Updated: Dec 13, 2020
40 million years ago a giant dome of rock was uplifted from the earth, creating the unique desert topography that is the San Rafael Swell. With its technical trails, stunning desert scenery, hikes to slot canyons and natural bridges, and rich aboriginal history, the San Rafael has it all.
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 207 miles, 3-6 days.
Season: Year round, but best the best time to visit is spring or fall. Heavy snow may close some trails. Like many desert trails in the Southwest, it's best to avoid these trails during or immediately after heavy rainfall.
Technical Rating: Green to Blue. A spotter is recommended for some sections.
Typical Terrain: Graded dirt roads and some moderately technical jeep trails with rocks, ruts, and washes (Eva Conover, Behind the Reef, Eagle Canyon, Devil's Racetrack (alternate route)).
Recommended Vehicle: Truck or SUV with 4 low, and all terrain tires. A 2+" lift recommended, but not required.
Adventure Vans: Quigleys and Sportsmobiles should be able to manage the entire route. It may be a tight squeeze through the tunnel under I-70 near Sinbad's head.
Alternative Routes: Yes! See the bottom of the route guide.
Need a Rig?
Colorado Overlander provides rentals of off-road and 4×4 vehicle fitted with rooftop tents, outdoor camping equipment that are perfect for your next adventure to Utah or Colorado.
Covering an area of roughly 2,000 miles in central Utah, the San Rafael Swell is about a 90 minute drive from Moab. The swell consists of a giant dome of rock that was uplifted 40-60 million years ago. The sandstone, limestone, and shale rock that form the swell has eroded in the high desert to create a classic western landscape littered with buttes, mesas, gorges, badlands, and numerous natural arches. While Moab gets most of the attention in region of Utah (and with that attention comes large crowds), the San Rafael has much to offer in terms of terrain, history, and scenery. The numerous petroglyphs and pictographs on canyon and rock walls are visible reminders of the Paiute, Ute, and Fremont peoples who once called this area home, and a favorite of those who visit the Swell.
Your adventure begins at an unmarked dirt road on Interstate-70 (about 50 feet past mile marker 147 heading west), which is the beginning of Black Dragon Canyon. The gate is often closed to keep free ranging cattle off the interstate, so be sure to close it behind you (please close any gate that you need to open along the route). Black Dragon Canyon is a graded road that meanders through a magnificent canyon with vertical sandstone walls. Numerous petroglyphs can be found on the canyon's walls, including one that appears to be a dragon. The road snakes its way west, until it intersects with Buckhorn Draw Road. Buckhorn Draw Road is another wide and graded road. This portion of the route passes by many low elevation mesas and buttes as the road heads north towards the San Rafael River. Once you reach the river, be sure to check out the swinging suspension bridge that the Civilian Conservation Corps built in 1937 (you can still walk across it). Once you cross the bridge, swing a right onto Mexican Mountain Road/San Rafael River Road, another graded dirt road. As you make your way down the road, the the rock on the cliffs begins to change to a rusty red that the southwest is renowned for. The end of Mexican Mountain Road is now blockaded, making this leg of the journey purely a sightseeing side trip. Unless you decide to make camp for the night, turn around and head back towards the direction you came.
Once you arrive at the San Rafael River bridge, stay right and continue on Buckhorn Draw Road. This portion of Buckhorn Draw makes its way through a rather picturesque canyon, gradually gaining elevation. Notice the change in flora-- pinyon pine and juniper woodland dominate the landscape. This sloped mesa is simply known as the Wedge, and contains some of the best viewpoints overlooking the swell and some fantastic campsites if you're lucky enough to snag one (but be mindful of the wind at night!). Head to the Wedge overlook to check out the little Grand Canyon. From the Wedge, the next trail on the agenda is Fuller Bottom Road, a well maintained county dirt road with excelled views of the desert plans and surrounding mesas. Once you cross the San Rafael River, stay left onto Dutch Flat Road, which is another relatively mild dirt road. Dutch Flat brings you to the top of coal wash, which is where the fun begins. Eva Conover is a blue trail with numerous rocks, and some of the best views in the swell as it snakes its way through a wash that gradually turns into a canyon. If you've been paying attention to your map, you'll notice that your approach I-70. Eagle Canyon trail goes directly under the interstate, providing a magnificent view of the engineering feat that is the Eagle Canyon Bridges. Like Eva Conover, this trail has its fair share of rocks and there is one section that is a tight squeeze for full size rigs. Soon enough you'll be trading the rocks for the graded dirt road of Reds Canyon. While the road may be mild mannered, the surrounding buttes, cliffs and rock formations make for fantastic scenery, especially during dawn and dusk. If you're looking for a place to set up camp, Reds Canyon and McKay Flat Road provide dozens of primitive camp locations. As you leave the graded dirt of McKay Flat behind, you'll traverse one of the more technical sections of the route, Behind the Reef Trail. Behind the Reef is a slow-going technical and rocky trail, with steeps, narrows, exposure, and numerous tight sections. Chute Canyon and Crack Canyon are awe inspiring slots canyons that are worthy of side adventures. While Chute and Crack Canyons are both awesome in their own rite, if you only had one geological site to visit on this trip, it would have to be Wild Horse Window, a dazzling window and natural bridge (requires a 2.8 mile hike). Heading down Temple Mountain Wash, the route loops around to North Temple Wash, which provides a really cool driving experience as the wash close in to the width of the road.
As you head north back towards the interstate, the route wraps around Template mountain, and it's numerous abandoned mines. Making your way back north on the well maintained Template Mountain road. Once you reach the interstate, go through the tunnel to reach Sinbad's head (pictograph) and your final point of interest, Dutchman arch.
Those seeking a more technical option may consider bypassing Eva Conover Trail for the Devil's Racetrack, a favorite trail in the OHV and Jeep crowd. This trail is packed with rocks, and rock steps. A spotter is recommended, along with rock sliders, and a 2+ inch lift.
Mexican Mountain Road vicinity
Family Butte area
Tomsich Butte vicinity
Block Mountain vicinity
Recommended Points of Interest
Wild Horse Window
Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel
Black Dragon pictograph panel
The Wedge and Little Grand Canyon
Eva Conover Trail
Eagle Canyon Bridges
Lucky Strike Mine
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (Neotreks Land Use layer, Gaia base layer)
Download GPX file
TIP: To expose alternative routes and points of interest in Google Maps, open the sidebar and select the desired layer.