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San Rafael Swell

San Rafael Swell
Interstate 70 divides the San Rafael Swell
Highest point
Length 75 mi (121 km)
Width 40 mi (64 km)
San Rafael Swell is located in Utah
San Rafael Swell
Location within Utah
Location Colorado Plateau, Utah,
United States
State/Province US

The San Rafael Swell is a large mesas and buttes. The swell is part of the Colorado Plateau physiographic region.


  • Geography 1
  • Geology 2
  • Ecology 3
  • History 4
  • Administration 5
  • Recreation 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Interstate 70 divides the Swell into northern and southern sections, and provides the only paved road access to the region. The swell lies entirely within Emery County.

The northern Swell is drained mainly by the Badlands near Caineville to its confluence with the Fremont River.

East slope of the San Rafael Reef


The San Rafael Swell was formed when deeply buried Precambrian dike swarm rocks faulted, or broke, during the Laramide orogeny, about 60 million years ago. These "basement" rocks below the present-day Swell moved upwards relative to the surrounding areas and caused the overlying sedimentary rocks to fold into a dome-like shape called an anticline. The resulting structure is analogous to a series of blankets draped over a box.

Since that time, the relentless force of running water has eroded the geologic layers, resulting in older rocks becoming exposed in the middle of the Swell, and younger rocks exposed around the edges. Many of the most impressive landforms are composed of more resistant rocks, including the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, Triassic Wingate Sandstone, and Permian Coconino Sandstone. The folding is much steeper on the eastern edge of the Swell than in the west, and this eastern edge is referred to as the San Rafael Reef.

Both the San Rafael River and Muddy Creek drain out of the high Wasatch Plateau and the cut directly across the uplift of the Reef, which marks them as "superimposed streams", pre-dating the time of the uplift.

Part of the Swell has geographic features that resemble Mars. The Mars Society decided to set up the Mars Desert Research Station in the area as a Mars analog for such reasons.

The Little Grand Canyon on the San Rafael River


The San Rafael Swell is an area of high plant endemism, with many native plants occurring nowhere else in the world. An example is the endangered San Rafael cactus (Pediocactus despainii).[1]


Evidence of Native American cultures, including the Fremont, Paiute, and Ute, is common throughout the San Rafael Swell in the form of pictograph and petroglyph panels. An example is the Buckhorn Draw Pictograph Panel, with rock art left by the Barrier Canyon Culture and the Fremont Culture. From about 1776 to the mid-1850s the Old Spanish Trail trade route passed through (or just north of) the Swell. In the past 150 years, areas of the Swell have been used for the grazing of sheep and cattle, as well as for uranium mining. Many of the gravel roads in the interior of the swell were originally used to service the uranium mining activities. Although surrounded by the communities of Price, Green River, Hanksville, Ferron, Castle Dale, and Huntington, the Swell itself does not support permanent residents.

The Swell has been used by Hollywood filmmakers as a location setting for alien planets, including the Planet Vulcan in the 2009 film Star Trek and the alien world in Galaxy Quest.

Entrance to the Muddy Creek Gorge


The area is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Although the Swell as a whole does not currently enjoy special protection, parts of it are protected as wilderness study areas. Cattle grazing is only allowed in parts of The Swell that are not designated as such. The San Rafael Swell is also dotted with sections of land managed by The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, as is much of the state of Utah. Goblin Valley State Park is on the southeastern edge of the San Rafael Swell.

In 2002, then-governor Antiquities Act, never acted on Leavitt's proposal. As of 2013, nor has Barack Obama.

The idea of federal designation of the San Rafael Swell as a National Monument resurfaced in 2010 in a Department of the Interior document.[3]


Aerial view of San Rafael Desert. Goblin Valley is at lower extreme right, with Wild Horse Butte to the left. The shadow of a contrail marks the San Rafael Reef, with the Swell behind it.

The San Rafael Swell attracts hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) enthusiasts. Many steep, narrow slot canyons popular with technical canyoneers are found in the San Rafael Reef.[4] The use of ATVs in the Swell is controversial, as environmentalists claim that off-road vehicles damage the fragile desert cryptobiotic soils.


  1. ^ .Pediocactus despainii Center for Plant Conservation.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  • Allen, Steve, Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell, 1992. ISBN 0-87480-372-1
  • Durrant, Jeffrey O. Struggle Over Utah's San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8165-2669-7
  • Kelsey, Michael R. Hiking and Exploring Utah's San Rafael Swell, 3rd edition, 1999. ISBN 0-944510-17-5

External links

  • BLM - Utah
  • Info on areas in the San Rafael Swell -
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