Exploring the San Rafael Swell

Little Grand Canyon,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Little Grand Canyon : Prints Available

A spring snowstorm passes over the Little Grand Canyon, through which the San Rafael River flows.

Although this is my so-called “Mountain Photographer” blog, the next several posts will be full of desert and canyon photos instead! During the first two weeks of April, we were out on a road trip through southern Utah visiting some old favorite spots as well as some new territory for us. We spent the first week exploring the often-overlooked San Rafael Swell region.

Anybody who has driven across I-70 through Utah is probably familiar with the San Rafael Reef, where the highway boldly cuts through the vertical red walls of jagged, tilted sandstone – one of the most dramatic stretches of interstate highway in the country. That impressive highway cut, along with Goblin Valley and the popular Little Wildhorse Canyon, are the most well known parts of the Swell; but as we discovered on this trip, they are just the tip of the iceberg [or sandstone, I should say]. The San Rafael Swell is a huge area with canyon scenery on par with the best that Utah has to offer.

Our route, which consisted mainly of remote dirt roads, began around the San Rafael River’s “Little Grand Canyon” north of I-70, then wrapped around the west side of the Swell, south of I-70 all the way down towards Capitol Reef National Park.

Chimney Canyon,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Chimney Canyon : Prints Available

Ominous clouds over Chimney Canyon, as seen from a remote overlook.

From this remote overlook we could see why it’s called the Swell, since the entire landscape forms an enormous curved bulge in the earth, a gigantic swell of the ancient seabed cut with countless canyons such as Chimney Canyon above.

Chimney Canyon,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Storm Over the Swell : Prints Available

Rain clouds pass over remote canyon country in southern Utah.

Chimney Canyon,San Rafael Swell,Utah, tree
Stormy Juniper : Prints Available
Chimney Canyon,San Rafael Swell,Utah,campfire
Campfire Over the Swell : Prints Available
Chimney Canyon,San Rafael Swell,Utah,campfire
The Drunken Shaman
Bentonite,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Bentonite Maze : Prints Available

A labyrinth of colorful bentonite hills.

Bentonite,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Ice Cream Hills : Prints Available

Psychedelic landscape of raspberry cheesecake hills.

We wandered through this maze of soft bentonite clay hills for the better part of a day, entranced by the fantastic colors and shapes surrounding us at every turn. Hard to believe that such an amazing place is just some random unmarked spot which nobody seems to ever bother checking out. I love discovering unknown places like this, and it goes to show that there is far more to see in the Utah desert than just the typical slot or arch destinations.

Bentonite,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Bentonite Rocks : Prints Available

Strange solitary rock formations amongst colorful bentonite hills.

Is it just me, or does this look like a petrified turkey?

Bentonite,San Rafael Swell,Utah
Bentonite Valley : Prints Available

Remote desert and bentonite hills in southern Utah.

I’ve spent quite some time in the various Utah national parks like Canyonlands and Capitol Reef, and can say after this trip that the San Rafael Swell is easily on par, with the added bonus of complete solitude and wildness. The area is far bigger than just the reef that you see from the highway, and I know I’ll return for further exploration.

7 thoughts on “Exploring the San Rafael Swell

  1. Great stuff all, Jack, especially the Bentonite landscapes! The Swell keeps rising higher and higher on my list of places to go. It’s one of those places I’ve repeatedly noted while driving through to somewhere else, and I often find that such places are the most rewarding to explore. Plus, there’s even boating to be had in there if you can catch the runoff.

  2. Great stuff, Jack. It’s amazing how many times I’ve driven past The Swell on the way to other Utah destinations- always saying ” I need to spend some time here,next time”. It’s pretty tough to beat any part of the Utah desert in spring, I miss it.

    1. Hey Paul, you said it – I’ve passed by the Swell so many times and have always been curious to explore further. Maybe just the fact that you’re always passing by at 75MPH makes it seem like it’s not a destination… but it is!

  3. Thanks for all this info, and the incredible images! We can’t wait to go explore! Any camping spot recommendations?

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