With a one week gap between jobs, I had the chance to book a last minute trip to Denver to do a little adventuring before diving into my new place. When I called up my uncle the day before Thanksgiving to see if he would be willing to plan an overnight trip hours away from his home on three days notice he let me know that OF COURSE he was in! Why wouldn’t he be?! Minutes later, I was booked for a JetBlue flight to my favorite airport, DIA. From there, it was a very simple straight shot for six ours on I-70 to a place I had never been before – the San Rafael Swell in eastern Utah.
The San Rafael Swell is a plateau of relatively soft sandstone that rises above the rest of Utah. Water cuts into sandstone easily, geologically speaking, and the result is an area of Utah peppered with deep and impressive slot canyons. Our goal was to hit as many as possible over the three days we had to spend in the area. After a little bit of searching on some dusty county roads, we found our trailhead at nine the first night, and settled in for the evening.
One of the first discoveries I made camping under the stars under the full moon that made the surrounding hills look really interesting was that deserts can get COLD at night, especially in November. My saline contact lens solution froze solid during the night, which meant that the temperatures in our area must have dropped way below freezing during the night, and my feet thanked me in the morning by giving me pins and needles in the morning as we started our hike in and the blood got flowing.
Our first day, we set out to explore 4 different canyons. The first was a loop through Ding and Dang canyons. Often, it’s possible to climb up one canyon, traverse, and climb down another to make a loop. Ding and Dang was such a loop, and it was an awesome intro to basic canyoneering. Easily one of the most aesthetic places that I’ve had a chance to explore, every turn seems like it uncovers unique formations or challenges. I found canyoneering to like having a regular hike in a particularly beautiful place with regular “quizzes” to add challenge every few minutes or so. Maybe it was a rappel or a challenging rock move, but it tended to add an element of surprise every few minutes, which made this kind of exploring all the more engaging.
In the afternoon, we headed over to Little Wildhorse and Bell Canyons – more of the same with even longer and more impressive narrows. Over 3 days in the vicinity we saw only two people and only one outside of a visitors center parking lot. It was here that we met the only person not wearing socks and sandals that we saw in the SRS. By the end of the day, we had logged about 12 miles worth of hiking, climbing and shimmying – a pretty productive day overall.
Day 2 was by far my favorite day of the trip. After a stay at a camp (warmer!) in an area not far from a herd of wild horses, the goal was to drop into Baptist Draw and continue on into Chute Canyon. Chute gets a little technical, and as we found our later, was the site of an accident dramatically recreated in “I Shouldn’t be Alive” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGSSLsasVeM . It was going to be my first time making significant rappels, and I was pumped. Before I could be pumped, however, we had to find our entrance point. In less popular canyons like Chute, sometimes it can be challenging just to find the proper access point and we easily tacked on an extra three miles of searching to a day that should have only been eleven.
All our searching turned out to be well worth it, as Baptist Draw and Chute were the largest and most engaging of any of the areas we went during the trip. It included multiple rappels, and one over 90 feet, which was an exciting new opportunity and skill to learn for me.
With only a morning to spend on our final day, we decided to check out an area called Goblin’s Lair in Goblin Valley State Park. Goblin Valley is unique for it’s “hoodoos”, which are sandstorm formations shaped over time by wind. It gave the whole area a Wile E. Coyote feel to it. Dropping into Goblin’s lair was pretty simple – a 90 foot rappel into an open sandstone chamber closed in from above except for a few small shafts – was a blast, but navigating through the terrain to get there turned out to be almost as rewarding.
After three short days, it was time to get a move on and head back to Massachusetts and a new job. My first foray into Utah canyoneering was great, and I look forward to getting back soon.