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Old 04-23-2016, 12:22 PM   #1
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Trip report: Camping and Exploring the San Rafael Swell

The following is a trip report from our blog, offthepathadventures.com

The trip report and full gallery of pictures is HERE

Camping and Exploring the San Rafael Swell

The San Rafael Swell in Utah is one of our family’s annual trips each year and signals the start of the camping season. This year we camped on the north side overlooking Chimney Rock and spent a windy weekend covering lots of ground and exploring some amazing country from the Wedge Overlook to ghost towns, old mines and even a Cold War era missile launch complex and underground government tunnels! The trip never had a dull moment and even the drive home was exciting replacing a broken U-joint and running into snow and ice through the mountains.

The trip starts slogging out of Denver as Dana, the kids and I traveled over the mountains to meet up with my parents in Grand Junction and then we caravan into Utah together. Its quite the train……big trucks, campers and motorcycles. If nothing else it looks like we are planning on having fun!

Generally we camp on the south side of the San Rafeal Swell, closer to Gobblin Valley, but this year we changed it up and camped in what turned into an excellent spot overlooking Chimney Rock on the north end of the San Rafael Swell. The camping site was tucked up against a ridge with massive boulders that make it very apparent this used to be an ancient costal area with gravel encapsulating all the rocks.

Beware of snakes!! I caught this pictures just as a big 3-4ft bull snake had slithered under the rocks. The phobia our family has of snakes is quite comical, when I yelled snake everyone jumped and I was scared Dana was going to jump off the boulder she was standing on.

The wind this trip was awful, blowing pretty much nonstop the 4 days we were there. None the less we still managed to get some good outdoor time in and Collin had plenty of opportunities to do his favorite activity….Driving!

During the trip we went to some amazing places including the Spirt Railroad Complex, the Wedge, Buckhorn Wash, the Copper Globe Mine, Giles Ghost Town and the Green River Station of the Utah Launch Complex:

Spirit Railroad Complex

While out exploring we went to see some of the old remnants of the 1880’s narrow gauge railroad that ran from Green River and through the San Rafael Swell. Built by the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad the railroad complex is located about 10 miles off Hwy 6 on the Green River Cutoff Road.

From the limited information we could find the Spirit Complex was perhaps a Chinese railroad work camp and the area consisted of several stone structures both in the canyon floor and above. The value of this location must have been immeasurable given the old watering trough at the base of the canyon that appears to have had a natural spring running into it.

The scope of construction really comes to light when you consider that in the above picture the railroad spanned the canyon by means of a trestle bridge. Not only was the thought of a 200ft long by 30ft high bridge impressive for the 1880’s, the amount of dirt removed for the railroad grade, all being done by hand, is simply amazing.

Looking carefully around the stone structures reveals glimpses of the past, in the form of small glass shards from bottles and containers. We did not have time to see anything else along the railroad, but I would love to take a day and follow the railroad grade as it criss crosses the San Rafael Swell. I’m sure there is a lot more history along the route.

The Wedge Overlook

Called the “Little Grand Canyon” the Wedge lives up to its name and you can see how the deep canyon resembles the Grand Canyon as it cuts through the sandstone.

Just past the canyon rim the Wedge has several primitive camping spots with nice tables and fire pits that make a perfect lunch stop.

Buckhorn Wash

After the Wedge its a quick trip down Buckhorn Wash. This canyon is very scenic and has many worthwhile stops, the main one being the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. This panel of rock art is simply stunning with vivid and unique figures painted 2000 years ago by the Barrier Canyon Culture.

As with many of the pictographs and petroglyphs throughout southeast Utah, the meaning of the pictures is the biggest mystery. The above pictogrpah seems to closely represent a human figure with wings, perhaps an angel? The Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel is a must see and the individual meanings of the painted figures is sure to be intriguing.

Although the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel is the main attraction, it is well worth exploring some of the unmarked pull offs and side trails throughout the canyon that lead to more petroglyphs and even a dinosaur foot print!

MK (Morrison Knudson) Tunnels

MK Tunnel work camp with explosion seen in background.

Also in Buckhorn Wash on the north end, the MK Tunnels are the result of the secret operation conducted by the US government around 1948 in which the MK Corporation was contracted to dig thousands of feet of underground tunnels in the San Rafael Swell.


After a year of work digging the tunnels the walls were painted white and state of the art monitoring equipment was hung inside. Then massive explosions, using hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives, were set off above and around each tunnel. The large crater pictured above is the result of one of these explosions. Even today the purpose of the MK tunnels is unknown and declassified government documents are vague on the ultimate goal or reason for the construction. Many speculate that the area was being considered for a NORAD type complex, however the soft sandstone was not able to withstand the danger of attacks. Although many of the tunnels are sealed shut today, the MK Tunnels are an interesting bit of history in the middle of a remote desert.

After a lot of exploring, riding motorcycles and hiking it was time to head home. The drive was not without drama though. During the trip back to Denver I was noticing a vibration in our truck that I began to suspect was a u-joint going out. While in Fruita getting lunch I checked and sure enough the rear u-joint was very close to failing completely. After tracking down a replacement it was a fairly quick job for my Dad and I to get it changed and then on to Denver through the snow storm hitting the mountains!

Although not included in this article we also explored the Copper Globe Mine, Giles Ghost Town and the Utah Launch Complex. Keep checking offthepathadventures.com or sign up for email updates on the blog to see the upcoming articles about each of these unique places.

Copper Globe Mine

The Copper Globe Mine is a turn of the century copper mine in the heart of the San Rafael Swell.

Utah Launch Complex/Green River Station for the White Sands Missile Range

The Utah Launch Complex, or the Green River Station, was used as a missile launch site during the Cold War.

Giles Ghost Town and Cemetery.

Founded in the late 1800’s by Morman settlers this seldom seen ghost town and cemetery show the challenges early pioneers faced.

Please check out our blog and the full photo gallery for this trip at Off the Path Adventures – Family travel and camping blog

offthepathadventures.com Family travel, camping, hiking, exploring and adventure blog.
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Old 04-24-2016, 03:47 AM   #2
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Great pictures and looks like a good time. The swell is one place I have been really wanting to go check out further.

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Old 04-24-2016, 05:21 PM   #3
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We've boondocked at that awesome place...brings back good memories. Thanks for the pics and we especially like the one of dad and son.
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Old 04-24-2016, 07:33 PM   #4
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Thanks, we really enjoy the area.
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