The red ochre pictographs could be mistaken, from a distance, for mineral stains—the same that streak down the towering two-hundred foot canvas of rock, tracing where flood waters have spilled over the edge for eons. The group of three painted figures in San Rafael’s Black Dragon Wash—no less than three feet tall but dwarfed by their surroundings—look human and alien at the same time. A refrigerator-oven hybrid creature is tall and boxy with two stubby antennae above two gaping mouths with two little feet on the bottom. Next to him, his companion’s squat disk head floats above a sturdy rectangular body. And over them both I see what appears to be a floating octopus.
Pictographs and petroglyphs drawn and etched on the walls by the early Fremont people are some of the many treasures found in the crevasses of the San Rafael Swell, an uplift of rock that thrust upward 40 to 60 million years ago. Stretching 75 miles north to south from Price down to Hanksville, the swell covers 1.8 million acres. Interstate 70 cuts an impressive line through the seemingly impassable formation. Road access points are scarce. What few roads there are—the Heart of Sinbad and Cottonwood Wash roads at Exit 129 on I-70 are good starting points—take intrepid explorers into a desert wilderness with few trails, fewer fences and endless possibilities for those with a sense of adventure.
Walking through Black Dragon Wash was as close as I got to a trail during my four-day trip to the swell. On our first day, my small group struck out a half-mile from camp. Choosing at random one of the many wide fins of sandstone, we began our ascent with no idea where we would cliff out, how high we might climb, or if we would find enough water for our dogs to keep the entire expedition well-hydrated.
Our search for water soon revealed one rare pool after another. The cusp of May and June normally spells the end of the good season for visiting this chunk of Southern Utah—summer is dangerously hot and dry, while fall threatens with monsoon rains and flash flooding—but this year, the swell’s season was extended by late-spring rains. Our trip was well-timed.
The abundance of rain also brought a blush of color to the sometimes-drab slopes of the swell. Across the hills, Prince’s Plume sent its yellow lance of flowers up to the sky. The paper-thin petals of beaver-tail cactus blooms announced the plant’s prickly presence with delicate displays of deep crimson, pink and soft canary yellow. From a cliff ledge grew a blanket of green dotted with the white stars of columbine. Desert evening primrose, blanket flower, cushion buckwheat, clusters of purple and profusions of yellow that I could not find names for spread everywhere.
With such abundance of beauty and life, it’s surprising that the swell has never gained any federal or state protection. Just in November 2013, the Bureau of Land Management pulled 57 oil & gas leases located within the swell from the auction block at the very last minute. Permanent protection of the San Rafael has long been debated. Proposals to designate a San Rafael Swell National Park began in the mid-1930s. In 1990, the BLM identified four wilderness study areas, but none have since gained official wilderness designation.
That may soon change. Recently, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to protect the Organ Mountains along the U.S.-Mexico border, designating them a National Monument. Word has is that Obama is not finished protecting public lands, and that the San Rafael Swell is on his short list for monument designation.
The desert afternoons, full of sunshine and brittle breezes, lingered. By my second day, I felt the stress of the harsh environment wearing on me, so I retreated to my tent beneath a cottonwood tree at the mouth of a cool narrow slot canyon. I lay back, let the wind lift the sweat from my skin, and soaked in the desert solitude.