Little Grand Canyon of Utah - San Rafael Swell
This might be the greatest natural wonder that you never knew existed. Deep in the middle of the desolate San Rafael Swell, dozens of miles from any paved highways, there's a dramatic gash cut into the earth's surface by the San Rafael River. It's known as Utah's Little Grand Canyon: a thousand-foot-deep canyon with steep walls and a serpentine river. It's all so breathtaking, you might momentarily think you've taken a wrong turn, and ended up at that "other" big hole -- the one in Arizona.
If you didn't know Utah had its own Grand Canyon, don't feel bad. And if you didn't know there was a place called "the Wedge" where you could take in this view, you're not alone. This area is so remote that very few people discover it. For most, the San Rafael Swell is something that must be endured on Interstate 70 (the only paved road through the Swell, which divides it into northern and southern sections). The Swell is part of the 110-mile stretch of highway without a single gas station or motel room. The highway is scenic, but long and lonely.
To find this view, you have to wander quite a long way from the interstate. The Wedge overlook is about 20 miles from Castle Dale, Utah, and nearly 40 miles from I-70. I had just driven down from Castle Dale on Buckhorn Draw Road (see the previous page). While I knew I was in for a great view, the Little Grand Canyon of Utah took me by surprise, as it appeared out of nowhere in an otherwise flat desert terrain.
When you get to the edge of the canyon, you can either turn left or right. I turned left, and drove out to the end of the smooth dirt road (an unimproved path continues on). This is the Little Grand Canyon Overlook, where (arguably) you'll find the best views. The first four pictures on this page are from that vantage point.
There's a narrow rocky outcropping that juts out into the abyss. Go ahead and walk out as far as you feel safe -- but don't expect any guard rails to catch you. (This is the view at the end, looking back towards the car.)
I sat down to relax for a while. There were no other people around (just one family back at the first viewpoint, where the road first approaches the canyon's edge). There were flies, though, and hungry birds swooping around, catching them. I waved off the bugs a few dozen times as I waited for the clouds to move. I was hoping for a well-lit canyon, as far as I could see to the east. By the way, in the distance, perhaps five miles from here, is where Buckhorn Wash Road crosses the San Rafael River. I didn't realize that at the time -- I don't know if you can see the bridges from here.
The sun never lit up the canyon the way I had hoped, but the clouds directly over my head did open up, and the temperature skyrocketed. I got back into the air-conditioned car, and headed down to another viewpoint, past the picnic area at the main viewpoint.
The road south was much rougher than the rest of the byway. I bumped along until I found a good place to park -- certainly the kind of spot where you remember to use the parking brake. And as I left, I think I double-checked about a half-dozen times that I was in reverse, not drive.
The view from this area is different than the northern overlook. From here, you can't see deep into the canyon, but you do have a nice view of the buttes and valleys on the opposite side of the San Rafael River.
To get back to Buckhorn Draw Road, you'll have to return the same way you came. The "main" road is about six miles away, but there is a cut-off that makes the return a bit shorter for anyone heading deeper into the Swell -- something I highly recommend.
Should the Wedge, Buckhorn Draw, and the rest of the San Rafael Swell be declared a National Monument? The president has the power to do so, and in early 2010 a memo from the Department of Interior caused quite a bit of controversy in Utah. It mentioned the Swell, along with Cedar Mesa in the southeast corner of the state, as areas which could be declared as National Monuments. A similar move by President Clinton back in 1996 created the Escalante/Grand Staircase National Monument, but it also put the brakes on a big mining operation, which frustrated many local residents. As of this writing, the Obama administration says it has no plans of making another federal land-grab (but Clinton's declaration was kept a surprise, too).
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