San Rafael Swell Roadtrip

San Rafael Swell Roadtrip

I always get an ache for the red rock of the Southwest this time of year. I blame it on college spring break road trips and then after school, a guiding schedule that usually put me in the Grand Canyon for at least one private trip or baggage boat down the big ditch.

Now, with my work with Redside and the Idaho River Rendezvous, springs are busier than ever - the last chance to catch guides attention before they are out in the wilderness for their summer and fall seasons. Not a particularly good time to check out of service...BUT, I think sometimes you have to consider all the facts, work your ass off for a week prior, and just go anyway. Casey still guides a full summer season and for both of us, this time of year is our last chance to escape the Idaho vortex (that we both love... but still a vortex).

We aimed roughly for the San Rafael Swell and figured we'd make decisions on the fly as we went. With the dog along and with Easter Weekend fast approaching (have you ever been in Moab during Jeep Week?! I've been in Moab during Jeep Week...) we decided to stay out of National Parks and stick to Wilderness Study Areas. We brought all our water (and toilet paper) and just loved on the fact that so many places in the West, you can still just drive as far as your rig will take you and camp.

If you're an outdoor recreator, it's worth giving Wilderness Study Areas a quick google search. In short, a WSA is a designation given to tracts of primitive, roadless land that isn't designated as Wilderness. The land stays in a WSA until the government decides to turn it into Wilderness or release it into standard USFS or BLM management. Which in theory is great! But in practice, it takes a long time for just about anything to happen in Congress, and a lot of this land stays in limbo for decades, it's unprotected/undesignated status making it particularly vulnerable to fuckery. To translate into the whiffs of what you see on your social media accounts, this is the success (and disappointment for some) with the recent Boulder White Clouds designation in Idaho, or the ongoing Bears Ears racket coming from Utah.

I'm advocating for an "fall the fuck in love with a WSA" campaign. You can check out the state-by-state list here (Idaho has 40! Utah has 86!) and chances are, find something near you or near another park or Wilderness you love.

On this trip, the San Rafael Reef WSAs might just have snagged our hearts...

Places/Memories of Note

The giant, maroon-painted pictograph panel at Buckhorn Wash.

Backpacking up the San Rafael River for two days in the sunshine, not seeing a single person.

Hank turning orange in the dust and chasing lizards with the seriousness only a mutt can take potential food...

The almost full moon rising over the canyon walls each night.

A loop hike through Eardley Canyon after taking Leslie-the-low-clearance-subaru 4x4ing through cows and sagebrush to the trailhead.

Quiet and wind.

The Bell Canyon/Little Wild Horse slot canyon loop, only having to hoist Hank around pour-offs a few times (heavy, heavy mutt).

Living off Mountain House, fruit by the foot and the occasional orange like a couple of nineteen year olds.

A morning loop through Goblin Valley State Park which frankly, looks nothing like Goblins and everything like, uh, something else.


Utah's Incredible Backcountry by David Day

San Rafael Swell Map by National Geographic

The Route

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The Grande Ronde River

The Grande Ronde River

On Baja

On Baja