The San Rafael Swell and Four Days is Capitol Reef

I’m really glad we decided to stay in Moab for the storm. Green River is no Moab, that’s for sure. It is flat and pretty featureless, but the State Park where we are staying is a nice little place to stay for a couple of days. Talking to the ranger here, we discovered they had gotten a little rain, but no thunder and lightning. The storm pretty much passed them by. They have just installed electric at most of the sites, but it is not yet hooked up. Looks like in a couple of months when it really starts to get hot, it will be ready to go. We did get a nice sunny site right next to the golf course, so it is quite pleasent. We are here to explore the San Rafael Swell for a couple of days, then on to Capitol Reef National Park. But before any exploration, we decided to refuel at Ray’s Tavern – the best hamburgers in the area (thanks for the recommendation Don and Dorothy). The whole town is pretty depressed, but Ray’s was hopping. You could tell where the place was just by how many cars were parked in the street. The rest of the town was pretty deserted. There are better burgers in the world, but these were the best we’ve had in a while.

Saturday (April 28) we headed out for a day of exploring the Swell. At over 2000 sq. miles, it’s a little daunting as to where to go, but we decided on a 100 mile loop of dirt roads that promised a number of nice rock art panels and interesting sandstone formations. Our first stop was in Black Dragon Wash – named for an unusual rock painting resembling a dragon. After finally finding the right dirt road, we hiked the short distance up the wash to the panels. They were quite interesting, but were heavily “embellished” by vandals who thought it was a good idea to add chalk outlines to every figure.

Retracing our route back to I-70 for a short bit, we found Cottonwood Wash road. It was a hard-pack dirt road in really good shape, and we made good time to our next destination. In between, the scenery was quite nice with huge sandstone monoliths all around. There weren’t a lot of high points to get a good overview, but at Bottleneck Peak, we did find a nice spot to lunch and photograph a bit.

The road eventually brought us to the Buckhorn Wash pictograph panels. These are Fremont-style paintings – hugh, larger than life, strange looking figures. These are among the best examples of ancient art to be found. The light was not good here when we first arrived. It was glancing down across the rock, causing glare and washing out the art. We hung around for a hour or so, till the sun finally went behind the cliff and evened out the light.

We eventually moved on to more panels of petroglyphs at various other spots along the road before heading back to camp.

On Sunday, we moved on to Capitol Reef National Park. We haven’t stayed here for any length of time in several years, so it was a chance to get reacquainted with the place. Most of the sites in the campground have large trees shading them, so we felt fortunate to get a nice sunny site to keep the batteries charged. It was also only one of the two available. All three loops were full by noon.

Monday we took our first hike down, then up Grand Wash. We usually look for loop trails so we don’t have to retrace our steps, but can’t always manage it. Photographing is always our priority on hikes, and retracing steps usually means no photographs on the way back. It was early enough so that there were nice glows reflecting off the sides of the 1200 ft cliffs onto the shaded sides. We stopped for lunch after coming out the other side of the wash at the Fremont River. Then back up the wash. It was much warmer by now with little shade. The hike became a slog, but still, it was a good walk.

Monday we decided to drive the Waterpocket Fold dirt road. We drove 30 miles or so to the Burr Trail cutoff. This section provides really nice views of the incredible landscape all along the way. It’s been a very long time since we’ve done this road and we had forgotten how much agriculture is going on along the first 15 miles or so. But once past this, it gets more rugged and natural looking and we stopped often to photograph. It was quite warm and pretty windy, but a really nice ride.

Back in camp that evening, we took a short stroll down the Fremont River trail for some nice views of rock, river and trees.

Wednesday was time for another hike. We had never done the Old Wagon Trail hike before, so we headed out to see what it was like. It is a 3.5 mile walk with a 1,100 ft elevation gain – All up, then all down. But nice views from a vantage point along the way. The climb was steady and gradual, but views along the way were obscured by the many pinion and juniper trees all around. About 2.5 miles in, there was a short offshoot from the trail that lead to a terrific overview of the entire Waterpocket Fold area. Clouds had come over while we hiked and by the time we reached the overlook, the light had gone flat. We hung out a while and did get a couple of breaks of sunlight. Heading back to the car was much easier and quicker – all downhill.

From there, we decided to drive down to the end of the road that lead to Capitol Gorge, another wash, and a short hike to “the Tanks” – a series of sandstone bowls carved out by rushing water. This was only a short hike of about 1.25 miles one way, so we decided to do that as well. Along the way in the wash, we could see where Mormon explorers had carved names and initials into the shear cliffs around us. Some a hundred feet and higher. Along the .2 mile spur trail to the tanks, we found some wonderfully colored wavy sandstone striations that were fun to photograph. At the top, the tanks began. While there was little water in them, it was interesting to see how the water had carved out to stone.

Back in the car, heading out of the gorge, we came upon a couple of bighorn sheep just coming down from the cliffs. It was mother and kid and they were kind enough to pose for a few pictures.

Last night, we went to dinner at Cafe Diablo in Torrey. Our friends Don and Dorothy (Koko), recommended the place for some fine dining. Them southerner’s know their food! It was an early celebration for Mary’s birthday and we absolutely stuffed ourselves. So many great menu choices – we overheard several people commenting that this was there second night in a row for dinner. Mary had the pork tenderloin, I had the flank steak. We split a terrific smoked chicken lettuce wrap, a bottle of Zen of Zin wine and 2 desserts. We will now waddle off to Boulder Mountain to try and work off some of this food.

Flank Steak

Mary’s pork tenderloin

Dessert tray. We had two of these.

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2 Responses to The San Rafael Swell and Four Days is Capitol Reef

  1. Jim says:

    Great photos of the area, makes me wish we were there. The food looks great but did they have any vegetarian alternatives?


    • Hi Jim,
      Why yes, there are several veggi alternatives at Diablo. Of course the desserts are worth a trip all by themselves. BTW, thanks for adding my blog to the list on your site.The traffic to my site has increased noticeably since you did.

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