The San Rafael Swell : Utah’s Untold Treasure | By Mitchell Milbauer

Last Updated: January 23, 2021By

The San Rafael Swell: a place of isolation and breathtaking beauty nestled in south-central Utah. It’s another natural wonder to add to the multitude of awe-inspiring things the beehive state has to offer. To the curious and to the adventurous, it may seem odd that I’m not writing about something that include the words Zion, Bryce or Arches. The Swell is made up of buttes, valleys, mesas and canyons featuring tons of sandstone, shale and limestone. To the adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts, this place is a playground filled with miles on miles of biking, hiking, four-wheel driving, pictographs, backpacking, rock climbing (tons of bouldering) and paddling in scenic serenity.

This place is a playground filled with miles on miles of biking, hiking, four-wheel driving, pictographs, backpacking, rock climbing and paddling in scenic serenity.

A place that feels as if it’s clandestine of course has its secrets. One of those is the Wedge Overlook. Once you finish driving on the highway from wherever your origin is, you’ll eventually encounter a 4WD dirt road (2WD accessible in good weather). No matter what direction you come from, you’ll find yourself vis-a-vis with a sign saying, “these roads are unmaintained” and following that another sign will read, “Buckhorn Draw” and “Wedge Overlook” with a mileage number next to it. Your phone will then slowly begin to lose connection and your adventure will begin. Your car begins to thump and rustle as the rocks beneath your vehicle sporadically engage its toughness, but when you look out from any window you’ll see staggeringly huge red walls. Most of the time you’ll just want to pull over and stop the car to take a picture. That’s not a problem, nobody will be within 15-plus miles of you, so preparing to get a dirty look shouldn’t be in your agenda as you hear your shutter click.

After 20 miles of going straight you will encounter your first campsite. This is the San Rafael Bridge campsite: a stunning minimalist campsite that’s parallel to a soaring rock face that has seemingly endless vertical. Don’t be phased by its beauty because your options for camping will only get better. As you go straight and drive over the San Rafael Bridge you will see the San Rafael River flowing within the canyon. Not quite a translucent color, but an aesthetically pleasing sight for those who are there. 15 or so miles after driving past boulders covered in chalk and random trailhead dirt parking lots, you arrive at what looks to be a mini Grand Canyon. The Wedge Overlook is practically empty of people. You will find yourself driving or biking along the rim of a massive canyon that you thought only existed in Arizona. Campers can practically pitch a tent anywhere — whether that be on a grassy patch or on the rim of the canyon after kicking away a few rocks.

If this doesn’t sound like your style, the San Rafael Swell still has plenty more to offer. The Goblin Valley is another part of this unpopulated natural beauty. The American West is home to a plethora of world-class national parks, but we forget about the state parks right in our back pocket. Goblin Valley State Park is just as fun and gorgeous as the best parks Utah has to offer. On top of the immaculate biking, hiking, climbing and rock formations that Goblin Valley has to offer, they also have some of the darkest skies on earth. Utah itself has such a diverse range of activities depending on where you choose to go. Although, choosing the minimally touched San Rafael Swell will always be an impressive experience.

Photos by Mitchell Milbauer.

Mitchell is an outdoor photographer and writer. His photography focuses on adventure sports in the mountains and ocean and also landscape. His writing encompasses anything within the outdoor sphere and takes the form of personal essay, reporting, environmental activism and gear review. When not behind the lens or writing Mitchell can be found snowboarding, climbing or surfing. His work can be found at and on Instagram @mitch_milbs.

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