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Awesome Adventures and Canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell, Utah

 In Destinations, US Destinations

About an hour past the turnoff for Moab lies a little-known nook in the Utah desert. Gaint sandstone monoliths stack against one another like ancient books nestled on a sandy shelf. Each crevice creating its own microcosm of life, beauty and wonder. I’m talking about the magnificent San Rafael Swell. If you love red dirt, stunning slots canyons, and sandstone wonders without the crowds, go canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell.

The Best BLM Primitive Camping in the San Rafael Swell

The Utah desert is all about primitive camping. Never before have I discovered camp spots with so much to explore, steps from your tent. There are plenty of isolated camp spots along dirt roads in virtually any direction. If you’re traveling during the off-season, or don’t mind a few people nearby, I encourage you to check out the areas off of road 1013 just north of Goblin Valley and Temple Mountain Road. If you aren’t towing a larger RV, you can easily find your own nook of desert paradise.

For an in-depth look at how to find free camping, check out this post.

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BLM Camping in the San Rafael Swell

Exploring the hundred foot cliffs nestled against our camp.

Off the Beaten Path Canyons in the San Rafael Swell

My favorite lesser-tracked trails on the south side of the Swell is Chute and Crack canyons. Both canyons lack any tough terrain or super slot-like features but don’t be fooled, there’s plenty to explore with the trained eye. Chute offers an array of offshoots where you can scramble high up imposing amphitheaters. We actually ended up skipping Crack Canyon in favor of bouldering and exploring the rock faces of Chute. We hardly saw anyone aside from a couple of horses and the rogue hiker. The road to Chute requires a bit of clearance due to some shelfy bits of rock, but we did see a beat-up Volvo make the run.

Chute canyon scrambling

The walls of Chute Canyon are too large to capture in a photograph. But this canyon is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a quiet walk or a chance to scramble up canyon walls.

Scrambly Slot Canyons: Ding and Dang

Located just past the swamped Little Wildhorse Canyon, Ding and Dang make an excellent choice for the scrambling enthusiast. The potholes are large, there are some slot sections and a few choice areas to navigate. The entire canyon system is doable without technical gear, making it a great step up from other canyons in the area without getting too advanced. You can make chokestones and other obstacles as difficult or as simple as you would like.

canyoneering in the san rafael swell

The slot section of Ding Canyon. Another trail where we saw only one other group.

Rappel into the Chamber of the Basilisk at Goblin Valley State Park

Adrenaline junkies will love the straight-forward rappel into the Chamber of the Basilisk. Start off by navigating the hoodoos of Goblin Valley until you reach a non-descript hole in the ground. Canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell offers plenty of wierd, and rappelling into an 80-foot hole in the ground is certainly different! A piece of 20-foot webbing and some rap rings will do for the rappel, although anchors are usually in abundance here, there were three perfectly good anchors when we rapped down. The hike to the rappel is 1.5 miles round trip, making it an easy approach with mind-altering scenery.

Looking for more desert destinations? Check out these guides:

thigns to do in the san rafael swell

Looking for a thrill? Rappel into the Chamber of the Basilisk at Goblin Valley State Park.

New to climbing? Here’s your guide to getting started with rock climbing.

How to Beat the Crowds and Hike Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon

Out of all of the well-marked canyons in the San Rafael Swell, Little Wild Horse is the most popular. It’s easily accessible, not too difficult and jaw-droppingly beautiful. This experience canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell doesn’t require any special gear and offers a great beginner slot to explore. But be prepared to share this slot with everyone, unless you go that extra mile. Opt to start early in the morning, or go in the middle of winter. We ran this canyon with a couple of friends in January and didn’t see a soul the entire eight and a half miles.

Best time to hike Little Wild Horse Canyon

Hiking in January might be cold, but you’ll have Little Wild Horse Canyon all to yourself.

Leave No Trace in the Desert

Unfortunately, people think that it’s ok to leave trash, human waste and almost anything else you can think of. Simply put, don’t be that person. These spaces are under threat and the last thing we need is more trash. Pack it out, that includes your dirty toilet paper. Desert foxes and other small creatures dig this stuff up and it gets strewn everywhere like confetti.

off the beaten path San Rafael Swell

Giant pools and potholes put things in perspective in Ding and Dang Canyon

Also, avoid stepping on the black cryptobiotic soil. Like anything in the desert, this stuff takes forever to grow and plays a vital role in a healthy desert ecosystem. It keeps soil from blowing away, which allows the small amount of vegetation to take root here. It also gives micronutrients like nitrogen a home in the desert, allowing the gentle chain of life here to keep on surviving.

The next time you head into the desert be prepared with these 22 desert camping hacks.

The San Rafael Swell offers a break from the crowds that swamp the many national parks in southern Utah. Canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell is just one of many activities for the adventurous soul in the area. Get out there and enjoy your public lands responsibly.

Off the beaten path hikes and canyons in Southern Utah. Explore the San Rafael Swell in Utah. Guide to the San Rafael Swell including slot canyons, hikes, technical rappels and Goblin Valley State Park. Visit southern Utah on a road trip. Best canyon hikes of southern Utah #utah #camping #hiking #canyoneering #outdoors #adventuretravel

Off the beaten path hikes and canyons in Southern Utah. Explore the San Rafael Swell in Utah. Guide to the San Rafael Swell including slot canyons, hikes, technical rappels and Goblin Valley State Park. Visit southern Utah on a road trip. Best canyon hikes of southern Utah #utah #camping #hiking #canyoneering #outdoors #adventuretravel

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Showing 4 comments
  • John

    Amazing photos!!!

    • foxintheforest

      Thanks! I’ve been loving the hell out of photography lately.

  • SavvyExploring

    This looks incredible! I saw it on the bucket list and had to check it out. It reminds me of Bryce without the crowds. We did a two week circle around Utah and drove right past here, but had no idea it was there. I guess we’ll just have to go back. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • foxintheforest

      I’m glad you like it. Yes, this area is far less crowded than any of the national parks. Goblin Valley is a bit like Bryce, but not as high in elevation and not quite as dramatic. However the rest of the area is all about canyons.
      With such remoteness though come great responsibility. Do take care to Leave No Trace here and watch out for cryptobiotic soil.
      I visit the Swell at least once a year – it’s truly a gem and there’s so much more to see. I hope to be able to update my guide when I get the chance to explore more.
      Happy adventuring!

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