Utah’s San Rafael Swell Offers Peek at Ancient Culture
Covering thousands of square miles in east- central Utah, the San Rafael Swell is not well known and even less traveled. Home to vast panoramas, landscapes, canyons, pristine meadows and rushing rivers, this is a place where you will often see no more than a half dozen other vehicles in a single day.
It’s also where you can find one of the largest collections of ancient graffiti etched or painted on the canyon walls centuries ago by ancient peoples. These panels contain thousands of petroglyphs (made by carving or chiseling) and pictographs (made by painting or staining).
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) watches over the San Rafael Swell, so camping is primarily free and primitive. However, bathrooms and designated sites are available at the Temple Mountain area and the San Rafael Swinging Bridge. It’s highly likely you’ll have the place to yourself for activities such as fishing, kayaking, hiking and biking.
First Stop at San Rafael Swell
Your first stop at the San Rafael Swell should be the CEU (College of Eastern Utah) Prehistoric Museum & Visitor Center, where you can pick up an excellent guidebook (free of charge) of the region. Next stop is the Museum of the San Rafael. Take the time to talk with the curators and docents at these museums. They can help you quickly grasp the “big picture” of what you are about to experience.
The geology of the Swell is a long and interesting story. Over the last 100 million years, the tectonic plates that lie miles below the surface of the earth have been moving — and they continue to move. At one time this huge chunk of real estate was an ocean floor, thousands of feet below sea level, stretching from what today is the Gulf of Mexico up to the Arctic Ocean. Its highest elevation is approximately 7,000 feet above sea level in the Cedar Mountain area.
Both museums display the bones of the dinosaurs, saber tooth tigers and wooly mammoths that once lived here. Many of these bones are unique to this area of the world and have been excavated at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. The museums also feature exhibits and displays of what the region used to look like. Fifteen thousand or more dinosaur bones have been removed from the quarry, as it was once a huge predator trap. The study and excavation of these fossilized bones continues here today.
Clearly marked on the map, the Dinosaur Quarry is easily reached. Here you will find a smaller museum that also displays many of the different life forms unearthed here. Inside is a skeletal exhibit of an allosaurus and a stegosaur. Self-guided tours along a well-marked path called the Rock Walk provide visitors with the opportunity to see firsthand how dinosaur bones are excavated. To see how large these dinosaurs really were, a fossilized footprint of a giant three-toed dinosaur (it measures 24×24 inches) is embossed in a slab of rock.
It was about 12,000 years ago that man first appeared in the Swell region. Anthropologists named this initial tribe of people the Archaic culture. Around 500 A.D. and in parallel with the Anasazi, the next group of ancient man moved into the Swell. Anthropologists call this group the Fremont culture and often refer to them as the Anasazi’s country cousin. This is one of those mysteries, as the Fremont culture seems to have vanished, while the Anasazi may have evolved into the Pueblo peoples who dot the landscape today in New Mexico and Arizona. The Utes were the last to move into the area, around 400 years ago.
Over the last 10,000 years these three different cultures have splashed the canyon walls of the San Rafael Swell with their drawings, sometimes etching them alongside and even on top of previous petroglyphs and pictographs. However, it’s the Barrier Canyon-style rock art of the Archaic culture found in the area that’s most intriguing. Along the roadside of Buckhorn Wash are the more impressive displays, with sweeping ghost-like figures standing several feet high. The images are beautiful and surrealistic, almost as though Salvador Dali had something to do with their creation.
Another rock art panel identified on the map is the Rochester Creek Petroglyph Panel. Reaching it requires a half-mile walk from the parking area along a well-marked trail. Etched in the face of a giant rock (20×20 feet high) are hunting scenes, people, animals and symbols of solar events.
The San Rafael River flows through the region, so bring your kayak, canoe or inflatable raft to explore a 15-mile stretch of river. But remember to call ahead to check the river conditions before you start.
Fuller’s Bottom is the place enthusiasts “put in” (where you put your kayak, canoe, etc., into the river), and 15 miles down stream at the Swinging Bridge is where you “take out” (leave the river). This bridge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1938, was the first-ever built across the San Rafael River. Today it is used for foot traffic. It’s important to leave the river at the Swinging Bridge, as farther downstream, the San Juan River flows through twisted and impassable cataracts and gorges.
One thing is for sure; you won’t get bored hanging out in the San Rafael Swell. Between viewing the petroglyphs and pictographs, hiking in the beautiful red rock canyons, riding your bike and paddling your kayak or canoe, the day goes by and the next thing you know, it’s time for dinner. And then there’s the gorgeous sunsets and oh … those stars at night.