Utah’s San Rafael Swell attracts those who are curious about dinosaurs and ancient rock images — and enjoy the sound of silence.
By Lazelle Jones
In southeastern Utah, a desert area called the San Rafael Swell offers a dramatic, yet uncrowded, look at the powers of nature and ancient humanity.
The “Swell” is an elevated desert land, created over the last hundred million years as tectonic plates moved beneath the earth’s surface. In the latest episode, this area of Utah that was once the bottom of a huge ocean was pushed up 8,000 feet above sea level, creating what are some of the most dramatic landscapes found anywhere today. And over these many millions of years, the San Rafael Swell has been home to myriad varieties of plants, sea creatures, dinosaurs, prehistoric animals (mammoths and saber-toothed tigers), and several different tribes of humans.
This area is easy to reach from Interstate 70, the east-west artery that traverses southeast Utah. U.S. 191 and State Route 10 converge at the old cowboy mining town of Price, the northernmost boundary for the area. Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks roughly mark its southern limits.
With such a vast area to explore and enjoy, and because the graded roads here may be rough and can become instantly impassable if it rains, during a recent visit I elected to use the services of a professional guide and the vehicles they use. However, having said that, if you’re towing a vehicle, don’t be reluctant to set out on your own, for the roads are graded and are well marked. Just be sure to obey and follow the signs. Another good idea is to pick up a map before setting out for the Swell.
A good place to get a map is at one of the two major dinosaur museums noted here, or at the local travel region office listed at the end of this article. Remember to start out with a full tank of fuel, take plenty of water, make sure your tires are in good condition (and properly inflated), and tell someone where you are going.
I began by calling the Castle Country travel office for information about guides. Tom McCourt, one of several excellent guides in the area, has lived here all of his life and is considered to be an expert on the San Rafael Swell. He not only took us directly to the sites we wanted to see, but he knew how to get there in the least amount of time (we covered approximately 200 miles that day). He also was able to explain to us everything we would see — and is a great storyteller. (For more information about his tours, call 888-249-6319 or visit www.southpawpublications.net/tour.html).
We started our adventure with a visit to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. You can easily reach this spot by car, too — but wait until 2006. During the summer of 2005 the facility was closed for improvements and updates. It is hoped the quarry will reopen by the spring of next year. (Phone 435-637-5060 for more information.)
This area has yielded more dinosaur bones and fossils than anywhere else in North America. In fact, paleontologists have uncovered several dinosaurs here that are not found anywhere else in the world. The quarry is accessible by car; travel south from Price on State Route 10 about 15 miles and then turn east to travel 15 more miles on a network of dirt roads.
The quarry’s visitors center is full of replica dinosaur bones and the real things, all mounted or displayed in cases. Massive teeth and bones evoke images of huge creatures. A walk leads from the visitors center to original excavation sites, letting you see how paleontologists dig for bones and fossils. At least 70 different animals and 14 dinosaur species have been removed from the site. Dig areas are covered under metal buildings to prevent vandalism.
Other outstanding places to encounter dinosaur bones are the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price (open daily; 800-817-9949, 435-637-5060; http://museum.ceu.edu), and at the Museum of San Rafael (435-613-5111; www.museumsanrafael.org), located in the town of Castle Dale. You can come face-to-face with creatures including the Allosaurus and the woolly mammoth — both have called the Swell home. These two natural history museums are absolutely first-rate and either one is an excellent way to begin or end a visit to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
During our day’s adventure Mr. McCourt led us along a path, a few hundred feet from the road, to where a large dinosaur track stands embossed in sandstone, a testament to previous times. The size and shape of this three-toed footprint is awesome! It must surely measure 24 inches by 24 inches.
Besides dinosaurs, the San Rafael Swell is one of the most fertile regions anywhere when it comes to artifacts and art from more recent inhabitants of the area — humans. Archaeologists refer to the groupings of ancient art — petroglyphs (images chipped into the rock) and pictographs (paintings on the rock) — on display in the canyons as “panels.” Many are easily accessible. However, before going to see this art, it’s helpful to understand something about the different people who have lived here.
Three different periods of ancient man (dating back approximately 12,000 years) have at one time or another lived in this region. The first and the oldest of these groups is called the Archaic Culture. They lived here between approximately 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 500. Much of the Archaic art found in the canyons of central Utah is characterized by the natural dyes that were incorporated into the rock by the artist and the flowing, graceful lines of the images that can be several feet tall. The Archaic rock art is called Barrier Canyon Style, and it is found only in the San Rafael Swell area of Eastern Utah.
Next came the Fremont Culture, which extended from A.D. 500 to approximately 1300. It’s believed that the Fremont lived here during approximately the same time period as the Anasazi, who resided farther south and are thought to have been the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. The Fremont people simply vanished, but may have descendants among the modern Ute Indians. The Fremont are considered the “country cousins” of the Anasazi people of the Southwest, but their cultures had significant differences. Fremont rock art is much more prolific and dramatic than the Anasazi, whereas the Anasazi excelled in pottery. The Fremont depended much more on hunting and gathering than the Anasazi farmers. The Anasazi constructed kivas below ground for ceremonial purposes, while the Fremont built open-air structures that may have been ceremonial sites high on the ridges.
The last and most recent people to live here (prior to the pioneers settling this land) were the Ute Indians, who live in Utah even today. Their rock art is often found dispersed among that of the Archaic and Fremont people, on the same art panels and in between the older symbols.
So, where in the San Rafael Swell are these panels of ancient art found? The easiest to reach and surely the most dramatic are the panels found on the drive through Buckhorn Wash. These images from the Archaic period look as though they were created by some surrealist painter in an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then put on display. The same kinds of ghostlike images can be seen in another area of the Swell called Head of Sinbad.
Another viewing spot, the Rochester Panel, is accessible by towed car or by motorhome (as long as you don’t mind a well-maintained gravel road). From State Route 10, a sign north of Emery directs you to the town of Moore. Drive east toward Moore until you reach the signed turnoff. A good gravel road takes you south for four miles to a large parking area. From there, an easy half-mile hike leads to the site. Wear good walking shoes and bring a bottle of water. The intensity and the amount of the rock art is overwhelming. It includes depictions of animals, hunting scenes, and an ancient time line. The figures embossed in the face of the rock are almost too numerous to count or understand. This is where the value of having a guide along pays big dividends. Mr. McCourt explained what otherwise appeared to be a random, confusing collage of figures, chipped out on the face of a 15-foot-high rock.
Although it’s smaller in scale, central Utah has its own version of the Grand Canyon, with the same forces that created the Grand Canyon also at work. The San Rafael River winds and carves its ways through the landscape as it works its way to the Green River, just as the mighty Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon. The walls are laced with side canyons, with mesas and plateaus rising high above the canyon floor and the river below.
It is through these beautiful badlands that rafters and canoe enthusiasts come to enjoy the rapids and muddy waters of the San Rafael River. The most popular point to put your boat in the river is at Fuller’s Bottom, about 12 miles east of Castle Dale. The point of take-out is the Swinging Bridge, approximately 15 miles downstream from where folks begin this adventure. It’s important to stop there, for the cataracts below the bridge are virtually impassable.
Many hikers, ATV enthusiasts, bicyclists, and RVers, as well as those who simply want to discover what the sound of silence really sounds like, find that the San Rafael Swell is a premium place to stay and spend quality time. This is Bureau of Land Management land, so camping permits are not required. Small motorhomes and other types of RVs occasionally can be seen dotting the horizon, but because the area is so vast, it’s impossible to feel cramped or intruded upon.
The best time to visit the San Rafael Swell is in the spring or fall, as summer temperatures can be extreme. And the locations mentioned here are not all of the attractions. Amazing rock formations fill Goblin Valley State Park, and Nine Mile Canyon boasts more than 10,000 rock images. The diversity of the Swell makes it a place that can be discovered over and over again. Only a few people, such as our guide Tom McCourt, have spent their lives attempting to fully understand what is there. And even they agree that this will never happen.
For more information about the area, including guides and campground listings, contact:
Castle Country Travel Region
90 North 100 East, #2
Price, UT 84501
Other helpful Web sites: