Exploring the San Rafael Swell, Eastern Utah with Steve and Cheri Reyes
by Joe de Kehoe
Most of the high passes in Colorado are still blocked with snow, even in mid-May, so on May 12th I headed west to the San Rafael Swell (The Swell) that is just outside Green River in eastern Utah, an area of spectacular scenery and a variety of off-road trails. “The Swell” is called a reef, but it is actually a broad fold in the earth’s crust that exposes rocks from about 260 million years old to about 145 million years, all of which have been tilted on end and in the east form a series of near vertical cliffs. In addition to a variety of Jeep trails through spectacular scenery this part of Utah is also known for its early American petroglyphs and dinosaur fossils. I made two trips there in my Jeep, one in mid-May and one in mid-June. Steve and Cheri Reyes from Twentynine Palms joined me in Green River driving their Toyota 4Runner – I was escaping the snow in Colorado and they were seeking relief from the hot weather in Twentynine Palms.
The first trail we ran was Black Dragon Wash, named for a collection of petroglyphs, one of which is in the shape of a “dragon” (but you have to use your imagination and the dragon is actually red, not black). The petroglyphs, several dozens of them include a variety of figures and symbols, were inscribed on a sandstone wall in a narrow canyon with steep walls 600 – 800 feet high, but the trail into the canyon up to the petroglyphs is in a dry wash and an easy drive. Continuing west in the canyon past the Black Dragon petroglyph panel however the trail becomes more difficult, threading in and out of the wash but the scenery is amazing. As we made our way through the canyon you have the feeling of being very remote, but every once in a while, you get jerked back to reality by the sight of a truck on I-70 just a few miles to the south.
After finishing Black Dragon Wash and lunch we drove south to Red’s Canyon in the southern part of The Swell, via a gravel road that was originally built in the early 1900s to access some of the old mines in the area but has since been graded and 4WD is not necessary – it could be driven in any vehicle. The attractions again were the towering cliffs off to our right. Farther along in Red’s Canyon we came upon a group of mustangs – adults and colts that were grazing not too far off of the road. What these horses do for water during the summer months is anyone’s guess. Obviously, they manage. As for our liquid replenishment, Ray’s Tavern in Green River took care of us nicely later that afternoon.
On our second day together, we explored the southern part of The Swell again, down to the Copper Globe Mine and then through Cat Canyon and Kendall Wash. This route is definitely a 4WD-high clearance requirement because of several steep ledges that you have to negotiate, and some stretches of soft sand. However, on this day Cheri was at the wheel of their 4Runner and made the run look easy.
A few weeks later we returned to Green River and explored some of the outlying areas in The Swell. About 35 miles east of Green River is the small community of Thomson Spring that is quickly approaching true ghost town status. Similar to towns along old Route 66 in the Mojave Desert, Thomson Spring was bypassed when Interstate-70 was built a few miles south of the town and businesses quickly died. The only businesses operating when we drove through were some RV parks and a gas station. Continuing north through Thomson Spring about 5 miles we arrived at the ruins of Sego, a former coal mining community. There is little left of the town now except a large stone building that once processed coal and a few dilapidated former dwellings built into the hillsides. The two-story boarding house that was in center of the town has completely collapsed. Driving back toward Thomson Spring from Sego is the Sego Cemetery. About half of the approximately two dozen graves in the cemetery are people who died from the influenza pandemic in 1918.
By the time we left Sego, and after wandering through some of the abandoned buildings in Thomson Springs it was mid-afternoon. Not enough time to do any of the trails in The Swell so we opted to visit Crystal Geyser a few miles south of Green River. I have seen photos of this geyser erupting 50 feet in the air, but every time I have been there it has just been a slow flow of cold water from a 4-foot high rusty pipe. However, the geyser is unique because unlike the geysers in Yellowstone, this is a cold-water geyser activated by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the subsurface. Even without seeing an eruption the site is worth visiting because of the large multi-colored travertine bench that has built up by the precipitation of mineralized water flowing from the vent and into the Green River.
The next day we spent some time looking for a dinosaur footprint purported to be north of the San Rafael River bridge. It took us some time to locate the path to the ledge where the footprint was, but we did manage to locate it – one prominent 3-toed footprint in the Jurassic sandstone attributed to an Allosaurus that walked through this area sometime between 145 – 200 million years ago. Amazing! Later that day we drove a short distance to what is called the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell, “Utah’s Little Grand Canyon” that looks down over 1,200 feet below to the San Rafael River that winds its way between the canyon walls.
Leaving the overlook, we headed north to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Museum where dinosaur bones are currently being excavated. They have a complete skeleton of an Allosaurus in the main hall of the museum. The BLM (in light of current events I should point out that this acronym is Bureau of Land Management in this case) geologist at the desk said that this was a “teenager”; that an adult Allosaurus wouldn’t fit in the building! Definitely a meat-eating dinosaur and because of the large number of fossils identified at the Cleveland-Lloyd site, Allosaurus was designated as Utah’s state fossil in 1988.
Cheri and Steve had to leave for home the next morning, so I spent the next couple of days on my own. I’m not particularly interested in petroglyphs but drove to several of the sites because it gave me an excuse to explore and hike areas I had not been to before.
The petroglyph panels in the San Rafael Swell, of which there are many, date from 2000-year-old Barrier Canyon Culture pictographs and a few from the Fremont Culture, dating back 1,000 years.
Before heading home my last venture was a three mile drive in the western part of The Swell through a dusty pasture to a couple of rock towers named “Sid and Charlie.” A herd of cows nearby thought I was there to feed them and hurried over. It tookme a while to squeeze my way through the herd and head back to the highway and home. ~ Joe