San Rafael Swell Throughout the Seasons: 4 Reasons to Visit

Written By Matcha

San Rafael Swell   |  Dean Krakel

From narrow slot canyons to grand sweeping vistas, from sandstone plateaus to meandering rivers, San Rafael Country and the San Rafael Swell are home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Utah. But the high desert is also a place of extremes, swinging between summers where the sun warms the land with intensified heat but keeps the days long and chilly winters that present unique challenges but open a new variation of adventure. The milder conditions of autumn and spring make those months the most popular times to come visit, but the truth of the matter is if you know what to do and where to go, each season brings a distinct flavor that is well worth experiencing (Read: "The Undiscovered San Rafael Swell"). Whether you’re a hiker, a mountain biker, or a climber, here’s how to make the most of your time in Emery County’s unforgettable wilderness.

Wedge Overlook at San Rafael Swell

Photo: Dean Krakel

1. Fall

Fall is primetime in the San Rafael Swell. The cooler temperatures are perfect for pretty much any activity that might bring you here, making this the best season to plan out a longer trip. If you’re an avid hiker, take a few days to go backpacking through the canyon at the Wedge Overlook — aka another “Grand” Canyon (Read: "The Underrated Trails Within the San Rafael Swell"). Or if you prefer mountain biking you can ride along the Good Water Rim Trail, which meanders right along the canyon’s edge and has stunning views the whole way (Read: "Bikepacking through Time in the San Rafael Swell"). This is also the venue for the San Rafael Swell Mountain Bike Festival held annually.

After your big adventure, explore the cities of Castle Valley and treat yourself to a refreshing meal. The two nearest to you at this point are Castle Dale and Huntington.

2. Winter

San Rafael Country has an entirely different character when the cold season hits. The chilly air (the temperature often dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit) can be a deterrent, so this is the best time to come if you’re looking for solitude. Consider taking the opportunity to visit Goblin Valley State Park — one of Emery County’s most famous sites and therefore, during the high season, one of the more crowded. A dusting of snow on top of the park’s outlandish knobs and rock towers will create an exceptionally ethereal atmosphere. Winter camping in the park's yurts provide a base camp for adventurous winter travelers — though you'll be pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the gas-heated accommodations.

You can also hike through Little Wild Horse Canyon, one of the classic slot canyons in the state that the whole family can enjoy. (Remember to bring plenty of water!)

Provided the roads are in good condition, you can also see more of the area from the comfort of your car. Spend a day taking a driving tour from Goblin Valley to the northern San Rafael Swell, past the Swinging Bridge area up to the Buckhorn Pictograph Panel that spans more than 130 feet.

Though not part of the Swell, visitors with an inclination to strap on snowshoes or bring the snowmobile will find several access points to the high-alpine environment of the Manti-La Sal National Forest and Wasatch Plateau the west.

Goblin Valley State Park

Little Wildhorse Canyon

Photo: Michael Kunde

3. Spring

Once winter’s snows have thawed, spring is another ideal time to get outside in Emery County. In March, rock climbers flock to Joe’s Valley to test themselves on problems like “Wills of Fire” and “No Substance” in one of the best bouldering areas in the country, if not the world. Climb until your fingers are rubbed raw during the day, then sleep under the stars at the Joe’s Valley Campground.

Springtime also means its time for some fun on the water. For two or three weeks in May, when the water levels are highest thanks to spring runoff, you can float the entire 18 ­miles on the San Rafael River in the deep canyon of the Wedge Overlook. This is one of the ultimate experiences you can have in the county.


Millsite State Park

4. Summer

With the mercury frequently reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Emery County’s summers can be hot, hot, hot. But some activities in San Rafael Country are uniquely suited to the dog days. Millsite State Park Reservoir and campground is a cool water refuge. There are canoes and SUPs available to rent for a small fee or you can bring your own boat for some water fun or a relaxing day of fishing.

Don’t like the water? No problem. You can mountain bike along the trail around the reservoir or enjoy the unique 18-hole par 71 target-style course right next door. You can also visit the Cleveland ­Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry to fill your mind and imagination with what the area was like when dinosaurs lived here about 147 million years ago.

When you are finished soaking in the sun, give yourself a break from the heat by exploring some of the local air-conditioned sites. The Museum of the San Rafael in Castle Dale has a paleontology exhibit that displays dinosaur species found in Emery County, as well as an exhibit about the prehistoric Fremont people who once lived on the land.

Whatever your outdoor passion, San Rafael Country has an adventure waiting for you. And there’s no time to go like the present.

Start Planning

Getting Here

San Rafael Swell is a very isolated area so come prepared. Be sure to drink plenty of water and fill up your gas tanks before heading in. There are no fees to enter the Swell. Since the roads are gravel, travel can sometimes be difficult after a storm. There are access roads to the San Rafael Swell from S.R. 10 near Huntington and Castle Dale.

Where to Start

The Wedge Overlook is a good place to begin exploring the northern Swell. The view from here offers a bird’s eye perspective of the Little Grand Canyon, a 14-mile path cut from the Earth’s crust by the San Rafael River. 

Previous Image Next Image