Central Swell Camping/Hiking

Chris overlooking I-70On Thursday evening Chris and I started planning a quick camping trip to the San Rafael Swell, and by Friday afternoon when I got off work we were headed south on US-6 toward I-70. We first stopped just north of the Sinbad interchange, south of the Wickiup, to find a geocache. The description on the cache listing gave coordinates for a way to the top of the mesa where the geocache was hidden, but we wanted to take a more direct route. I parked the truck on the east side of the mesa where the cliff bands at the top were the least tall. From the bottom, it didn’t really look like we could make it up past the cliff bands, but we scrambled up the steep mesa anyhow. We reached the bottom of the cliff bands, and Chris found a way up. I was less confident in my ability to make it up the same route, but I was able to get Torrey up the same way Chris went. Chris walked the rim and found an easier route for me, so I scrambled around the bottom of the cliff band until I reached that place, then made it up pretty easily. We then hiked over and found the geocache while enjoying the views from high on the mesa. We made it back to the truck just before sunset, and we reached our camp at the Head of Sinbad, near the Lone Warrior pictograph, at full dark.
All is right in the universeThe moon was full and bright and well above the horizon, which made it easy to set up camp. We took care of things in order of importance: tents, campfire, drinks, dinner. It got chilly after the sun went down, and for the most part we stuck close to the fire to keep warm. We’d occasionally wander away to take photos, or get better cell service (’cause Facebooking in the desert in the middle of the night is a good way to get in touch with nature). I think I turned in around 1:00AM, while Chris stayed up a bit later rocking 3G a short distance from camp. I woke up around 4:00 to use the bathroom, and I started the truck since it has cold-starting problems and I didn’t want to fuss with it in the morning.
Camp on Saturday morningI was awake again at 7:30 and it was 37 degrees outside. The wind had picked up during the night and it made further sleep impossible for me. I’d forgotten to stake down the tent door, and it was flapping in the breeze and letting sand inside the tent (and my sleeping bag). I got up and made a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, started the truck once more to keep the engine warm, then stoked the fire up and tried to stay warm in the cold wind. Chris got up quite a bit later than I, and by 10:00AM we were driving away from camp and heading toward the 5 Miles of Hell motorcycle trail.
Coconino Sandstone formationOur goal was the Hell Kat geocache. It had been found twice since being placed three years ago, and it seemed like a worthy goal for us to go after. We trudged for two and a half miles along what is basically a 2WD road, though it’s designated as a motorcycle trail. After that first 2.5 miles the trail narrowed up and became motorcycle-only (literally, not just administratively) just past Twin Knolls. It was rugged as hell, and the trail name was quite apt. We were passed by a few groups on motorcycles, and we even followed one group of four guys and we were easily able to keep up with them, though we were on foot and they were on bikes. The terrain changed drastically after the singletrack started. The rock was similar in appearance to Navajo Sandstone, though I think it was Coconino Sandstone. There were numerous small canyons cutting through the area, along with a few major canyons. We stayed on the motorcycle trail so we could avoid routefinding and up/downclimbing the difficult areas. We reached the cache and found it easily just off the trail, then took a short break there.
Twin KnollsInstead of backtracking, we went cross-country and took a more direct route back to the truck. I expected to do some scrambling and climbing to get across the canyons in our way, but it was actually easier and shorter going in a straight line. I was absolutely in love with the terrain before we left the area. It was crisscrossed with small, interesting canyons, and I could easily spend days backpacking and exploring that place. The sandstone was colorful, and it had eroded into some nicely sculpted canyons and formations. We exited the rugged sandstone area and again neared the trail near Twin Knolls. Chris did some sketchy scrambling up both of the Twin Knolls and placed geocaches atop each, making them into an evil multi-cache. Between the Twin Knolls, we found some deteriorating mining buildings. I can’t figure out what they were mining there, but I can’t think of any other reason somebody would haul concrete, bricks, and wood that far into the desert only to abandon it (which is pretty typical of early mining efforts in the San Rafael Swell).
'Rafael' survey markerWe reached the truck again after about four hours and 7.5 miles of hiking. After a quick lunch, we were back on the road on the way to another geocache that Chris had already found but which I hadn’t. It was a relatively short 1.1 mile hike with a few hundred feet elevation gain/loss along the way, and I was nearly beat by then. I was dragging ass when I reached the top of the hill, though the hike down was a welcome reprieve from my leg muscles burning. Once back at the truck, we cruised north toward I-70, then burned east toward the San Rafael Reef.
San Rafael Reef north of Uneva CanyonI took the dirt road “exit” at the bottom of Spotted Wolf Canyon and drove south along the Squeeze on a very nice and freshly graded dirt road on a course to Uneva Canyon. I’d had Uneva on my to-do list during several other trips, but it was always at the end of the list and I kept running out of daylight to go there on previous trips. On this trip we made it with plenty of time to spare. I was expecting to drive very close to the entrance of the canyon, but there was a steep, rocky dugway leading up to the mouth of the canyon. I didn’t want to 4-wheel up it, so I parked at the bottom, and Chris and I hiked along the road up what appeared to be a huge rock/boulder deposit from a relatively recent (geologically speaking) massive flood. The views north and south along the San Rafael Reef were incredible, as usual. It’s sad, really, that I’m becoming desensitized to the awesomeness of the Reef.
Inside Uneva MineWe entered the canyon, and it had the same look and feel as Three Finger Canyon, which is just two miles to the south. The hike was 1.7 miles round-trip, though I was more enthused about this hike than the last, so my legs didn’t seem to get as tired. 🙂 We hiked as far as the Uneva Mine, found the geocache there, and even entered the mine and checked it out for a short distance. We played around a bit in some holes in the canyon walls on the way back. After returning to the truck, I drove a couple of miles east to hit one last geocache that Chris wanted to find (that I’d already gotten in ’05). I couldn’t even bring myself to follow Chris up the hill, so I waited below while he scrambled to the top. When he returned to the bottom, we were done for the weekend. It had been a productive trip, but I, for one, was ready to go home and clean up and get a good night’s sleep. The sun was down when we hit the interstate and began the sleepy drive home in the dark, during which we spoke of adventures yet to come.

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


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