Exploring wonderland

When I was driving across the red rock and canyon desert of central Utah last month, a stunning barrier suddenly blocked my way. It reared up in front of me like a mirage, a wall so daunting that until the late 20th century even the most venturesome travelers detoured dozens of miles to circumvent it. 

A thousand feet high, 30 miles wide and 80 miles long, the San Rafael Swell—with its slot canyons, thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs, tiny streams and one substantial river, innumerable caves and towers, mesas and buttes—is like nothing else. It is largely unknown, and it is almost empty, so empty that this isolated and undeveloped landscape has long been a federal wilderness study area. Although by and large Utahans detest federal lands, I am not aware of anyone who wants to despoil the San Rafael Swell.

Wikipedia describes the swell as a “giant dome-shaped anticline of sandstone, shale and limestone” pushed up some 60 million years ago: “Infrequent but powerful flash floods have eroded the sedimentary rocks into numerous valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes.”

I got an idea of just how lonely the swell is, and how pure and precious that loneliness is, while visiting another, nearby, federally protected landscape, Arches National Park. Even on an unseasonably chilly, blustery May afternoon, there were lines in the park for everything—to enter the park, get to the visitors center, approach a parking lot, find a parking space, hike the trails, or camp, even lines to get in line. Relatively small, it is one of the most heavily used national parks in the country with more than 1 million visitors a year. Its 56 camp sites are reserved months in advance.

Though the long lines fail to eradicate the stunning beauty of its 2,000 natural bridges and arches, they cannot help but detract from it. Arches also serves as a thought-provoking contrast to the swell. Seeing the two consecutively, as my wife and I did last month, reopens the age-old question of how much human loving can nature stand before succumbing.

The San Rafael Swell might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Except for Interstate 70, which bisects the swell, there are no paved roads. There is no cell phone or internet service. There are no hotels, restaurants or stores, and only one official campsite, in Gobblin State Park (whose two yurts and 26 camp sites are reserved months in advance). Except for the San Rafael River and seasonal creeks, there is not even any water. In other words, if you go there, you must be self-sufficient and hardy. It’s not an easy place to get to, some seven hours from Tijeras, much of it on two-lane roads.

More seriously, it’s pretty hard to get good information about the swell. The swell is not part of a national park or national forest or a wilderness area but instead is undeveloped land administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which no longer seems to have a functioning office in the area, although several web sties and guide books list a variety of BLM offices, particularly one in Price, Utah, the biggest nearby city.

There is an upside, however, to this nebulous status. You can hike and camp just about anywhere, without paying and without any restrictions. It’s the kind of open land that used to be everywhere in the West but is becoming rare as we continue to love our wild spaces to death.

As elsewhere in the Southwest, this year winter snow and spring rain have been generous in central Utah. The desert is green, the valleys lush with a profusion of wildflowers. In some spots, entire hillsides are carpeted purple. Fat cows and sleek horses graze among junipers rooted in tangerine earth, with lots of snow highlighting the peaks of the La Sal, Henry and Unita mountains. The bitterest land fights in the United States, between environmentalists and recreationists on the one hand and miners and ranchers on the other, are being fought out in this region, but it’s a land worth fighting over.

To get a foretaste of what awaited us, we pulled over at a viewpoint on Interstate 70 for the vista into the green depths of Black Dragon Canyon and out over the vast chains of the Henry Mountains to the east and the Unitas Mountains, barring the way to Salt Lake City to the west.

The swell divides into two worlds on either side of I-70. To the south, west of the tiny village of Hanksville (200 residents, two motels, one campsite, a couple of restaurants), lie a series of unpaved roads leading into a maze of spectacular slot canyons. We had planned on camping and hiking in this area, but we were overtaken by serious storms and so bowed to our fear of flash floods in the canyons.

To the north is a scenic, all-weather gravel road that winds 29 miles past view points, 2,000-year-old rock art, the Little Grand Canyon and the San Rafael River. Along the way is a myriad of beautiful, undeveloped campsites on sand benches and in recesses in the overhanging mountains. We found the route to be a wonderful compromise for enjoying the region without risking drowning in flooded canyons.

But we also left with a feeling of a trip uncompleted. At the first opportunity, we plan to return to those slot canyons in the southern swell.

Exploring this country puts me in mind of Herman Melville, who put these words into the mouth of Ishmael, the protagonist of Moby Dick: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”