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Summer of Travel - Landing on Mars

Time in Utah was in my plans for this summer since last summer. Southern Utah has so much unusual hiking and fun desert and canyon exploration that it's impossible to go there often enough. I been to all the hit list places several times - Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Grand Staircase Escalante - and I could go to them all again and again, but what I really wanted to do was hop off I-70 and venture out into the great nothingness of the San Rafael Swell, and that's what I did. But not without saving a dog from getting hit on a 65 mph road, getting befriended by a stray cat at the AirBnB, and celebrating Mormon Invasion Day. Yes, that's a thing. Okay, maybe it's called Pioneer Day, but tomato, tomahto. And it's a much bigger celebration in Utah than July 4th.

San Rafael Swell

Day 1: Wedge and Buckhorn Recreation Areas

My friend and I spent the first day north of I-70 in the recreation areas that are accessed from the town of Castle Dale. In the Wedge Recreation Area, we first roamed around Fuller Bottom, but that seemed better suited for ATVs or fat tire biking. Then we went up to the Wedge Overlook Trail to admire the Little Grand Canyon. There are a number of campsites there and it would be beautiful place to spend a night to watch sunrise and sunset. We hiked along the Goodwater trail and found a place to drop down into the canyon, but after descending a way, we hit a point where we needed ropes and couldn't go further. We might have been able to make it without ropes, but the rock is super crumbly and it wasn't worth the risk since we didn't have all day to explore the canyon floor anyway. I would like to go back, though, and hike down along the San Rafael River. And there are safer ways to get down into the canyon.  

The second half of the day we explored Buckhorn Wash. Here we hiked through Furniture Draw Canyon, stopped to see the dinosaur print (it's not marked - you have to hunt for it a bit at the turnout but it's surrounded by a rock ring), checked out the impressive pictograph panel, and walked along the swinging bridge. All along the route were gorgeous campsites, private and nestled into the rising rock walls, that have more shade than the ones at the Little Grand Canyon. None of them were occupied, probably because it was July, but we had an overcast day in the 70s. Camping out there would have been perfect. We also drove past the entrance for Calf, Cow, and Pine canyons, which my travel partner went back to explore the next day while I, sadly, was working.

Day 2: Black Dragon Canyon and slickrock

This was my fantasy hike in that to get here, you pull right off I-70, not on an exit, just randomly pull off the highway at mile marker 147 going westbound and drive down the dirt road into the nothing. It's awesome. The 2017 edition of the Utah Canyon Country guide will lead you astray after that though, claiming that the trail starts 2.8 miles from the wire gate when in reality, it's only 1.2 miles and  impossible to see the trailhead from the road. So we drove way far down the canyon, which in itself was a fun adventure because we got to see the canyon from inside and below, and then eventually from above when we turned back and found the real trailhead. Playing on slickrock is always fun, as long as it is dry and you have good trail shoes. There's no right or wrong way - just head straight up until you get to the overlook. It's not even 3/4 of a mile if you go straight. And then have just as much fun hopping down. If you're just passing through (and don't get lost driving down through the canyon like we did), you could do this little detour and see some amazing rock formations in less than an hour.

On the way back to Ferron, I stopped at the Moore Cutoff Pictographs. Supposedly there are more dinosaur prints there, but like the ones in Buckhorn, they weren't marked and this time I couldn't find them.

Day 3: Valley of the Goblins, flash flooding, and epic lightning

AirBnBs are far from all the San Rafael fun, but I needed to be in one to work Monday and Tuesday. I took Wednesday off work, though, so we bailed on our AirBnB one night early in favor of camping in the South Temple Wash Campground. This is right outside Goblin Valley State Park, which is very much worth a stop. Wandering among the goblins makes you feel like you're in another world. 

When we got back to the campsite, we got to experience first hand what a flash flood looks like. The area of the campsite is elevated 15 feet or so and when we arrived, everything around us was dry, dry, dry. Then the sky opened up. Within 20 minutes, rivers of swiftly-flowing, muddy water appeared below us. It was wild to see. The rain lasted almost an hour, and then the impromptu river to our east dried up another 20 minutes or so after that, but the wide one to the south kept going for at least an hour. They say head for high-ground if the rain starts and now I see why. You wouldn't have a chance of remaining on your feet when that water comes rushing at you. Long after the rain stopped, lightning continued in the distance, so we pulled up our camp chairs, cracked open some wine, and enjoyed the show. It was a perfect summer night.

Day 4: Chute Canyon and Crack Canyon

These two canyons are down the dirt road about 20 minutes beyond the South Temple Wash campground. To get there, we drove through the wash at least 12 times. While it was mostly dry from the previous night's rain, I was conscious of the fact that if it started raining again, we wouldn't be able to get out of there. So make sure you know the weather forecast or have food and water and are prepared to wait out the shower and subsequent new rivers, maybe even overnight.

You can do these as a loop, but we opted for out-and-back and our total distance for the day was 13 miles. They are both beautiful, but if you only have time for one, do Crack Canyon because it's the more "canyony" one. You have to wade and swim through multiple points, and there is a fair amount of scrambling, stemming, and smearing. At no point did we need ropes, but I wouldn't have been able to complete the canyon by myself - I needed the guidance of my more experienced friend at a few points to find the right footholds and techniques. In late July, the swimming portions were refreshing in the 90 degree heat but earlier in the season, you'd want a wet suit.

La Sal Mountains

Playing in the Swell wasn't the only thing I did in Utah. I've spent so much time enjoying epic Utah trails and campsites for free, and I wanted to give something back to this state that I love so much. So I signed up for a two-day volunteer project with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. They run many types projects throughout the summer, but the one I was on was to build fences in the La Sal mountains to prevent ATVs and mountain bikes and other vehicles from going off-trail into wetlands and damaging rare plants. This was a partnership with the US Forest service, and between our two teams (and horses!), we did everything from sawing down trees that had been burned in a fire, to dragging the logs into location, to lifting them into place with large tongs, to drilling holes and hammering rebar to keep them in place. Hard work, but so much better than sitting behind my laptop for those two days. 

What was most interesting, as always, was talking to the people involved in this project. We camped overnight and had plenty of conversation time. I enjoyed hearing stories from all these people whose lives are so different from mine. There was one other tech person there who had quit his job to play in Utah for a while as he figured out what to do next, but everyone else had very different lives. 

Overall, this volunteer project was very well run, even though we had some problems with equipment, and the people were welcoming and appreciative of the help. If you're looking to do something similar, I can recommend getting involved with SUWA.