Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Wedge Overlook Recreation Area in the San Rafael Swell Desert, Utah

        Followers of this blog know of my love for outdoor activities, so it may seem strange to read that I live within an hour's drive of 2000 square miles of public land but don't recreate there often.

        What is it about the San Rafael Swell that keeps me away?  For one thing, most of the time I drive right on by while venturing to the more well-known national parks of southeastern Utah.  And, "Tom's Canyoneering Guide" describes The Swell as: "Rugged, desolate, dry, hot, wild. This is the kind of area that has little appeal to those who are not charmed by the desert. Oases of human-friendly environments are few and far between.  One of those corners of the world lost to civilization…"

The endless canyons of the San Rafael Swell.
The ribbon of white at the bottom of the canyon is the iced-over
San Rafael River.

        It's true that much of the area is either steep-walled canyon or open, inhospitable desert.  And summer can be brutally hot or buggy.  January, however, proved an ideal month to hike this arid environment.
        On an unseasonably warm winter morning Tim, our dog Annie and I arrive at the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell to hike the rim trail.  The trail is 17 miles long and open only to mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders.  On this cloudless day our view from the canyon's rim stretches from horizon to horizon.  When Annie ventures onto the rocks at rim's edge I call her back from the 1000 foot drop-off.

It may not look like it, but there's a 1000 foot drop-off
several feet behind us!

The rim trail veers away from the river canyon.
Tim and Annie pose along one of the side canyons to the San Rafael River.

        After hiking a couple of miles we turn to retrace our steps on this out-and-back trail.  We've enjoyed solitude on today's trek, but halfway back to the trailhead Annie goes on alert.  Something has her attention.  We hear voices and try to call our dog back but she rushes off and returns, leading fellow hikers who turn out to be friends from our hiking club—The Castle Country Canyoneers.   Pete and Kathryn have also brought their dog—and Annie's best friend—Lucinda, along.  We laugh at the coincidence of this unplanned meeting, literally in the middle of nowhere, and extend our hike another mile or so, giving the dogs plenty of time to frolic in patches of snow dotting the trailside.

        After the hike we drive to a secluded spot on the rim for our picnic lunch.  Fourteen years ago, on our first trip to The Wedge, we camped along the overlook drive.  The rim is now closed to camping due to human-caused damage; a designated campground is situated in the pinions and junipers, about a half mile from the rim.

Many areas of the San Rafael Swell have been abused by illegal use
of off-road vehicles.  This large Pinion Pine—in an area closed to
motorized use—is evidence of a healthy desert environment.

Lunch on the edge.  Tim relaxes with a sandwich on a
blue-sky January day.

      This corner of the world that's been "lost to civilization" is 20 miles from where I now make my home.  And after this successful January trek in the San Rafael Swell, I'll try to remember not to overlook the 1,280,000 acres of public land in my backyard.

      To learn more about Utah's San Rafael Desert, visit this website:
      You may read of four more adventures in The San Rafael Swell by visiting these previous blog posts:
      Llama trekking in the San Rafael Swell
      Annie's First Desert Hike
      Wildflowers of Horsethief Canyon
      Little Wildhorse Canyon
      Little Wildhorse Canyon is located just inside the boundary of the San Rafael Swell Desert,  near Goblin Valley State Park.  For a fantastic experience, combine this hike with a stay at the park.

Map of the San Rafael Swell Desert,
courtesy of Weber State University and Emery Maps.


  1. How fortunate you are to live within 20 miles of a place with such raw, awesome beauty!

    I loved all the photos you posted. And regarding the link you provided at the end of your report, is it correct to assume that the photo shown there was also taken from someplace along the rim trail?

    When living in such close proximity to place of natural beauty such as this, they can become so familiar, and it can sometimes be easy to take them for granted. This past summer when my sister came to visit us, she was overwhelmed by scenes that we simply drive by on a frequent basis without giving them much thought.

    Very enjoyable report, as always!


    1. Hi John,

      The photo in the top right corner of the government website for the San Rafael Swell was probably taken from somewhere along the canyon rim or on The Wedge Overlook. The views from the rim are truly amazing.

      You're right about taking a place for granted. Many times people don't give a second thought to the beautiful and/or historical places in their own backyards. I hope this blog is an inspiration to people (see Vickie's comment, below) to get out and explore all the treasures near their own homes.

      Your blog ( is a splendid example of getting out and enjoying the treasures close to your hometown!

      I hope your sister went home with great memories (and pictures) from her time in New Hampshire!

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting!

  2. Hi Rita,

    As you can probably tell, I'm way behind on my blog reading, but this post was a "swell" way to catch up!

    These desert spots are often unbearable in summer - I'm so glad you had such a gorgeous January day to take in the expansive beauty in your backyard. I can't get over how big Annie looks, too! Must be all that hiking. :)

    As John says, you speak for many of us who forget to enjoy the wonders immediately at hand. You've given voice - and impetus - to something I've been wanting to do for a while: Make use of the beautiful public and open spaces in the Southern California area and make a point of visiting them like a tourist. 2014 is going to be my year to do that!

    Thanks for the perfect reminder!

    1. Like the pun, Vickie!

      As you know from living in southern California, summer is NOT the ideal time to visit the desert. One positive thing about our mild January weather has been the opportunity to get out and hike the desert trails.

      Annie is getting bigger and stronger, actually a little too big and too strong for our liking! But that does make her an ideal hiking partner.

      I'm glad I've given you the desire to get out and tour the public lands in Southern California. I look forward to seeing pictures of—and to reading stories from—your adventures!

      Thanks for following and commenting!

    2. The Wedge rim is closed to camping? I was about to check it out to add it to my "High Overlook Thunderstorm Watching" list. Haven't been there in years. Maybe I'll change my plans. Cedar Mountain is good. Many great overlooks to camp on in the Canyonlands area.

      Thank you,

      Jack Bowman.

    3. You're correct that the Canyonlands area offers many prime spots for rim/overlook camping. At The Wedge, even though camping is now prohibited on the rim, you are still able to venture there from the designated campground to view thunderstorms!
      I agree, though, that it's not the same as pitching a tent on the edge.

      Thanks for commenting Jack. Happy thunderstorm watching!