Bikepacking the San Rafael Swell
Sand, when propelled at high speed through the air, is an effective tool to strip paint off metal. It hits a surface and through sheer force and abrasive power it reduces material as strong as steel. These sanding tools, known as sandblasters, create an environment within a chamber that is both impressive and extreme. To be inside of one is unfathomable to most humans, for the conditions of being relentlessly pelted by millions of tiny sand particles seems deeply unsurvivable.
Though it may be unfathomable to “most” humans, Pat, Henry and I managed to get a pretty good idea of the experience while crossing the blaring desert, exposed to its elements of billowing winds, scorching sun and blistering sand.
Extreme tingling on every surface of exposed skin drove us into borderline mental insanity as we pedaled into headwind. The air became sand, and for protection we wrapped our garments around our bodies to create a barrier between us and the almighty. Our machines carrying us through this extreme climate were simple structures: Wheels, frame and chains. We had bags to hold our precious possessions, and a map to guide us. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Martian landscape of which our wheels slowly prodded is known as the “San Rafael Swell” and for 200 miles the three of us would see more animals than humans, and more sand than the inside of a sand blaster chamber.
While in search of our next remote travel destination, we became increasingly interested in a prominent geographic anomaly that peaks out of the plains of Central Utah. The San Rafael Swell, an ancient tectonic formation that rises out of the arid and desolate region of Central Utah, bulges to a peak elevation of nearly 7000 feet. Other than the vein of traffic that flows boldly through its northern prominence, it is void of modern society.
Despite its lack of contemporary comforts, however, the area is teeming with pieces of time gone by. Petroglyphs, abandoned ranches and deep holes in the Earth pepper the high plateau. For tourists of its extreme geography and history, there is perhaps no more rewarding way to traverse the area than on a fully loaded bicycle.
For those who consider this bizarre and physically taxing journey as their way of “vacationing,” it can be hard to find friends. For us three, who trust in each other's unique versions of crazy, it is often the case we collectively decide to omit sipping margaritas on the beach for something a little more… alternative.
After a few dispatched details, there came no hesitation among Pat, Henry and I to accept the challenge other than the deep breath Henry took before he exhaled the question, “do you think 200 miles is long enough?”
Yes 200 miles was plenty (though we did throw a pre-departure Moab mountain bike trip in the mix just to be sure) and we would begin the journey in the Temple Mountain Wash, the southern corridor into the Swell.
As we unpacked Henry’s truck and repacked our bikes, it became clear to us we were not alone in the Temple Mountain canyon.
Guarding the entrance to the wash were the ancient characters of a human world that had once been and then come to pass. The decorations pecked along the cliffs, known as Petroglyphs, were left by a venerable, yet mysterious native population. Though most agree that the very earliest of them is at least 2000 years old, scholars are still left puzzled about the specific timelines of the artwork and even less keen to the origins of the creatures they depict. These strange creations made a fascinating yet ominous crowd on our sidelines of departure.
As we continued to pack our chain driven portage, silence took us. Focus must overcome excitement, as every forgotten or overlooked element in a delicate system of adventure will cause extended suffering.
Tools, food, hygiene, warmth, light, orientation- none can be neglected in a cargo capacity that is no more than that of a small fish tank. The challenge is minimalism, the solution is experience. Forget your a** wipe once, and you’ll never make the mistake again.
Discovering what is essential in situations where less is more is less about perfection and more about learning from one’s own errors. In this crucial juncture of packing for a long journey, it was important that less mistakes were repeated so that new ones could be made within the security of preparedness. We could all three only hope that we were properly rehearsed as we zipped closed our last pockets and snapped back to the reality of the road ahead.
Our bags bloated to their maximum capacity, overhanging bars and frames like strange appendages, we began to push our bikes away from the truck and toward the towering corridor into the swell. Mounting the bikes we nodded to one another in agreement that we were ready and there was no turning back so we began churning our pedals through sand and gravel up the road toward our journey when I turned back suddenly because I realized I forgot my headlamp at the truck.
When I returned we nodded again and began pedaling.
So with our bags fully stuffed and our stoke fully flared, we sent off hooting and hollering under the midday sun into the rugged Temple Mountain canyon, the ancient etched creatures of the walls waving us goodbye.
Up and down, and up again... and down again
We slowly crawled up and down the arduous initiation to our journey. Over red and yellow stone and sand, we ceaselessly ascended and descended several hundred feet at a time over the course of twenty miles, sweat dripping from face to frame to chains to ground like a dirty ooze of breadcrumbs behind us.
Peering forward into the high stone hallways, the road laid through them like a gray smear, I couldn’t help but feel the trepid sensation that often comes over me. Much like a child winding the jack in the box, I knew what was in store for me but I couldn’t stop. Churning pedals and gears I rode toward a fearful eventuality that strikes without warning and yet refuses to announce itself.
Will the body break? Will the bike malfunction? What did I forget? Did I bring enough water?
This fear sits in the back of the mind like extra weight, but we all have that fear and like any weight it must be stored in the proper place so that it doesn’t affect stability. If it comes too far to the front, it affects the body and the mind, causing one to topple over into the dust. If fixed in harmony with the other forces pulling in all directions, we can store our anxiety in its proper place to keep our balance, helping to keep our heads up and our hearts away from the ground.
We all kept it in that place unique to us as we continued into the great tundra of The Swell, hoping that for whatever equipment or good spirits that one of us neglected, the other packed extra on their bike as we collectively peddled them over gravel and past burnt cars and other strange oddities of the desert.
The afternoon finished with a 1700 foot climb to 6500 feet of elevation and we enjoyed a brisk descent down into a lonely canyon that was crisp with the air of an approaching dusk. As we peddled into camp, our average speed totaling five miles per hour, we entered into the sleepy hue of a departing day.
Our camp was beneath a high canyon that cast in shadow a creek with lonely aspens along its edge and high above was a dark blue sky quickly steeping into a black night. Here we made camp along the stream which, as we expected, was thick with the flavor of erosion. With salt and silt in our water and then in our mouths, it seemed the desert was committed to reminding us that there was no escaping its sand.
Sleep came easy, and with no chance of rain we omitted our tents and slept exposed to the cosmos. A mellow breeze sometimes shook the leaves of the aspens like a soft maraca in the dark.
The road before us and beyond us
The next morning we enjoyed some of Julie’s biscuits and gravy, and afterward we wasted no time in departing so we could make use of the morning’s mercy from the heat.
While the first day of travel may have been diverse in its elevation, the second day was deeply diverse in geography. The jagged canyons melted into rolling hills of sand and gravel and without the shadow of the valley, the sun streamed in undeterred and pressed into our necks and shoulders. Other than the sound of our tires' tread scratching the stone of the Earth, the scene was silent.
It was a placid time that reminded us of the quiet and unique charm the desert can gift to a person. It was perhaps close to the same charm an ancient hunter-gatherer may have felt walking diligently through their sacred lands. Though we could never fully understand the powerful connection the native people had with their ground, we do know it was strong enough for tribes people to declare what they saw around them as hallowed and divine.
For us, as three visitors from one modern planet to another of meaningful history, it was like a dirty and dusty tour through an ancestral period of humanity. We frequently passed enduring relics of early humans like the Fremont people who emerged 2000 years ago during a period of ideal farming climate in Utah. The presence of their diverse culture is not only historic but enduring. The Fremont's devotion to community and agriculture, born from deep understanding and appreciation of their birthplace, is still visible today.
We peddled past stone ruins and pictographs that became a constant reminder of the time, effort and emotion that decorated a seemingly desolate landscape beneath us. To the more modern descendants of the Fremont like the Ute and Southern Paiute, there is still a present aurora of divinity steeped deeply in cultural values. In order to avoid bridging the delicate gap between traversing and trespassing, it was important for us to navigate our terrain with respect, for many thousands of years of history was the only thing that allowed us to be there in the first place. For this privilege we deeply respect and appreciate these tribes and their presence within the territories we travel upon.
Stopping upon a knoll at the summit of a winding climb, Pat, Henry and I were able to look upon the changing landscape that lay out in front. To imagine walking this desert world in a time before bikes and before horses, like in the time of the Fremont, Utes and Paiute, is an intimidating imaginative experience. Even for us, with our miracles of modern gear and technology, we were sweating and aching from punishment from arduous terrain. Still we had yet to experience one day of the deep, billowing sand.
Our collective spirits were high. Clouds came sometimes and cast fragmented shadows across the clay and shaded the red rocks into a maroon hue that could captivate even the most focused cyclist. We were grateful beyond words to be in such a place, and together we set off the knoll into an easy descent that sent a cool breeze of relief past our ears.
That night was again taken near a creek. The same source of water as the night before, the aptly named “Muddy Creek” is a southern flow that split our circular route in half and intersected it at key junctions. Much more exposed than the previous night, we decided to pedal ourselves to a nearby canyon for shelter from the wind, which was steadily increasing into the night.
We started off along the gravel road out again into the swell. Once we moved into the Capitol Reef National Park region, we began our transition into the sand blaster. Grains flew into our eyes and collected on every flat surface. As the wind blew, the sun grew high and the ground became loose and swirled across the road which often became flush with the sand itself as it rolled into infinity. While our tires churned through beige soot they often spun out beneath us, draining energy and sometimes morale. We became more focused on our destination and we pushed the miles behind us as we charged through the forces of the desert. Moving through our third day, our bodies were beginning to react to the tension put on them from repeated flexing and grinding. Our joints pinged and pulsed with affliction as they steadily reeled back and forth back and forth.
As we got closer to the edge of the Cathedral Valley, we climbed and descended through an egress of stone cliffs and salt buttes. Finally becoming sheltered from the invasive forces of incessant sand, we settled our bikes in a small opening along the road where the sun cooked our shoulders in silence. Our water cache, of which we planted two days earlier, was sitting in a small shaded alcove between two boulders and the three of us squeezed shoulder to shoulder to share in its small but generous shelter from the heat.
After a snack and a refill of our water supply which totaled a gallon a piece, we set off and up onto a plateau that overlooked the dramatic edge of the Swell. A setting sun illuminated an orange rolling tundra that splashed up against a towering wall of jagged stone. Swift yet captivating, the moment of enthrallment came to an end as we again descended down to Muddy Creek and to our last camp of the journey.
We took a much needed dip in the shallow water to purge ourselves of the dust that clung to us. The green reeds of the basin sprung up all around like an oasis parted by the brook that cackled melodically through the silence of the evening.
If the Native Americans hunted for game in the The Swell, it was the American Capitalists that hunted for Uranium.
Originally considered a bi-product of other mined materials, Uranium became all the rage in the 1940’s and was the key element in the first federally sponsored mineral rush in American history. The “Uranium Rush.”
Nuclear weapons, it seemed, were a worthy investment of the extra $10,000 offered by the government for every lode of ore produced. Sounding off an orchestra of soft clicks from their Geiger Counters, men and women roamed the cliffs of The Swell and dissected its yellow rocks with explosives and machinery. It was thus that they left their own strange creatures on the walls of history.
After a decline in the late 60’s and short spike in demand for nuclear power plants in the 70’s, all but one of the 392 mines that existed in 1958 have been decommissioned. The resulting remnants of towering rock utensils is now little more than a jungle gym for us childish travelers to swing and climb on. And after one long advance up a winding mining road, we were finally at our peak elation as we mounted these strange steel relics of a waking American dream, asserting that we were now the captains of a bold and chaotic future that will inevitably come and then come to pass.
Rounding a sharp and rocky corner into a small outcropping of stone we came into view of Henry’s distant truck, the place beyond the rocks and sand and steel and sweat and canyons and rolling hills that would mark our departure from the place that offered us the unique encounter we had with both ourselves and the ground beneath us.
The entire journey spanned 200 miles with 14,500 feet of ascension. Our average speed totaled 9 miles per hour and we completed the circuit around The Swell in four days (two full days and two half days). All together the journey was a complete mechanical success. No bike or major gear failures speaks volumes for either our outstanding luck or thorough preparedness, or perhaps our proper balance of both.
The tread marks we left in the sand of The Swell will wash away with the wind and the rain. Unlike so many of the plateau’s previous human visitors, our journey left no trace for those of the future to remark upon with curious gusto. In our time of modern perspective our privilege is history itself, and it gave us a precious glimpse of who we were and who we’re meant to be as we toured through nature's menagerie of entropic artifacts.
Traveling on two wheels gave us vulnerability, our commitment to a challenge gave us integrity. For with each other and with ourselves we created something that may not leave its mark on the land like a mine or a petroglyph, but instead within the spirit and psyche of us- the modern sculptors of the future past. A future and past that will no doubt bring new humans to the swell, the distant people of a technological era that despite their boldest tools and accomplishments hopefully still choose to pedal through the desert to remember the sound of silence and taste of sand.
Thanks for reading!
- For more information on Native American tribes and territories check out this cool interactive map.
- For a detailed route description and map outlining our route, check out Bikepacking.com's awesome guide to traversing the San Rafael Swell.
- Thinking of checking out the area? Be sure to check in with the BLM's field office to confirm both route conditions and access to the ever changing terrain of The Swell.
SEAN DRONIA * February 1, 2022
For more from author and photographer Sean Dronia, head over to his website at: https://www.seandronia.com/