April 28 – 30, 2018

This trip takes place over three days in the San Rafael Swell of Central Utah. The San Rafael Swell or “The Swell” as we like to call it is a 70 by 40 mile wide zone of geologic fractal convolution, which does not describe it scientifically but it’s as close as I can get.

The Swell is divided into Northern and Southern sections by the Interstate 70 highway.  The Southern part is an anticline, or ridge shaped fold. The Northern part is more like a sampling of the different types of terrain one would experience in the Colorado Plateau. It’s primary feature is the San Rafael River Canyon. The first part of the trip takes place there.

Day 1: I parked at the Fuller Bottom Trailhead at the Western entrance to the Little Grand Canyon with the goal of backpacking to Virgin Springs Canyon. There is a pictograph panel there that I wanted to see for many years. It’s about 7.5 miles to the entrance to Virgin Springs and requires 12 or so river crossings. It would normally not be possible to do this in Spring because of peak runoff but this is a year of historically low river flows so the crossings were relatively easy with water reaching mid thigh at most. Virgin Springs Canyon  is less than a mile in length with a spring at pour off. There was plenty of water even in this drought year. The panels weren’t too hard to find, worth the trouble  (if one wants to call it that) and hopefully my photos can tell the tale better than I can here.

I had a beautiful night in the canyon. The campsite is at the entrance  and apparently has been in use for many years. Cowboy graffiti and more recent verities adorn the walls.  Bats came out in the evening along with beaver in the river, one of which treated me to a tail slap and dive. Cool!

DAY 2:  Having accomplished my goal and with more on the agenda, I packed up early and headed out. I had not seen one person the previous day but this being a Saturday, I started to see folks including a couple who looked like the victims of an explosion at REI. I wished them well and carried on. The hike out was uneventful but awesome and I was feeling like a grizzled canyon man until I saw a Dad and his 7 year old daughter in pink hat and pants backpacking up the road. Deflated, I reached the trailhead around 11:00 and found the place buzzing with activity as recreationists of all varieties set of on adventures horse, human, and gas powered.

Transiting to my next location, I passed through the town of Castle Dale with a stop at Fatty’s. There I encountered a guy in full camo with a pistol strapped to his waist, and a t shirt that said, “Packing!”. This reminded me  that I was in Utah, home of good roads and great lawns..  After my meal and a dessert of sugar donuts, I set off for my next goal which included working off a sugar high.

Fatty’s Pizza

The Ascending Sheep Panel is a pictograph of astounding quality hidden within the canyons near Moore Utah. I had been looking for it for many years and had come up empty. Locations I had marked on the map as logical were way off the mark. Now I had the exact location and trust me, unless you know it, you would never find it. As spectacular as it is, it is also in a very discreet location. I decided to skip roundabout directions from the trailhead and just make a beeline across the canyons to get to it. Photos hopefully tell the tale.

Day 3: By this time I had been on the go nonstop for 3 days including a 9 hour drive from Santa Fe and was feeling it. I still wanted to get to Old Woman Wash so will power  kicked in. The turn off  is 19 miles South of the I-70/Highway 24 junction. You go through a nondescript  gate, onto a nondescript dirt road with a few turns and junctions and arrive at Chimney Camp. It’s whats left of an old cabin. Adjacent to it are the fence line and markers of a wilderness study area whose name I do not know. Beyond that line is the wash and beginning a mile or so up it are numerous pictograph panels including the 8 foot tall Ekker Panel (maybe Ekker was the guy who owned the cabin).

It was windy when I arrived and stayed that way. Getting the tent up was exhausting. It was a rough night with gear blowing all over the place. In the morning, dog tired and in no shape to hike up that wash and climb slick rock solo, the decision was either to stay there another night and rest up or head home. Being that I had reached 2 of the 3 goals, I decided to pack up and head for home leaving Old Woman Wash for another day. Following is a video from Rex Nye who must have been there either a few days before or after me.

Rex Nye Video

The San Rafael Swell using I-70 and Highway 24 intersection as a bench mark, can be reached from Santa Fe in 8 to 10 hours by the fastest route. The one Google gives you is in fact the fastest. Things slow way down going through Moab during peak season. I went through at the peak of the peak so to speak. Lodging can be found in Green River or in the towns along Highways 10 and 191. Both bracket the Northern Swell. The Southern Swell has far fewer lodging options and is more remote than the route I took. Care is needed to make sure you have enough gas to make the journey.

Barrier Canyon Style Pictographs
First surveyed by Santa Fe’s own Polly Schaafsma, these enigmatic expressions of true, well executed art inspire awe and obsession. No one really knows how they were done or who did it. There has been much speculation, some of it unfounded, but they still are worth the great effort required to visit them.  The Swell is the epicenter so both the outdoor galleries and the art.

About the photos. For me rock art is difficult to photograph so I take different shots and edit them to highlight the rock art itself. This distorts the overall image so I have tried to provide corrected and uncorrected versions so you can see the differences.

SK Lund

Polly Schaafsma

Barrier Canyon Scholarly Article

Barrier Canyon Project

Santa Fe Outdoors Event Calendar