A Swell desert alternative
April 17, 2003
It’s time for the spring exodus to warmer climes, which for many locals means packing up the mountain bike and heading toward Moab. But maybe this spring you want to do something a little different, something a little more adventurous, perhaps.
How about scrambling down a slot canyon in the San Rafael Swell?
Located in Utah’s southeast quadrant, northwest of Canyonlands National Park, the 1 million-acre Swell was formed by an uplift in the earth’s crust between 40 million and 60 million years ago. Water and wind then eroded the layers of rock, resulting in the red-hued canyons, rock pinnacles, arches and mesas that characterize the Swell.
Drive west on Interstate 70, past the exit for Green River, and you’ll approach the obvious edge of the Swell, defined by angled, heavily striated slices of rock that clearly show the upward thrust that happened eons ago. The freeway slices through the middle of the Swell; from there, canyons can be reached via a spiderweb network of dirt roads and unmaintained tracks, many constructed by the miners and ranchers who once frequented the area.
Navigating your way through a canyon – which may involve hiking, bouldering, rappelling, wading, swimming, or any combination thereof – is known as canyoneering. The sport has steadily gained in popularity over the past decade, through word-of-mouth, the publication of guidebooks to canyon-riddled places like southeastern Utah and parts of Arizona, and groups like the American Canyoneering Association.
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I first became acquainted with the canyons of the San Rafael Swell in 1995, when a friend obtained a copy of a guidebook by Steve Allen, who was one of the first to explore, document and name many of the Swell’s canyons. Always up for an adventure, I agreed to join her and two other friends on a trip through Quandary Canyon, described in Allen’s book as “a difficult, technical and exceptionally rewarding canyon to negotiate.”
Indeed, the canyon lived up to its description. Since we are all rock climbers, though, the short rappel over one of the drop-offs and the chimneying and stemming moves we used in the narrowest sections were well within our comfort zone.
In addition to the dramatic beauty – the sinuous rock of the canyon walls and the colorful layers within it, the breathtaking contrast between azure sky and crimson stone – the canyon presented a natural obstacle course that required creativity, trial and error, and teamwork to navigate.
Though much of the canyon was dry, we encountered the occasional water-filled potholes, which presented some of the biggest challenges:
– How do we get our packs past that long section of water without getting them soaked? (We scrambled partially up one of the canyon sidewalls and rigged a rope to lower the packs onto dry ground.)
– Then how do we get ourselves through that section of water – do we really have to swim through that uninviting-looking murk? (Yes, it was a full-on, chilly splash-fest.)
– How are we going to get out of that deep pothole rimmed by smoothly buffed sandstone with no handholds? (My friend Linda gamely went in first and allowed each of us to hoist ourselves up on her shoulders, which enabled us to scramble onto the next rock ledge; after the three of us got out, we hauled up Linda.)
After about 10 hours, which included a long hike along Muddy Creek to circle back to our campsite, we were exhausted but exhilarated. And we’d discovered a new type of outing that combined elements of activities we loved – hiking, climbing, scrambling over rocks, route finding and overall adventure.
Canyons in jeopardy?
Since then I’ve returned to the Swell (and neighboring areas) to explore about a dozen canyons. Most recently, I went through Quandary again, as well as four other canyons, during the last weekend in March. This time, thanks to a media trip organized by Petzl, which manufactures climbing and caving gear, and the Utah Travel Council, I canyoneered with the master himself, Steve Allen.
Allen, a jolly giant of a man (well, 6 foot 4, actually) was a wealth of information and wisdom about the Swell and the art of canyoneering. After dinner each night, he regaled us with stories about the history of the Swell (including the now-vanished uranium-mining town of Hidden Splendor that used to exist on the spot where we camped); his more than quarter-century of canyon exploration; canyoneering disasters that have occurred when naive people did foolhardy things; and the longtime residents of southeastern Utah that he’s been interviewing for an oral-history project.
What Allen told us the most about, however, is the environmental crossroads at which the Swell now stands. The desert has begun to recover from the scars of mining operations and oil exploration, but fresh wounds have been inflicted by thousands of off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts who don’t stick to roads or trails. As an advisory committee member of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which fights to preserve the state’s wild lands, Allen has been heavily involved in the debate over the Swell’s future.
Last year Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed that the Swell, now overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, be designated a national monument; local county residents, however, voted down the proposal last November in an initiative put on the ballot by the ORV enthusiasts. Many environmentalists actually consider the defeat a mixed blessing, as Leavitt’s proposal would have provided minimal wilderness protection for the Swell.
So, in classic “battle of the New West” fashion, the struggle continues over how much of the land in the Swell should get greater environmental protection and how to equitably balance access for all recreationists – backpackers, canyoneers, ORV drivers, mountain bikers, etc. – who appreciate the desert’s allure.
In the meantime, visit the Swell and wander some of its canyons. Let the hot desert sun warm your ski-weary limbs, and let the red earth color some of that white-as-snow skin. You may very well discover a new part of Utah, away from the maddening crowds of Moab, that you’ll want to continue exploring. And you may even discover that it’s an area you’ll want to work to protect.