San Rafael Desert ATV Ride

Crossing a washWhile spending a good chunk of last week camped on the edge of the San Rafael Swell, I had good views east into the San Rafael Desert. I’ve only been through the San Rafael Desert a couple of times, and I had never really gotten off the main roads through the area. I suppose seeing the Flat Tops and other areas in the San Rafael Desert last week sparked my interest, so yesterday I spent the day riding my ATV there and exploring some of the lesser-traveled roads. I started my ride just off of UT-24, about 14.5 miles south of the junction with I-70. I unloaded my ATV and started the ride before 10:00AM, and headed east along a decent two-track road. Not long after that I turned onto a very faint old road that likely hadn’t seen a vehicle in many years, despite being a designated route in the BLM’s travel plan. It was difficult following the “road”, and there were a couple of wash crossings that were challenging, with steep, sandy cut banks. I worked my way south, trying to reach an area where the USGS topo map showed a mine shaft and a drill hole along a fault that’s visible for approximately 15 miles on the surface.
Mine shaft areaI reached the area where the mine shaft and drill hole were supposed to be, but I didn’t find the mine shaft. There was a section below a cliff where the ground had obviously been bulldozed, and there were piles of dirt that looked like tailings/overburden, but there was no obvious shaft. I scrambled up the hill and found the drill hole, and dropped a rock into it to gauge its depth.

Crow's Nest Spring mine shaftI moved on, following the north side of the fault to the southeast. I stopped at Crow’s Nest Spring, where the topo map showed another mine shaft, and this one I found easily. The spring was flowing and there was a nice clear pool of water in the wash below it, and Torrey took the opportunity to get a drink there. I didn’t dare enter the mine shaft, but I could see where it curved to the left after about 30 feet. It obviously went in farther than that, but I didn’t really want to see exactly how far it went. I pressed on to the southeast, following the rough old track to Cottonwood Wash. In several places I had to ride around washouts in the road.
Cottonwood WashWhen I reached Cottonwood Wash, I saw the first tire tracks of the day since turning onto the faint track I’d been riding for the past two and a half hours. There were tracks from motorcycles and a larger side-by-side in the bottom of the wash. I’d planned on riding up Cottonwood Wash, but I got stopped by a huge wall of sand that would be impassible in any vehicle. I might have been able to ride around it, but I didn’t want to spend the time looking for a viable route. I saw a fox there near Cottonwood Spring, but after only a few seconds it disappeared into the thick tamarisk, and I didn’t have a chance to get my camera out. I’d seen several freshly dug fox dens and footprints in the sand, so apparently they’re fairly common in the area.
Gopher SnakeAfter Cottonwood Wash, I continued southeast on what was still a very rough trail until it crossed Dugout Wash. At Dugout Wash there was a muddy puddle that Torrey lied down in and got a drink from, then I rode northeast on a much better graded road toward the San Rafael River. I was able to average about 30 MPH on the road, and it felt great to be making good time. On the way to the river, I spotted a gopher snake stretched out on the side of the road sunning itself. I stopped and got a few photos and some video, then pressed on toward the river.

Sand dunesOn the way to the river, I had to go around several more washed-out sections of road. I also crossed a sand dune that completely obliterated the road. I couldn’t help but cruise around on the sand and ride around a few bowls created by the wind. Once the road reached the river, it simply ended. There was nothing to do but turn around, so I headed back toward the sand dunes and ate a quick lunch there. I was surprised by how bad the bugs were near the river, even after the temperatures got below freezing the past couple of nights. Even at the sand dunes, which were more than half a mile from the river, the bugs were bad, which helped me to eat very quickly. After eating and doing a few more fast loops around the dunes, I continued backtracking until I reached a fork in the road that led toward Spring Canyon.
Spring CanyonThe road to Spring Canyon was also graded and pretty nice, and I made good time. It was still pretty flat and boring terrain, but in the distance I could see the Cone and Gruver’s Mesa where the kids and I had hiked last summer. It wasn’t until dropping down into Spring Canyon that the scenery changed dramatically. There was a small trickle of flowing water in the bottom of the canyon, and there were cottonwood trees that had changed colors to a nice yellow. There had obviously been some heavy flash-flooding recently, but there were also recent ATV tracks in the canyon. I rode almost to where the canyon joined up with the San Rafael River, then hiked the rest of the way. There was also evidence of heavy flooding along the San Rafael, with tamarisk and other trees/shrubs being pushed over nearly horizontally more than six feet above the current river level. As I was standing on the river bank, I noticed that my feet were beginning to get wet. I had never encountered anything like quicksand before, but I was sinking in it! Actually, this was more like slowsand, but it still freaked me out. It felt solid enough when I first walked on it, but after standing there for more than a few seconds, I began to sink and water began to fill in the depression. When I stepped out of the depression, the sand rebounded and sent ripples out to the surrounding sand. It was freaky to watch the ground ripple as I was walking on it like that. It reminded me of the Time Warp episode where they walked on a cornstarch and water mixture.
Sunset on the La Sal MountainsIt was getting late when I was done looking around in Spring Canyon. There were still several other places that I had wanted to check out, but I knew I wouldn’t have time with all the rough roads between me and the truck. I backtracked along the roads I’d already followed, and made it back to the truck just after sunset. It had been a great day, although there was a lot of boring terrain in between the more interesting stuff. I would still like to hike around more near Cottonwood Wash and Spring Canyon, so I may return someday to check those areas out more.

Photo Gallery

GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Earth .KMZ Format)

GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Maps)

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