San Rafael Swell Recreation Area
Guide

Introduction

The San Rafael Swell Recreation Area is a large Bureau of Land Management property containing 216,955 acres of wilderness in Utah. This BLM park was designated by the federal government in March of 2019.

The wilderness area consists of badlands and colored, uniquely shaped sandstone formations created by erosion, winding canyons, and huge slabs of stone that protrude from the landscape, the results of past geological upheavals.

The BLM recreation area is part of the San Rafael Swell which provides opportunities for numerous recreational activities which include sightseeing, hiking, OHV activity, horseback riding, cycling, and river rafting. The Wedge Overlook is a prominent feature in the area that is often referred to as “The Little Grand Canyon”. The Buckhorn Wash provides interesting topography and pictograph panels at the site draw explorers interested in discovering the fascinating ancient history in the region.

Many other mesas, mountains, canyons, rivers, and washes in the area provide wilderness sites with lookouts and scenery, challenging wilderness terrain and hiking trails, and historical points with interesting archeology and geology.

Nearby destinations that are well worth a stop when in the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area include Goblin Valley State Park, Huntington State Park, and the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

RV Rentals in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area

Transportation

Driving

The San Rafael Swell Recreation Area has many backroads and accesses to the numerous destination in the wilderness which include overlooks, trailheads, and geological sites. Contact the BLM Green River District Office for detailed directions to backcountry sites in the area. Backroads are generally naturally dirt surfaced roads, and in wet weather may require 4WD vehicles with high clearance to traverse due to rough condition and ruts.

To reach the “Swell” from Green River, Utah, head west on Interstate 70, or east from Richfield, Utah.

To reach the Temple Mountain Campground, head north on highway 24 proceed for 19.5 miles. At the 136 mile marker, turn left onto the Temple Mountain Road and follow the signs towards Interstate 70. You will come to a junction about five miles down, continue straight past the group site on the left and through the San Rafael Reef. The campground is just a short distance down the road.

To reach the popular Little Wild Horse Trailhead, take Highway 24 and turn west on Temple Mountain Road. Proceed for five miles then turn south on Goblin Valley Road. Continue for six miles and turn west on Wild Horse Road and continue to the Little Wild Horse Trailhead.

The Black Dragon Pictograph Panel is about 13 miles west on Interstate 70 from Green River, Utah.

Parking

Public Transportation

Campgrounds and parking in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area

Campsites in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area

First-come first-served

Primitive Campgrounds

The San Rafael Bridge Campground is located on the San Rafael River at the site of the swinging bridge. The north bank campground has six sites with fire rings, picnic tables, and pit toilets. The south bank campground has 11 campsites with tent pads, piscine tables and pit toilets. There are no RV hookups or drinking water supplies. The areas are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and camping here is free.

Temple Mountain Campground is a flat open campground with no amenities, south of the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. This is a dry campground and visitors must bring their own water and supplies and pack trash out. Temple Mountain is the tallest point in the “Swell”. The campground is open year-round and there is no fee for overnight camping.

Numerous hiking trails can be accessed in the campground areas which are situated at high elevation and subject to storms and harsh weather conditions. Campers should be prepared with necessary supplies and the ability to take shelter from the elements.

Alternate camping

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping in the 216 000 acre plus San Rafael Swell Recreation Area is permitted. Campers are expected to adhere to the Bureau of Land Management's “Leave No Trace” principles. There are no amenities outside designated primitive campgrounds, and backcountry campers must pack in all the water and supplies they require for their stay, and pack out trash. Visitors are encouraged to utilize previously used sites ¼ mile from water sources and trails, to minimize impact to the environment. Stays are limited to 14 days per site.

This is a harsh semi-arid wilderness and campers should be prepared for varying weather conditions, included severe thunderstorms that occur in the area. Enjoy camping out under the stars, and the numerous hiking trails, geological formations, canyons, scenic overlooks, and wildlife in the area while backcountry camping in the BLM public lands here.

Seasonal activities in San Rafael Swell Recreation Area

Off-Season

Off Highway Vehicles

OHV fun can be had at the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area and in the surrounding region. OHV use is permitted at Coal Wash, the North Fork Coal Wash, South Fork Coal Wash, the “Devil's Racetrack” and the Jensen Flat at the Lower Eagle Canyon junction.

The Behind the Reef trail is a challenging OHV/ATV trail in the San Rafael Swell, as is the Chimney Rock Trail. Watch out for hikers, equestrians and cyclists on these trails and in these areas while operating OHVs and ATVs in the area.

Sightseeing at Wedge Overlook

The wedge overlook provides a breathtaking view of the “Little Grand Canyon” where the San Rafael River flows. A great place for photographs, but keep an eye on the sky as thunderstorms that frequent the area can be hazardous at this high-elevation exposed site. Thunderstorms are less common later in the year.

From Wedge Overlook you can also see Sid’s Mountain, Window Blind Peak, and the south end of Buckhorn Wash. Hiking trails and toilet facilities are available here. The site is accessible by road.

The Swinging Bridge

The swinging bridge spans the San Rafael River and is a great place for a hike. Enjoy spectacular scenery, wildlife, and the unique bridge which is a Civilian Conservation Corps project built in 1938. The bridge was the only way to cross the river until the latter half of the 20th century and used to serve vehicular traffic, but it is now closed to motor vehicles. However, it is safe for pedestrians who can cross the bridge and enjoy the view of the river and canyon below.

In-Season

Pictograph Panels

While visiting the area you won't want to miss the pictographs at Buckhorn Wash. This area features an excellent example of Barrier Canyon style rock art with eerie figures overlooking the San Rafael River on the sandstone canyon wall There are painted pictographs and petroglyph prehistoric images situated here.

An interesting addition is the boulder where the CCC crews that installed the bridge have carved their names. A short hiking trail here, picnic sites, and vault toilets provide amenities at the site. The Black Dragon Pictograph panel is also located in the region and features several pictographs that grouped together resemble a dragon.

Hiking

Multiple hiking trails thread through the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area and the larger “Swell” area. The Little Wild Horse Trailhead and Bell Canyons are the most popular slot canyon trails for hiking. The Little Wild Horse Trail is a loop trail about eight miles in length that takes about four hours to complete.

Watch out for thunderstorms and flash floods in the area that can make trail footings hazardous. Other trails like the Behind the Reef Trail in the area are also excellent hiking areas, but many trails are open to cyclists, OHVs, ATVs, and equestrians, so keep an eye out for trail traffic.

Geological and Dinosaur Discoveries

The San Rafael Reef was formed by geological upheavals on the eastern side of “the Swell”. Layers of rock here have been lifted up by an anticline, a dome under the earth. Geological activity and environmental pressures at the edge have caused the horizontal plates of rock to protrude vertically, creating a sharp edge. The effects of erosion on the Navajo sandstone has created a jagged exposed edge and cut deep canyons in the area.

The Clevelan-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is home to the densest concentration of Jurassic fossil bones in the world, and features the largest collection of Allosaurus. The quarry comes complete with a puzzle! Although the fossils here are in excellent condition, they are all jumbled up, and paleontologists have yet to determine how this occurred. The dinosaur quarry features amenities like a visitor center, drinking water, restrooms, and a picnic area. Visitors can enjoy guided and unguided tours, and hiking at the site where fossils are situated in 147 million-year-old mudstone.