Where in the United States is the best National Park if you are into climbing, spelunking, and biking, in a stunning lunaresque landscape? Well, we have got to say it’s Utah! We sent our outdoors enthusiast, the highly active Mattias Lundblad, to the small town of Green River, Utah to discover and explore the incredible natural playground that is San Rafael Swell.
Words and photo: Mattias Lundblad
Everything feels bigger in Utah, except for the crowds. “You get used to driving when you live here, that’s for sure.” says Robin Nelson, a resident of Green River, a town of 800 people in Emery county. The high desert landscape is seemingly endless. For a photographer, traveling takes extra time. It’s impossible not to be captivated by the landscape. Each and every mile changes dramatically, unfolding in shifting lights. You always feel the urge to hop out of the car and set up a tripod for just one more photograph. San Rafael Swell in Southeastern Utah is geologically described as an anticline; a type of fold with an arch-like shape uplifted area of layered rocks. Here, the anticline is about 75 miles by 40 miles in area. Most of it has eroded away with exposure to water, wind and ice, creating nearly every imaginable landscape feature you can think of – valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas, buttes and badlands. The Swell, located entirely within Emery County, has long been considered an undiscovered natural wonder of the American West, but is starting to get attention. “San Rafael – closer than you think” is one slogan, and by Utah standards, a three hour drive from Salt Lake City, or five from Las Vegas is no big deal.
Goblin Valley National Park is named for its thousands of strangely shaped rock formations, called “hoodoos”. A surreal landscape. When Hollywood needed an extraterrestrial-looking landscape for the movie Galaxy Quest, this is where they went. It’s also one of Utah’s more popular parks, established in 1964, with a parking lot, bathrooms, and several sites for camping. Logan DeGrand is a canyoneering guide with Get in the Wild Adventures. Most of the time he is based in nearby Moab, but he spends the winter season in Washington state. He hands me a harness, a helmet and a rope, and we start with a short hike between the hoodoos and climb through a tunnel of rock. I keep staring up at all the new shapes. It’s time to learn how to use the ropes and the tools. We start off at an easy slope.
“Are you right-handed or left handed?” Logan asks, while attaching the rope to the starting point. I’m both or in between, so I hesitate and go for left. He instructs me how to use the brake. There are a few things to remember, but it seems easy enough. After a couple of attempts and some gained confidence, we keep walking and reach the Basilisk, a large cave, almost like a church carved out in the sandstone by water. While Logan is securing the ropes, I’m suddenly realizing what I have gotten myself into. The plan is to rappel into the cave from the top, and I have to go first. Logan with his reassuring ways, manages to talk about rappelling into the abyss as well as the fear of it, as being something entirely normal. I lean back and start walking backwards, while slowly feeding the rope through the descender on my left hip. “Is it too late to change my mind?” I shout through the hole. “Yep.” is the answer. The body throws all kinds of instinctual reflexes at me to fight this and I suddenly don’t remember anything at all, expecting to flip over and fall down. Controlling the rope lefthanded turns out to be the wrong choice. My right hand wants something to do, but I don’t know that it would have been much better. Then the wall disappears under my feet, and there is nowhere to step. Hanging freely and rotating, my body is full of adrenaline and the arms with lactic acid. But, a realization that it’s working sets in, and it starts to get fun for the last stretch of the nearly hundred feet descent. Logan descends after.
“Would you do it again?” he asks. “Sure.” I reply, half-convincing with shaking legs. The room is truly majestic, with its soft shapes illuminated from above and from one side. The next obstacle is a narrow tunnel. We crawl in head first into the darkness and the taste of sand, until it’s too narrow to get through and we turn around. There is supposedly another way out, but Logan is not entirely sure where. After returning to daylight, I ask who deems this to be safe. “Nobody, you have to use your own judgement.” says Logan, and tells me that the tunnel we’ve just crawled through has only been known for about seven years.
After returning to the trailhead, I stay for the famous night sky. The contrast between day and night is stark. It gets dark quickly, and the temperature drops immediately. A pleasant, almost hot day, turns below freezing as the full moon rises behind the hoodoos. Goblin Valley recently achieved “dark sky certified” status. This means excellent stargazing and night landscape photography. There is no light pollution from cities or highways, and the park is sparsely illuminated. Where they haven’t been able to eliminate lights entirely, it is directed downward. The full moon interferes with the stargazing, but makes it possible to hike among the hoodoos in what practically feels like daylight, adding to the sense of otherworldliness.
Not far from Goblin Valley, are Little Wild Horse Canyon and Bell Canyon, a popular family destination with easy hiking between the softly shaped sandstone walls. In some places you have to squeeze sideways between narrow walls, and sometimes you have to climb a bit, but anyone in decent shape can make it. The whole loop is a good half day hike of about eight miles, but it’s also worth going in for a bit, and turn around, if time is limited.
Good Water Rim
A wide and mostly straight gravel road, in some places blocked by cattle, runs through the desert. I begin to regret not checking that the rental car has a proper spare tire, and pray to whichever deity is responsible for air pressure. I keep up the speed until I reach a fenced-in building in the middle of the desert: Buckhorn Visitor Center, where I will meet members of Mecca Bike Club and go for a ride. A friendly knock on the window. It’s Kim Player, speech pathologist in the Emery County school district by day, mountain bike enthusiast the rest of the time. Her husband, Rod, is retired from a career working for the county. Now he spends some of his time raising bees, but a lot of it riding horses and mountain biking. Rod and Kim load our bikes on the bed of their huge truck, and we all hop in and head for the Wedge Overlook, also known as “Little Grand Canyon”. We unload the bikes and head out on the Good Water Rim Trail.
“It got its name from a still down there,” says Rod. “This was during prohibition time, and there was a lot of bootlegging going on. Here in the San Rafael there are numerous places where there were stills. Lots of the canyons, springs and potholes are named for that. That was of course pretty funny in a Mormon state.” The Mormon Church, which prohibits the use of stimulants, is very present in Utah, ever since Brigham Young brought his pioneers west, and still over 60 percent of the population belongs to the church.
“But I think there were a lot of good Mormons who were drinkers too.” says Kim. She and Rod are members of the church. “But I’m willing to make fun of our history.” Kim adds. Rod points out a plant that is growing on the rim. “This is called Mormon tea or Brigham tea,” he says. “It’s bitter, and you have to put in a bunch of honey for it to taste good. It gives you a bit of a buzz.”
The trail runs about 17 miles along the rim and is mostly flat, offering easy pedaling over moderately sized rocks and roots. Sometimes, however, the trail is awfully close to the edge. If there is one thing that signifies outdoor activities in Utah, it’s the lack of somebody to hold responsible for it if something goes wrong. Fences and designated parking spots are few and far between. Common sense and mutual respect are the keywords. There is a freedom in this that you rarely come across in America. The Good Water Rim Trail was long considered illegal, but still rather well known and accepted. Recently it has become semi-official and made its way into some trail maps and guide books. The trail and the bike club were both founded by Lamar Guymon, a charismatic and beloved man, well-known in the community. He passed away in October 2018.
“We really miss him,” says Kim, “it’s too bad he’s not here, you would get a laugh.”
Rod stops and points over to the other side of the canyon.
“Over there is Lamar’s fall.” he says, and he and Kim explain how Lamar Guymon was riding alone when his tire got caught on something. He fell off his bike and over the edge, but was miraculously caught on a treetop, as if in a cartoon. He broke his arm and fractured his orbital bone, but managed to drag his bloody self-up, grab his bike, and get back to the car to drive home.
“He felt he couldn’t call the EMS.” says Kim, explaining that the illegal trail was almost singlehandedly built by him – and he happened to be the county sheriff. “But the fall was not what killed him, it was the diabetes.”
Continuing on the gravel road, you reach the small twin towns of Castle Dale and Orangeville, in what was once a booming coal mining region. But the mines closed, and since the 1990’s, climbers from all over the world have been coming for the sandstone boulders. Joe’s Valley, a few miles northwest of the towns, is becoming one of the world’s premier spots for bouldering. On a Friday morning at the end of the season, a few cars and vans are parked along the road. Adolfo from British Columbia is just waking up in his van. He is taking a rest day after a few intense days of climbing. He has been on the road for five weeks. Soon, another van rolls in. It’s Steve, originally from Arizona, but at the moment he is nomadic, roaming the country in his van and climbing rocks. “Climbing ruins lives,” he says. He took to the road after graduating from college in the spring of 2018. Alex Patten and Tina Pride from Maine add to the group. They offer repairs on equipment and clothes out of their van. From a small tent on the campground across the road, Theresa and Jon Moir emerge with big mattresses on their backs. They are just about to begin the final day of their climbing vacation before a 16 hour drive straight north, home to Calgary, Alberta. The couple met through climbing.
Bouldering is a type of rock climbing that requires very little equipment: climbing shoes, chalk for the hands, and a pad to fall on. The idea is simple: problems of various difficulty are to be solved. “The whole point is to do it from start to finish without falling. It takes a lot of patience and strength to get through it,” says Theresa Moir. “You spend a lot of time to figure things out, then just climbing on and falling off. You become very familiar with failure and falling. You spend most of your time falling off. That’s what makes it so much sweeter when you make it.”
What is now known as bouldering was used as training for larger ascents at the end of the 19th century. That’s when the words “bouldering” and “problem” started appearing together in British climbing literature. Bouldering emerged as a separate discipline in France in the early 20th century. In the US, the difficulty of problems is graded on an open-ended scale beginning with V0. “The V grade system was started more as a joke,” says Jon Moir. “V actually stands for ‘vermin’, which was a statement that climbers shouldn’t take grades too seriously.”
V1 means that a problem can be completed by a novice climber in good physical shape. V17 is the highest number assigned so far. At Joe’s Valley, the boulder Scuzlock has the most difficult problem, V13. Theresa and Jon are working on “Scrawny Variation”, a V7 problem. They are taking turns, one cheering on the other, who is hanging under the rock, holding on to cracks with fingers chalked for dryness and grip. After several attempts both of them make it.
For a long time, most Orangeville and Castle Dale residents were unaware of the climbing scene and how attractive the area is for climbing, although some noticed visitors showing up at the public library for wifi and at the gas station for coffee. Things started to change in 2015, when climbers helped with a town cleanup. Town officials came to find out why so many people from all over the world would come to visit one of the emptiest counties in America. As conversations progressed, it was decided that an annual festival should be held in Joe’s Valley. Amanda Leonard, a volunteer for Emery County’s tourism department reached out to the climbers Adriana Chimaras and Steven Jeffrey, and things started moving quickly. The first Joe’s Valley Festival happened on a cold Thanksgiving weekend the same year. Only the most stubborn climbers showed up. Since then, the festival is held during the usually more pleasant last weekend of September. It has grown to be one of Americas top climbing events, but it’s not all about climbing. It is also an event where climbers and non-climbing locals – put simply: boulderers and cowboys – can meet and get a taste of each other’s worlds. Rodeo games, ghost tours, yoga, and climbing are on the schedule.
Along the road there are several spots for a tent or a van, and in some places a simple bathroom. Most sites are free of charge. Joe’s Valley is no longer a secret. Around 15,000 visitors come here every year. The coal-fired power station remains the largest employer, but climbing is starting to have an impact on the local economy. The only coffeeshop within an 11-mile radius, Cup of Joe’s, opened up in 2017 out of the Stilson family’s home in Orangeville. At times cars are parked bumper to bumper around the bouldering sites. “We’re just a bunch of ants. On the weekend it’s quite busy here and it’s like everyone is everywhere, we’re seriously like ants swarming the boulder. It’s funny,” says Theresa Moir.
Good to know
Getting around is generally not hard, but takes some preparation. You will almost certainly be driving. The main roads are mostly very good. A regular car will do for most needs, but some gravel roads require 4WD and high clearance. They are often marked. There are large areas without cellphone service, so planning the route before leaving rather than relying on the GPS is necessary, and there are not many service stations, so the gas tank needs to be filled, the car needs to have a proper spare tire, and you need to bring food and plenty of drinking water before heading out. In the summer, humidity is very low and the temperatures high.
92% of Emery County is public land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM has generous rules for camping. There are campgrounds that require a fee. Most of them are on a first come first serve basis, but for some, reservations can be made at recreation.gov. Most public land is also open to dispersed camping, away from developed recreation facilities. Dispersed camping is allowed for 14 days within a 28 day period. After that you have to move 25 miles.
Conditions can change suddenly. Rain is rare, but when it comes there will be flooding due to the sparse vegetation and hard, rocky ground. Being in a canyon can then become suddenly very dangerous. For even if the rain falls far away, the water will naturally finds its way through these ancient riverbeds. Keeping an eye on the weather report is necessary.