San Rafael Swell Night Out

We’re bad Utahns. We don’t follow the usual patterns of a Salt Lake adventure-bro. The adventure-bro is more migratory, in part because he has to justify owning an $80k van with an environmentalism sticker on it. He moves constantly between the Cottonwood Canyons, the desert, Western Colorado, and Southern Idaho depending on the weather. In the Spring and the Fall, when the trails are muddy and the snow is thin, he goes to The Desert: Moab, Gooseberry Mesa, Red Rocks, or the Swell.

Well, we’re working on being better Utahns. In search of interesting terrain for bikepacking, Taylor and I headed to the San Rafael swell for a two-day redrock MTBpacking adventure. The Swell is a huge domed upthrusting of buried rock that was thrown upwards during the Laramide Orogeny and the creation of the Rockies. With layers of different kinds of stone draped like blankets over a dome, eons of erosion by water and wind have scored complex and striated canyons into the dome. As with so much of the Utah desert, the Swell is characterized by seemingly boring sagebrush plateau that suddenly reveals precipitous drops into complex and beautiful canyons.

The “Little Grand Canyon” of the San Rafael River.

The route we chose was published by Patrick Hendry and Seth Kruckenberg on as “A (San Rafel) Swell Night Out“. It begins in the Southeast corner of the swell and travels a clockwise loop across the Behind the Reef Road, North to Tomisch Butte, East through the big wash of Reds Canyon, and back South through the Uranium mining ruins of Temple Mountain. We made it into a 2-night trip out of necessity, making for 70 rough miles with a lean on a tougher first day. Uncertain about the availability of water in the aptly named “Muddy Creek” after a long summer drought, I cached water in advance at our camp to reduce that uncertainty.

Route details are well-described through the link above. If you want to follow this route as we did it, TCX files for use on a bike computer are available here:

Day 1:

Day 2:

Taylor heading off along the initially-smooth Behind the Reef Road
The road soon gets rough. Heading up the Behind the Reef “trail” start.
Taylor on the trail.
Top of the first big climb.
The cottonwoods were turning.
Quick stop at an old miner’s cabin.
Over the river.
And through the woods.
One short rough bit earned a hike-a-bike.
One past the Reef Road, the gravel smoothed a bit on the long climb to Tomisch butte.
Descending gradually towards the Muddy River.
Taylor approaches our camp along the Muddy River, with the Hondoo Arch on the horizon.
Camp among the cottonwoods.
Muddy creek didn’t deserve it’s name this time.
Still, the water cache was a nice luxury.
Mining ruins from the nearby uranium mine. This was the munitions storage depot.
Heading off for a somewhat smoother day two.
More mining junk, just sitting around.
Cruising smooth road to Red’s Canyon.
Wild Horses in Red’s Canyon, a highlight for the day.
Beginning the long, gradual, and ripping descent towards Cathedral Peak.
These kinds of cars used to haul uranium ore from the Swell to Monticello.
Not a bad parking spot.
Taylor cruising past another miner’s cabin, a couple miles from the end of the day.
Taylor wraps up the ride passing a uranium mine stand and tailing that smelled weirdly like burning wire.
Riding buddies. logo

Category: Mountain Biking



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: