Sussing out the San Rafael Swell


In April, I headed out to the crumpled, tumbled, geologically rollicking San Rafael Swell for some adventure time with a friend. It was also a birthday trip for me, making it all the sweeter. What better place to celebrate my birth than in the rugged canyons and colorful yet sere desertscapes of the southern Utah landscape? Spring and fall are the best times of year to head out to the Swell, as far as temperatures are concerned. We had cool nights, chilly mornings, and shirt-sleeve weather during the days.

We met near Goblin Valley, that land of hoodoos and fanciful flights of the imagination. Heading for Ding and Dang canyons, we passed the parking lots for Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons. Being a lovely spring Saturday, the lots were crazy crowded in the way that induces a horrified shudder from desert rats like us who prefer their explorations to be of the more solitary kind, thank you very much. I’m glad people want to be out enjoying the canyons. I  just don’t want to be there at the exact same time.

Luckily for us, since we got a late start to the day, we were almost entirely alone as we made our way up Ding Canyon.


heading through colorful formations toward Ding & Dang

heading through colorful formations toward Ding & Dang


Hordes of people passed us as they headed out of the canyons; mostly young, feet clad in Chacos, and apparently adventurous, they reminded me of a younger me. Having just worn a pair of my own Chacos for an entire day hike, the first one of the spring, my feet were highly annoyed, so I wore enclosed lightweight hiking shoes instead. Happy feet equal a happy hiker.


All set to enter Ding

all set to enter Ding


Ding Canyon and its neighbor, Dang Canyon, are not as well known as other area canyons. Filled with bigger drops and more technical challenges than merely walking, they tend to attract fewer families and casual explorers. My dog, Pippin, was along for the journey. He had a great time except for certain drops and climbs, about which he informed us in frantic whines and howls we were not to attempt ourselves, and certainly not to force him up or over either. Let’s just say there were some moments of fear and irritation on both human and canine sides. I haven’t done as much canyoneering as other outdoor activities, and when I have it’s mostly been not with him along, so he doesn’t have a ton of experience being a rock climbing dog. Since I’m primarily a horse or hiking guide, Pip has by necessity been more into far less technical horse trails, and horses make poor canyoneers. Regardless, we made it up Ding Canyon and partway down Dang Canyon in about two and a half hours–it took that long because of a few instances of needing to coax Pip down from his “alternate” routes around obstacles he deemed too intimidating to tackle. The moral of the story is, take your dog if s/he is athletic, not too large, and not too deeply concerned about heights. Also, consider bringing a dog harness for one good drop in Dang. Otherwise, leave the pooch at camp or at home.


Fun parts for canine canyoneers

fun parts for canine canyoneers


Partway down Dang Canyon is a 30-foot drop (I’m guessing a bit here, it’s not like I measured it). There is a rope that most people can use to either up- or downclimb. We were out of luck at that point, though, since there was no safe way to get Pippin down (I had no harness for him). There’s a ledge to the right (west) side we could have made it over, but not with my terrified dog since there’s a good amount of exposure there.


Drop in Dang Canyon

drop in Dang Canyon

This was our turnaround point, which probably made our total mileage that day about 8 or 9 miles rather than the anticipated 7. On the bright side, it only took us an hour and half to return to the parking lot from the dryfall that marked the terminus of our journey down Dang.


late afternoon light on the way out


Sweet spots to camp can be found all over the Swell. We headed down the Muddy Creek Road and found an excellent site with views out to the Henrys.  Despite being right by the side of the road, it’s a great campsite for the scenery as well as the fact you can anticipate very little traffic passing by.


Camp with a view

camp with a view


It also sported an architecturally ambitious fire ring as well as artistic stone pile. High winds in the middle of the night knocked down part of the fire ring. We set up a great dinner space and enjoyed the hell out of our evening out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere.


most excellent campsite, far away from everyone else even though it was right off the road

most excellent campsite, far away from everyone else even though it was right off the road


Curiosity pushed us southwest down the road, as neither one of us had ever traveled that way before. I’d recommend a high clearance 4wd, although a 2wd passenger car probably could make it at least part of the way under optimal (read: dry) conditions. We each have extensive experience driving crazy two-track roads in the backcountry; this road was about par for the course. If you don’t have experience with that kind of driving, I wouldn’t recommend it. Be prepared, as always, to self-rescue. The joys of backcountry travel!


Bentonite hills along the Muddy Creek Road

bentonite hills along the Muddy Creek Road


We stopped where the Muddy crosses the road. An old, long-abandoned homestead sits nearby. With clear views of the Henrys and the impressive bulk of Factory Butte, the settlers clearly knew what the heck they were doing when it came to picking a spot to live.


Abandoned homestead nar Muddy Creek with a sweet view

abandoned homestead near Muddy Creek with a sweet view


Next we headed north, then west again on the north side of the Swell, making our way to Crack Canyon.


Crack Canyon is easily accessed by a maintained dirt road

Crack Canyon is easily accessed by a maintained dirt road


This canyon begins with rolling waves of slickrock that are easily navigable. The plenitude of “cracks” (aka solution cavities, or the prettier-sounding “taffoni,” which are merely holes carved out of the sandstone via millennia of wind whipping around sand particles) lend the canyon its name, as well lending photographers much fodder for images.


The cracks in Crack Canyon

the cracks in Crack Canyon


Crack Canyon slips, slides, meanders, drops, and narrows as it carves its way through the Swell. Early on, a semi-subway section beckons with its almost cavernous overhang.


Crack Canyon getting deep and mysterious

Crack Canyon getting deep and mysterious


With the lowering light and the brisk wind that had chased us all day, every way we looked presented those breathtaking natural images one commits to memory and tries to commit to the camera lens.


Spectacular late afternoon light

spectacular late afternoon light


Again, we were stymied at a drop by Pippin’s insistence that  going over it was pretty much the worst thing we could ever hope to do. At any rate, it was only getting later in the day, and after our longer-than-planned jaunt the previous day, we were perfectly happy to turn around so we could make camp.


Fascinating shadow play on the rocks inside the canyon

fascinating shadow play on the rocks inside the canyon


Our campsite that night was in a small wash framed by short, narrow walls, right along the road to Crack Canyon. (Note: don’t camp in a wash or anywhere it seems water might rush through if you suspect significant rainfall.) Not another human soul was around, despite several cars and four-wheelers having been scattered around the parking areas when we’d started out. It was a peaceful evening, although quite chillier than the night before. The Swell is an amazing place for camping, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, but I do suggest you get a little off the beaten path if you want more solitude. Venture a little farther down the roads, explore around the next bend, and you might just find the perfect spot to pitch your tent, tackle your hike, and enjoy the immense beauty and huge landscape of this remote, enchanting area.


 “Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view." -Edward Abbey

“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” -Edward Abbey


1 Comment

Filed under Hikes, Random Musings

One Response to Sussing out the San Rafael Swell

  1. Pingback: Sussing Out the San Rafael Swell, Part II | Wild Girl Writing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *