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San Rafael Swell

The following text is but a short excerpt from the "Utah's Scenic San Rafael 2001" Book by Mark H. Williams. To read more about the wonderful world of the San Rafael Swell buy the book on our website today.   Click here to Buy the Book NOW!

Click on any of the pictures for a larger view


The San Rafael Swell, part of the Colorado Plateau, seems to have risen up as a giant showcase of the geological ages. The San Rafael Swell is 80 miles long and 35 miles wide and the most prominent structural feature of Emery County. It looks like an overturned, giant elongated bowl, lying northeast by southwest. The inside of the bowl has been eroded away revealing concentric racetrack ridges, each weathering and exposing the secrets of the geological past when each layer was deposited at the surface of the Earth.

Geology classes from all over the nation have come into the Swell to study the wealth of information the geological formations contain. The formations range in age from 230 to 100 million years old. The oldest formation (Permian White Rim Cedar Mesa Sandstone) is found in the Black Box region of the San Rafael River near the north-central portion of the Swell and growing younger as you head east or west out of the Swell (Cretaceous Mancos Shale). Triassic and Jurassic sandstone's form deep canyons, tall pinnacles, and the famous San Rafael Reef. Geologic studies of the Swell reveal giant sand dunes (Navajo Sandstone) inundated by shallow seas containing abundant marine life (Carmel Formation). This would be comparable to the Sahara Desert being covered by the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient rivers cris-crossing the region with abundant plant and animal life formed the Jurassic Morrison Formation, one of the world's famous localities for dinosaur bones. The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is located on the northwestern flank of the San Rafael Swell.

The San Rafael Swell has varied scenery. Pinnacles and spires like Monument Valley, canyons like Zions National Park while some sections relate to the Moab area. However, the San Rafael Swell area is unique and has a form of its own with three rivers, Price. San Rafael and Muddy cutting through it. These are the only perennial streams having their source on the high Wasatch Mountains.

The vegetation is typical of the Colorado Plateau. The high country has juniper and some pinion pine with a few Douglas Fir where water is close by. Cottonwood trees are found in the bottomlands along the perennial streams. Greasewood, sagebrush and rabbit brush are common along the washes; and sparse grass and prickly pear are found everywhere.

The climate is semi-arid. The summer heat is somewhat compensated for by the cool nights. The snowfall is seldom heavy, but occasionally livestock is snowed in, with losses resulting.

There is not a single permanent settler in this vast area. Attempts at dry farming have been made in a few places on Buckhorn Flat, Summerville Wash, Fuller Bottom, Lockhart Cabin, and at Swasey Cabin in Sinbad, but, for lack of moisture, all have been abandoned. The last successful dry farming was on Cedar Mountain in 1924. Since then, according to the old-timers, it has been getting drier because of a definite weather change.

A railroad grade, which was never used and is now largely destroyed by washouts, was built by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad from Green River to Huntington by way of Cottonwood Spring Draw, Saleratus Creek and Buckhorn Flat. The road from Buckhorn Flat to Green River still uses some sections of the old grade.

In 1921 oil companies built a road from Buckhorn Flat down Buckhorn Wash. They built a bridge across the San Rafael River and out to the Horseshoe where they drilled for oil. Later the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the road through Buckhorn Wash, built a cable bridge across the San Rafael River, and improved the road out to Temple Mountain. Emery County maintains the road at the present time. The road from Ferron down Horn Silver Gulch to Sinbad by way of Coal Wash is known as North Fork Trail and goes over the Devil's Racetrack. It was the first road built into Sinbad for Carter Oil Company to drill a well.

On the east side of the Swell, oil companies constructed a road into the Black Dragon and Jerry's Flat area from 1918-1922. It soon washed out but was put back in during the uranium days of the early 1950's. In the early 1960's work began on I-70. Its completion served as a route through the center of the Swell, which made it more accessible.

In the earlier period, the only people who knew this country were the cattlemen, sheepherders, prospectors, and men who had an obsession for chasing wild horses. Thousands of wild horses inhabited the San Rafael. Many of them were well built, tough, and made very good saddle horses. Blooded stallions were brought in and turned loose. Some draft stallions gave the horses good size, and Hamiltonians and Arabians gave them endurance. A man could put his brand on any horse that was not branded. Many men made horse chasing their occupation. One of the first projects of the Bureau of Land Management in the early 1930's was to clear the range of wild horses to make more room for cattle and sheep.

The Swaseys were reportedly the first men to push their horses into Sinbad. They would drive them through Coal Wash and into the head of Sinbad near the site where Swasey Cabin was eventually built. Here they would set up camp in a cave with a small spring nearby which was adequate for their camp and saddle horse needs until the cabin was built. Grass grew as high as the stirrups on a saddle horse. From here they spent time prospecting. They were the first to discover uranium at Temple Mountain. Near the head of Red Canyon, they found a vein of lead. Their descendants are still looking for it.

Since that period of time, cowmen and sheepmen have pushed dirt roads into their ranges and waterholes. Prospectors built roads in the 1950's to reach the most remote areas where they found uranium ore and shipped it to the mills in Moab and Grand Junction. Thanks to them, we have roads and trails to travel this area.

A four-wheel drive vehicle is not needed in good weather to go through Buckhorn Flat to I-70 and on to Temple Mountain and Highway 24, nor from Buckhorn Flat to Highway 50 and 6 known as the Green River Cutoff. The traveler can set up camp where he wishes or stay in one of the towns nearby such as Castle Dale, Ferron, Huntington, or Green River. All have good motel and cafe accommodations.

About the Book

The purpose of this book is to provide guidance into these remote areas. Be sure to take extra fuel, food and water for your travels. Remember, there are more miles in a can of beans than a gallon of gas. The author takes you into one section at a time, and tells you about the scenic wonders along with some of the early history. Near the beginning of each section there is a detailed map to guide you.


The preceding was but a short excerpt from the "Utah's Scenic San Rafael 2001" Book by Mark H. Williams. To read more about the wonderful world of the San Rafael Swell buy the book on our website today.  
Over 130 pages of information and maps.
Click Here to Buy the Book NOW!




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