We’d been in Utah for weeks now. We started in the north at Dinosaur National Monument, then drifted south through Canyonlands and the Trail of the Ancients along the Colorado/Utah border. Now it’s time to head west, into the remote mountains, canyons and deserts of the San Rafael Swell, a massive wall of jagged rock jutting out of the earth and running north to south through the state. Here you’ll find remote slot canyons, hidden gorges, ancient pictographs, mysterious valleys full of strange rock formations, all surrounded by a vast, wild, desert.
Our first stop, Natural Bridges National Monument. As usual we planned to camp outside of the monument in the desert and drive in during the day to avoid crowded campgrounds and besides, we prefer camping out on public lands, far from any neighbors. So, as we neared the entry to Natural Bridges, we pulled our fifth wheel trailer onto a steep, dirt two-track leading up to Bears Ears buttes. That was a mistake. We barely had clearance between the cliffs and the drop-off into the canyon below and after six miles of white-knuckle driving we turned around. Once at the bottom again we found a fine campsite in the junipers forest just a few miles from the park entrance.
After a relaxing night, we left our trailer in the boondocks and drove the truck into Natural Bridges National Monument. So, what’s the difference between an arch and a natural bridge? According to the geologists, a natural bridge is formed by a stream of water eroding the rock from beneath while an arch is formed by wind and rain erosion, usually away from running water. The result is that bridges tend to be larger and span longer distances – in general.
There was no entry fee for Natural Bridges National Monument, and few people in this remote park, so we could we tour it at our leisure. We took short hikes to see the massive bridges of sandstone spanning beautiful White Canyon and a longer one down to Owachomo Bridge, a graceful arc of rock spanning a streambed of slick rock. Deep in the canyons were ancient petroglyphs and the ruins of Pueblo buildings. It was impressive and this small park is worth seeing.
The following morning we followed Highway 95 from Natural Bridges towards the open deserts and jagged peaks of the San Rafael Swell south of Green River Utah. The drive road followed the magnificent White Canyon with its white rock contrasting with the bright red rock of the buttes and pinnacles surrounding it. Finally, the road drops down to the Colorado River and crosses it at Hite over a graceful arched bridge through more canyons of red, white and blue rock.
But, our goal was Goblin Valley State Park, far out in the desert, which we planned to use as a base to explore the surrounding canyonlands and mountains, so we moved on. When we arrived, the park campground was full. We had anticipated this and drove on into the adjacent Wildhorse Canyon where we could “boondock” for free on Bureau of Land Management public land.
Thank god the state park campground was full. It was typical of developed campgrounds; nice, but somewhat expensive at $25/night and crowded with just water, bathrooms and a RV dump station. By driving a few miles into the desert we found a spectacular campsite, far from any neighbors, and set against towers of red sandstone eroded into fanciful shapes, and, at no cost. No cellular signal, but we didn’t care. You have to be prepared to camp in this country with plenty of water, your own bathroom (or dig a latrine), food and fuel. With our fully stocked trailer, we were ready to stay for a week.
And then the serendipitous things that happen from time to time when you’re traveling happened to us. We had no sooner set up our trailer when a van drove up into our campsite. I was immediately suspicious and, as I walked towards the van, my best friend Matt Zybas jumped out of it. Matt lives near Seattle and we hadn’t seen him since we left that area over six months ago. We didn’t expect to see him again until next summer, yet here he was, in the middle of the Utah desert!
He had recognized our trailer from the road almost a half mile away while returning from a hike with his friend Pete. We laughed and drank beer into the evening, all of us amazed at the incredible coincidence of the meeting. Matt and Pete had a campsite at the state park, but they returned in the morning on their way out to Salt Lake City and on to Seattle.
After they left, we hiked into Little Wildhorse Canyon, a slot canyon just a couple miles away from our camp. This massive cut into the sandstone starts off as a pleasant walk along a dry river bed, then narrows into a deep gorge, then narrows into a slot canyon so tight we had to turn sideways at times to squeeze through it. The rock in the canyon was twisted and warped into fantastic shapes and worn smooth by centuries of flood water rushing through it.
We hiked a few miles into the canyon. At places it was choked with fallen boulders, or filled with calf-deep water. Finally, we reached a tight slot filled with waist-deep cold, muddy water. We had almost reached the end of the canyon, so instead of wading through the water, we turned around and hiked back out, satisfied we had seen something very special. That night we marveled about the canyon and running into Matt as a thumbnail moon and the Milky Way shone over our camp, silhouetting the rock towers all around our quiet camp.
The next goal was hiking into Horseshoe Canyon, a remote part of Canyonlands National Park and the site of the largest collection of ancient pictographs in North America. Early the next morning we drove forty miles into the desert along dirt roads to reach the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead. Then it was a fairly strenuous, seven-mile round trip hike into the canyon and out again and, a cold wind was blowing. There were few people way out here making it all the nicer.
The canyon itself was wide with soaring rock walls surrounding a river bottom full of cottonwood trees turning gold in the mid-October sun. The pictographs were in groups on smooth sandstone walls along the way; some in a massive cave-like overhang of rock, others in oasis-like alcoves full of willow and cottonwood trees. The paint appeared to be a thick mix of minerals; sand or mud, in brown, black and white. The highlight is the Great Gallery, a series of life-sized figures; ghosts, hunters, and bird-like humans painted on the smooth canyon walls 3,000 years ago. This was quite a sight.
Back at camp, the drive had been long, the hike strenuous, and we were tired. We slept soundly. The next day we planned to take it easy; hiking around The Valley of the Goblins in nearby Goblin Valley State Park.
In the morning we drove to Goblin Valley State Park, paid the $13 entry fee, and stopped at the overlook. In our travels through Utah we had seen some spectacular places; soaring arches of sandstone, the sheer canyons of the Colorado, the twisted rock of the San Rafael Swell. But we were unprepared for the sight before us at Goblin Valley.
In a shallow, flat valley were thousands of low towers of standing rock in red and brown formed into fantastic shapes. Globular rocks looking like animals, pinnacles with impossibly balanced rocks on top, labyrinths of rocks twisted and pressed into shapes that seemed to defy gravity. And they went on for acres and acres with sandy washes winding through them leading from one surreal valley to another.
We spent the day walking through the maze of rock rarely seeing another person and amazed at every turn. This is a place like no other and we’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. In fact, the whole area around Wildhorse Canyon is a wonderland of colored rock, slot canyons, and The Goblins. And still there’s still more.
We had hoped to explore The Maze, a particularly remote part of Canyonlands National Park. But this would require a serious expedition of three days or more over extremely rough four-wheel drive routes and tent-camping in the wilderness. So, we decided to save this for later and, even then, we’ll probably hire a guide with jeeps to do it. So, we packed up and moved westward, on towards Capitol Reef National Park. But, we’ll be back to explore The Maze and more of this special place again.