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Todd Hartley

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The Wide, Wide West: Utah's San Rafael Swell

Posted: 06/07/11 11:59 AM ET

Each spring, Utah becomes the scene of one of the animal kingdom's great annual migrations, as thousands of Colorado ski-town locals descend from their snowbound winter ranges in search of warm desert climes. If you've been to Moab on a busy weekend in recent years, you've do doubt seen this phenomenon, characterized by massive herds of sightseers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers and other off-road enthusiasts.

On our last trip to Moab, my family and I had to drive around for two hours looking for a vacant campsite until we finally found a barely suitable one miles up a dirt road outside of town. Then, when we went for a hike to a swimming hole I remembered fondly from years ago, we were forced to contend with hordes of drunken twenty-somethings carting cases of beer to the site. The whole experience felt more like a college frat party than a hike.

Although I didn't say anything to my wife at the time, I pretty much made up my mind that I would never return to Moab, which is a bit of a shame, because the scenery is still spectacular, recreational opportunities still abound, and the town itself is fine. I just couldn't take the crowds anymore, and I felt like there had to be somewhere better in the vast redrock country of the Beehive State.

Fortunately, I was right. In central Utah, just west of Green River, the land rises up in a geologic formation called the San Rafael Swell, a mostly untrammeled region of slot canyons, sandstone buttes, Native American pictographs and open space that is a little more remote and a lot less visited than Moab. It doesn't have any national parks or world-class singletrack bike trails, but to many folks, that's part of its appeal.

Mind you, this is not to say that you'll have "the Swell" all to yourself if you go there. On a Memorial Day hike last year we had to wait in long queues just to snake through some of the narrower sections of the popular Little Wild Horse Canyon, but we had no trouble finding a good (albeit primitive) campsite, and we could see no other campers from where we pitched our tent.

The Swell is divided neatly in two by I-70. The southern section, which lies between the interstate and the town of Hanksville, features countless navigable canyons (including the aforementioned, kid-friendly Little Wild Horse), as well as Goblin Valley State Park, an otherworldly realm of sandstone hoodoos and spires sculpted into bizarre shapes by the forces of wind and rain.

North of the interstate, the Swell contains such scenic attractions as Buckhorn Wash (home to some dramatic sandstone walls and well preserved pictographs), Mexican Mountain and the Little Grand Canyon, a dramatic stretch of the San Rafael River that cuts a deep swath through the Swell itself. It may not be quite a match for its namesake scenically, but it makes up for it with its lack of congestion.

Having written off Moab and been to the southern portion of the Swell already, we and another family decided this spring to venture into the virgin (to us, anyway) territory of the Swell's northern section. There we found the excellent San Rafael River Bridge Campground, a maintained facility with pit toilets and designated sites. We had our choice of places to pitch our tents, and best of all, the campground featured two things in very short supply in the desert: water and a host of large shade trees.

Our campsite, beneath the spreading limbs of a couple of gnarled cottonwood trees, was just a few steps from the river, making it an ideal spot for anyone camping with dogs. The water also proved a nice attraction for our kids, who spent the better part of the weekend skipping stones and splashing around in the shallows.

Adrenaline junkies, those who can't live without modern conveniences and lovers of large crowds may not find much to interest them in the quiet reaches of the Swell, but if you're looking for some peace and solitude along with your scenic views -- and desert that feels the way desert should -- you might find it well worth your time to bypass Moab and head a little farther west.