A Really Swell Drive
Sunday, April 14
With our morning intro hike at The Wedge completed, we packed up and started off in the general direction of the Escalante area, far off to the south. The bulk of our trip's activities would be there.
The San Rafael Swell
Drawing a straight line on a map from The Wedge to the Escalante region crossed straight through the heart of the San Rafael Swell, an almost completely uninhabited desert wilderness with all sorts of interesting terrain and features. We could have taken the conventional approach, going around the Swell on regular paved highway, but that would have also been the boring, less exciting approach. Instead, we charted a path that followed the backcountry routes through the Swell. It would be new terrain for all of us, probably very scenic, and as a bonus was the most direct route (although perhaps not as fast due to the lower travel speeds involved).
A fairly major backcountry road led from The Wedge's plateau and down a prominent drainage known as Buckhorn Wash. Winding down through this side canyon brought us down a thousand feet to the banks of the San Rafael River (the same river we had looked down upon from The Wedge Overlook). Along the way we stopped to look at a premier-class example of ancient indigenous peoples (primarily Barrier Canyon style) rock art -- the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. Spooky and amazing.
Excellent Pictographs, Buckhorn Wash
Not far after the pictograph panel, the Buckhorn Wash road arrives at the San Rafael River. A sturdy new concrete bridge (as well as an old historical wooden bridge) allowed us to cross the river here. From down here, in the bottom of Utah's "Little Grand Canyon", you discover yourself in yet another pocket of the Colorado Plateau with all of its grand classical features: mesas and towers and buttes, all reaching for the sky high above you.
We got out to explore the old bridge and observe the surroundings. There are a couple of BLM-style (i.e. few services, little or no cost) campgrounds here, both of which looked completely empty. The San Rafael River itself was flowing fairly strongly and was completely laden with mud and silt (it was a solid brown color). Might be nice to consider a rafting trip along this river at some point.
Hatkos and the Swinging Bridge
Continuing south, we struck out into the deep interior of the San Rafael Swell. Still labelled as the Buckhorn Draw road, our dusty backcountry highway led generally south, through the impressive towers and cliffs near the San Rafael River, then across more gently-contoured area known as the Limestone Bench. Following several minor draws and across several more flats, the road eventually came up alongside Interstate-70 (which bisects the Swell in an east-west direction). We did not get on the paved interstate, instead choosing to remain on our backcountry route, crossing underneath and continuing south, through a remote area of more dissected desert terrain known as Sinbad Country.
Heading South Through the Swell
Generally speaking, the primary roads through the backcountry of the Swell seemed to be in pretty good shape - not too rough, not all that washboarded. It was about 100km / 60 miles of generally-southward driving before we neared the Temple Mountain area, at the southeastern fringe of the Swell.
Initially, as we crossed through the center of the Swell, we had gone backwards in time through geologic strata. Now, as we neared another edge [of the Swell], we began to move forward into new strata again (driving through The Swell is like driving across the top of a huge shaved-off onion). Forward we went into ruddy, red-colored rocks and soil. In the distance, the very church-like Temple Mountain reared its twin-spired top above the horizon. That meant we were getting close to our destination - the BLM Temple Mountain Campground.
Temple Mountain Campground
Setting up at Temple Mountain
Like many BLM-run campgrounds, the Temple Mountain Campground was free, and first-come, first-served. The layout was simple: a very large open parking area with two sturdy outhouses at either end, a few picnic tables scattered around the perimiter of the parking area, and then various flattish spots in the terrain just beyond. The parking was spacious enough and large enough that campers with RVs could just set up in the lot. Tenters (like us) would park their cars roughly adjacent to whatever flat tent spots looked appealing. It wasn't the beautifully-manicured, tended and hosted campground of a state or national park, but it was more than serviceable, and the presence of a toilet and a table are a big improvement over nothing at all. And you couldn't really beat the price.
Setting up at Temple Mountain
It was a high-overcast, high-wind sort of afternoon, and it was a bit of a struggle to get everything set up without stuff blowing away. Eventually everybody's portable lodging was in place, and we set about having dinner.
With the late sunset of mid-spring, we had plenty of light left after dinner, and we used that light to do a little bit of exploring near the campground. We discovered a number of interesting things, including the ruins of an old historic homestead, and some mysterious caves high up on a cliff (these turned out to be old abandoned uranium mine shafts, all of which had long since been sealed up).
Exploring Homesteader Ruins
Exploring Old Uranium Mines
Watching the late evening 4x4ers
By 8:00 p.m. a solid dusk had settled over our campground, and our thoughts turned to turning in (for the night). The nature of our somewhat littered free-for-all campground being what it was, though, a couple of very eager 4x4 drivers came roaring by camp around this time, revving and zooming up one of the nearby washes. We watched from a distance as their headlights bobbed around from bouncing over rough terrain at high speed. We traced them crawling up along steep little jeep paths in the nearby hills, eventually losing sight of them as they dwindled into the distance.