A Swell Swell Adventure

(Dexter made me name it that.)

On Saturday, July 1, Dexter and I rewarded ourselves after a stressful work week by sleeping in until about 9:30. After packing our camping supplies, clothes, and miscellaneous foodstuffs (sandwiches and popcorn, mainly) we headed out on the road to the San Rafael Swell.

The plan was to take a long route getting there, heading south on Highway 89, then jump over to Highway 10 by way of I-70 in Salina, and then go north again until we reached the Swell.

As you read, make sure to visit our links to see all the amazing photos we took on this trip!

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After stopping at a 7-Eleven for two gallons of water and some other drinks, we journeyed south into Spanish Fork Canyon. The windmills weren’t moving at all, which I found odd. I’d never seen them so still before (though I realize they’d be still in a photograph either way…).

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We stopped for lunch at Rodger’s Dairy Freeze in Mount Pleasant for lunch. It’s a tiny, very 1950s diner with wooden booths and classic ’50s decor—but in a very deliberate way, like they know it’s what customers will expect. Only the neon sign on the roof betrays the building’s true age (it actually is a tiny ’50s diner. It just aged well). On the table was an antique Dr Pepper bottle with daisies in it.

We were served a little basket of fluffy, sugary scones. Dexter and I each ordered a cheeseburger and fries—and we didn’t even have to ask for fry sauce! (Small Town Utah: 1, Rest of Utah: 0). Our waitress was extremely nice and friendly, to the point where I felt bad for not ordering dessert, but we were eager to get on the road. We still had about four hours of drive time ahead of us, not counting sightseeing stops or bathroom breaks.

After Mount Pleasant, we stopped in Manti to check out the tiny pioneer dugout near the LDS temple. The gate was locked, but the hotel across the street let us borrow the key for a few minutes so we could have a peek inside the tiny dugout. It was mostly full of church pews and some informational posterboards, but it was wonderfully cool and dark in there, a nice respite from the heat of the afternoon.

In Gunnison, about 20 minutes past Manti, we stopped to see Cheryl Anderson and her husband Darrell, who fed us chips and salsa and let us refill our water bottles. Cheryl is a dear friend who lived in our neighborhood when we were small. We sat with her and Darrell and talked about our adventurous plans and got a few recommendations for future trips.

We also visited the San Pitch Dragon, a glass mosaic beneath an overpass. Honestly, I wasn’t really expecting much, and I was completely surprised. The dragon was long. It took nearly 30 seconds to walk from the head to the tail. As cars roared on the highway overhead, it was easy to imagine the sound coming from the great lizard on the wall.

Our next stop was Salina, which was far less charming and far more run-down and creepy than the other small towns we’d passed. We planned to visit the Civilian Conservation Corps/POW camp museum, but it turns out that the museum closes at 2:00 on Saturdays.

We’d planned to stop at a small diner/cafe in town, but we both felt a bit like we’d be abducted by aliens, or possibly attacked by a werewolf, if we got out of the car, so we moved on.

Near the freeway, we stopped to check out some big tanks painted to look like soda cans.

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From Salina, we hopped onto I-70 and headed East.

As we drove, I was struck by the raw beauty of the desert mountains. The land is so breathtakingly, achingly beautiful that it almost hurts to look at it. I love it so much it makes me want to cry. The high mountain deserts of Utah are so different from anywhere else. No lush forests, just landscape so raw and honest. When you see it, you see all of it, and you think it has nothing to hide. But if you stop to look, you see what it truly has to offer—yawning canyons, eerie sandstone hoodoos, a scorched desert teeming with life.

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Me, basically all weekend

We were listening to The Raven Cycle audiobook as we drove, and this quote stood out so sharply because it perfectly explains how I feel about these high, dry deserts:

“His heart hurt with the wanting of it, the hurt no less painful for being difficult to explain.”

In Clawson, the tiniest town I have ever seen, we saw some UFO art. It was interesting, but also seemed like this guy just had a lot of junk in his yard and he didn’t know what to do with it. It was cool to see, and worth a look, but maybe not worth getting out of the car for.

Just beyond the miniscule collection of homes that is Clawson, we reached Castle Dale, where there is, thankfully, a Maverik. We stopped to fill up on gas before heading East on the tiny roads that lead out onto San Rafael Swell.

Our first stop was to check out these pancake rocks, where we bumped into the only other person we would encounter for the whole trip: a brown-haired, bearded man with a yellow Jeep. I could’ve stayed here for hours, but it was getting on about dusk and we still needed to set up camp.

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After exploring here for a while, we headed further East onto the Swell to reach the Wedge Overlook: Utah’s Mini Grand Canyon (be sure to click the link to check out all our amazing photos!)

Our camp was set up by about the time the sun went down, and there were tiny gnats everywhere that lived in the cedar trees. We set up our lantern a yard or so away from where we were sitting, and that seemed to draw the bugs away for the most part—a miracle, really, since I forgot the bug spray.

After a fitful sleep on the sandy soil with just thin yoga mats beneath our sleeping bags, we were awake before 7:00 on Sunday morning. For breakfast, we ate chocolate Costco muffins on the edge overlooking the canyon. We found a geocache just over the edge of the cliff, so naturally we had to have a look. From the geocache, we took a shell casing and left a Sodalicious punch card and a cartoon fox sticker.

The first stop on our Sunday adventures was a series of mysterious tunnels that had been carved by the Department of Defense—for what? No one knows. The breeze coming from the depths of the tunnels was colder than air conditioning.

Next, we visited a wall of petroglyphs down in the Buckhorn Wash area. We took our time here, climbing around on the massive hunks of sandstone that had fallen into the canyon. I even spotted some cryptobiotic crust that had found a foothold!

We also visited the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Wall, which was so amazing that I don’t even know how to talk about it except to tell you that I cried and you should definitely go check out all the photos we took.

Further and further down the road, we came to the San Rafael River and the San Rafael Swinging Bridge—the only remaining suspension bridge in the state of Utah. It was built in 1937.

Unfortunately, there were biting flies everywhere and I slapped one so hard that I left a handprint on my leg. We couldn’t get down to the river to wade anyway, and the heat was getting to me as we headed into the afternoon.

We drove back to the Wedge Overlook visitor’s center-ish thing, parked the car, and had lunch (bagels and cream cheese). From the visitor’s center-ish thing, we had two options: 20 miles back to Castle Dale and Highway 10, or 30 miles to I-70.

We chose the long route.

When we’d gone about halfway, we got stuck in sand. We were unsuccessful in trying to dig or push ourselves free, and we and the entire car were coated in a layer of red dirt.

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Thankfully, the guy with the yellow Jeep was nearby and was able to tow us to safety. I don’t know how he managed to be so close, but we’d only been stuck for about ten minutes before he showed up.

After that, we turned right back around and drove the entire way back to Castle Dale. After hours of driving on treacherous dirt roads, finally feeling smooth asphalt under our tires was like driving on glass.

I fell asleep in the sandy car, in my sandy clothes and sandy skin, on the way home, and I have never felt more gross and dirty. Thankfully, we made it home safely. The first thing we did was unload the food from the car, and then took showers to wash the dirt off (so much dirt!).

The trunk is still full of our camping supplies, but I can deal with those on Monday!

Jesus + Jeep = Jeepsus

When we arrived at the swell, our first stop was to see a “pancake” rock formation—basically, rocks that look like pancakes. Or hamburger buns.

As we drove across the winding, nearly invisible dirt roads, we saw a yellow Jeep headed our way. It, too, stopped at the pancake rocks.

A man got out. He was wearing khaki pants and a loose white shirt. He had long brown hair and a beard, and I turned to Dexter and said, “Look, it’s Jesus.”

He didn’t linger long at the pancake rocks, and we felt bad for disturbing him. And what are the odds that, in all this wide open space, two cars arrive at the same spot at the same time? It was practically impossible.

We saw his Jeep later, as we drove towards the Wedge to find a camp site.

On Sunday, around noon, as we were headed out into the desert in search of Interstate 70, we passed Jeepsus sitting in the open door of his yellow Jeep, eating lunch. I had a fleeting thought: If we break down, at least he’s right there.

About 15 minutes later, as we trundled along the dirt road with increasing difficulty, we came upon a rutted hill that we thought was hardened mud but turned out to be about two feet of loose, sucking sand.

The Honda quickly became mired in the red sand, and we couldn’t get it out no matter how we tried. When we got out and tried to push it back down the hill, we sank up to our ankles in the stuff. The whole interior and exterior of the car were coated in a drifting layer of fine, russet-colored dirt.

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After we had already dug down about six inches around this tire…

And then I looked up and saw the yellow Jeep headed our way. Jeepsus had come.

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He, being a smart man who had adequately prepared for desert travel, had a shovel and a strap. We dug down below the Honda until we found a sturdy spot to affix the strap.

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Then Jeepsus towed us carefully back down the hill.

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On the way down, I had to hold up the front bumper so it didn’t drag half the hill down with us.

Instead of heading along this road in the hopes of reaching Highway 6, we turned back the way we came. We knew we could make it, since we’d already come that way. Jeepsus followed us for a few miles to make sure we didn’t get stuck again, and then he was gone.

 

Morrison Knudsen Tunnels

The Morrison Knudsen (MK) Tunnels were built by the Department of Defense in 1948 for reasons unknown. Not even local residents who worked on the project knew why they was there or what the project was for.

There’s a whole network of subterranean tunnels, though we only saw one entrance.

When the tunnels were complete, explosives were detonated within and on the surface. But still, no one is quite sure what the tunnels were for or what the DoD was hoping to discover.

The MK Tunnels are one of six similar projects conducted by the DoD in the West, each in a different geological area.

Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, you can feel a frigid breeze blowing out from God knows where—better than air conditioning.

You can still see holes drilled into the sandstone for the placement of explosive charges.

 

Petroglyph Wall

This wall of petroglyphs is unprotected by a fence or barrier of any kind, which unfortunately means that many of the carvings have been destroyed or colored on. I managed to get plenty of photos, though.

I even stumbled upon a few patches of healthy cryptobiotic soil (yeah, “the crust” you hear so much about at Arches), which meant that nobody had set foot on that particular patch of earth for hundreds of years. I couldn’t believe it.

We enjoyed climbing around on the big chunks of sandstone that had fallen from the cliff face, and I made a tiny cairn—don’t worry, I didn’t leave it standing! I just wanted to take some photos of it.

Wedge Overlook

I don’t even have the words to describe how amazing the Wedge Overlook is. For the first five minutes after we drove up, I was utterly speechless. They call it Utah’s Mini Grand Canyon, and it’s easy to see why. This sprawling canyon is absolutely breathtaking.

We arrived right during the Golden Hour and wasted no time loading up the cameras and snapping a zillion photos.

We also ate breakfast out on the Wedge on Sunday morning, so some of these photos are from the next day.

I couldn’t decide which to include, so, naturally, I included them all.

Enjoy!