compass, and maybe a GPS.
The San Rafael Swell began to be "discovered" in the late 1980's when the first guidebook was written to the area. Before that time, the land wasn't even accurately mapped, and navigation was difficult. Water can be a serious concern on many routes, so be prepared.
A few favorite non-technical hikes include:
1. Chute of Muddy Creek
2. Upper Black Box
3. Lower Black Box
4. Little Wildhorse Canyon
5. Goblin Valley
6. North Fork Iron Wash
7. Ernie Point
8. Moonshine Waterhole area
Rock Climbing and Peak Climbing
In the 1970's technical climbers started visiting some of the more prominent mountains and towers in the area and that's when Window Blind Peak was first climbed. This was probably the first of the technical peaks that was climbed in the San Rafael Swell. In the 1990's the real technical climbing boom started and many peaks and towers saw there first ascents. In the late 1990's, the major peaks and mountains have fallen to the skills of some of the country's best rock climbers, but many smaller towers and peaks remain to be climbed. At least two of the major peaks, Mexican Mountain and Temple Mountain, luckily have 4th class or low 5th class routes up, which makes them obtainable for the adventurous, but for those whom are not skilled in big wall climbing. Unfortunately, some of the more difficult routes have been retro-bolted, and many of the expert climbers are really upset about this. Please use discretion in this spectacular wilderness.
A few of my favorite climbs include:
1. Temple Mountain
2. Mexican Mountain
3. Ernie Point
4. Chute Buttress
5. Tomsich Butte
Climbing on Window Blind Peak.
About the same time rock climbers "discovered" the San Rafael Swell, the technical canyoneers started filtering in too. The San Rafael Swell offers hundreds of technical slot canyons of all levels of difficulty. Unfortunately, in more recent years, unskilled "sport bolters" have reduced the difficulty of some of the once great adventures. Luckily many unbolted routes and canyons remain, and only a few fell to the "poser-and-wussy-retro-sport-bolting" crowd as they are referred to in some circles. There is still much room to explore and new and great slot canyons seem to becoming known every year.
A few of my favorite technical canyons include:
1. Gem Canyon-West Fork
2. Gem Canyon-Middle Fork
3. Segars Hole Canyon (The Squeeze)
4. Cable Canyon
5. Music Canyon
6. Upper Iron Wash
7. Enigma Canyon
8. North Fork Iron Wash-technical section
There are only two official campgounds in the entire area. One is Goblin Valley State Park
in the southeast section of the San Rafael Swell. The other is along the San Rafael River in the north central of the San Rafael Swell. No reservations are taken for the latter.
Since there is no private land within many miles of this area, you can literally camp anywhere you want to. Just leave a clean campsite.
Camping in Iron Wash
Except at the highest elevations, summer is extremely hot with temperatures exceeding 100F degrees (38C). Winter temperatures drop well below 0F (-18C). The best times of the year to visit most areas are March through May and then again in mid-September through November. Wet hikes that require wading can be very cold before April. There is some flash flood potential in the slot canyons, so have a good weather forecast before heading down any narrow canyon.
This is a land of weather extremes. Temperatures in the nearest towns have ranged from -42F (-41C) to 112F (44.5C) at Green River and -35F (-37) to 114F (46C) at Hanksville. On the day we went through Gem Canyon the morning low was 13F (-11C) and the afternoon high was 79F (26C) in the shade. Sunny weather predominates and it only rains a few times a year, but when it does rain, it can really pour! Don't underestimate flash flood danger in the slot canyons.
Weather and climate data for the Hanksville is below. *National Weather Service Data 1912-2004.
|MONTH||AVE HIGH||AVE LOW||REC HIGH||REC LOW||AVE PRECIP (in)|
|DEC||44||14||70||-24||.29|Summer is hot, but there are ways to keep cool
Recommended BooksHiking and Exploring Utah's San Rafael Swell
: This is the best book available to the Swell, but use caution. Some of the trips are difficult for the inexperienced, and difficulty ratings are not given. The author is a fast hiker, and most people don't hike as fast as the times indicate. Includes technical canyons.
Canyoneering-The San Rafael Swell
: Another good book. It biggest fault is the lack of maps. Includes some mild technical canyons. The biggest asset of this book is any place where the book says that "it is impossible to continue as the ostacles become overwhelming", if you are experienced you can relace the wording with "it's going to get good ahead and is quite challenging". The author takes the conservative side with hike times and difficulty ratings.