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ATV Adventures: Riding in the canyons of the San Rafael Swell

By Lynn Blamires - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 5, 2022
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Crossing the San Rafael River at Fuller's Bottom in the San Rafael Swell.
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Riding among the rock formations in the San Rafael Swell.
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Lynn Blamires

It was the first ride on the first day of the first annual Swell Jamboree in Huntington and the weather could not have been better. Wayne Pahl, who headed up the jamboree, was leading this ride.

This jamboree is one to put on your calendar — it is small (47 participants) and the trails are through some of the best of Utah’s backcountry. The Swell has the kind of scenery you just won’t see anywhere else. Wayne knows these trails and it was fun to follow him through the labyrinth that is the San Rafael Swell.

We trailered out of jamboree headquarters at the Buckhorn RV Resort and headed south on Highway 10. Turning east on Oil Dome Road, we passed White Rocks and staged between Little Cedar Mountain and Red Knoll.

After lining up on Oil Dome Road, we continued east, stopping at a junction on Buckhorn Flat. The Bureau of Land Management has set up a backcountry rest area with an information kiosk, picnic tables, a parking area and a pit toilet.

Leaving the junction, we traveled south from Buckhorn Flat on Fuller’s Bottom Road down to Fuller’s Bottom where we crossed the San Rafael River.

This road skirts the west side of the Sid’s Mountain Wilderness, which we followed until we came to Bellevue Flats and stopped for a break. At this point, we entered Coal Wash. This was familiar territory and riding the wash was great fun.

We made another stop at a place marked on the map as “The Drips.” It is a constant stream of water that flows through an aquifer and comes out from the side of a rock wall. The water is safe to drink and it’s a place that is always fun to stop and enjoy.

Our next stop was before we came to a junction where Coal Wash splits and South Coal Wash turns to the east. This is a place where early Spanish explorers carved crosses into the rock face. I had seen these before but couldn’t find them on my own until now. They are thought to be markings, the understanding of which was lost with the death of the explorers. Was it referring to a cache of gold? No one has been able to figure out what they mean.

Turning into South Coal Wash, we worked our way through canyons with shear walls to Slipper Arch where we stopped for lunch. This arch is also known as Swasey’s Arch, but locals prefer the Slipper name. It was a great place to stop. We had lunch and admired the rock formations that make up the Swell.

It was also good to take a break before facing the challenge presented by Fixit Pass — the next part of the ride. The name implies that whatever means of transportation you take over this pass needs some sort of repair afterward. Conditions have been different on each of my trips over this section — from wild to mild. I have found that the challenge is greater with a short-wheel-based ATV than with a UTV. However, I did kiss some rocks with the underside of my Kawasaki Teryx on my way up.

We made another stop to admire a couple of rock formations on the way back. One was Joe and his Dog and the other was the Devil’s Monument. Both are famous landmarks in the Swell.

Working our way north to the Buckhorn Draw Road, we came to where the Swinging Bridge crosses the San Rafael River. Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it opened the Swell to visitors previously unable to access the beauties of this amazing area. It was the only bridge across the river until 1990.

This 160-foot suspension bridge was only a single-lane bridge. It was called the Swinging Bridge because of the movement felt when driving across it. You can’t feel that motion by walking, but the weight of motor cars made the movement notable. It is the only bridge of its kind left in Utah.

Traveling further on the Buckhorn Draw Road, we came to one of the most popular spots in the Swell — the Buckhorn Draw pictograph panels. This ancient art is great to study and primitive campsites have been built to accommodate visitors.

After spending some time here, we headed back to our trucks, finishing a ride of about 65 miles. When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down and prepare to be amazed at the wonders of the Swell.

Contact Lynn R. Blamires at quadmanone@gmail.com.

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