My mind has been wandering a lot today, and for some reason I keep thinking about the first few times I ventured into the San Rafael Swell.
My first recollection of going to the Swell is an old one–I think I was five or six years old at the time, and I went with my father and some of his friends. At the time I didn’t know where I was, only that it was somewhere far from home that I’d never been. I only remember small portions of the trip, but the memories are vivid. We listened to the Police and Queen during the drive. I don’t recall whose vehicle I was in, or what kind it was, but I do recall that the road was rough and we kicked up a huge cloud of dust behind us. It was also very hot, but for some reason the adults had a campfire going. There was one other kid there, and he and I spent most of our time in a shallow cave/alcove nearby. It was much cooler in there, and the ceiling was blackened with soot from campfires, which we drew on with sticks. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago–almost 25 years later–that I recognized the place in Buckhorn Wash where I’d been on that trip.
The second time I traveled into the Swell was with some friends, and I was 16 years old. I believe my friends were going with their Scout group, of which I was not a member, but I sometimes tagged along with them anyway. My friend’s dad was driving a full-sized van, and I was following him in my parents’ mint-green 1972 Ford F-250 2WD pickup. The road was washboard covered in fine, thick dust, and I recall (being a dumb teenager) getting into the gas really hard and fishtailing in the soft dirt. I had Nirvana’s Nevermind playing in the tape deck for the entire drive. Our destination was a camping spot near the San Rafael River, and to this day I’m not certain where it was, but it had to be either Buckhorn Wash or Fuller Bottom. I’m leaning toward the latter because I think I would remember the high cliffs of Buckhorn Wash. It was fall, and the trees were losing their leaves. We played alongside the river, and at one point tried climbing horizontally along a cliff that rose up directly from the river’s edge. We weren’t worried about falling because we would have just landed in the water, which, looking back on it, probably wouldn’t have been so good.
I don’t really remember going to the Swell again until a trip Traci and I took in the fall of 2002. I had perhaps been to Cedar Mountain a couple of times before then, but this was the first time that I recall striking out into the area as an adult just to do some exploring. We were in our ’88 Subaru, and we had Michael with us, who was a year old. I did not yet have a GPS, so I wasn’t completely sure where I was heading, but at least I had some idea. It was a memorable drive during bouts of heavy rain–we were lucky not to have gotten stuck (or worse).
About a year after that Traci and I once again headed down into the Swell, with both kids this time, in our ’92 Mazda Navajo. Bradley was only four months old, and Michael was two years old. We accessed the gravel road just north of Castle Dale and didn’t return to the pavement until we reached I-70 about 60 miles later. We visited the Wedge Overlook for the first time, and then drove through Buckhorn Wash. South of Buckhorn was all new to me at the time, as was the drive along I-70 to Green River. Spotted Wolf Canyon and the San Rafael Reef were among the most amazing scenery I had ever seen.
In the last three years I’ve been to the San Rafael Swell more times than I can count. Hell, I would live there if I could. On a couple of occasions, I’ve half-jokingly mentioned to Traci that we should move to Castle Dale (to cut down on my weekend “commute”), but we both know that we couldn’t stand living in a smaller town than Price. Maybe in about 30 years, if the Swell hasn’t turned into a tourist mecca like the Moab area has, I’ll be ready to retire there.

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