It’s desert time in Utah! If you haven’t already made a trip to the eye popping amusement park that is Utah’s red rock canyon country, then chances are you’ve got one planned. However, if you can’t decide where to take your next trip, or just need some inspiration, we’ve got your back. If you don’t want to commit a half day of driving to arrive at your destination or you want something that will please everyone in the car, then make a trip to Buckhorn Wash in the San Rafael Swell. It’s close, full of variety and best of all, an awesome desert destination.
The San Rafael Swell doesn’t get as much pub as places like Moab or Zion, but that doesn’t mean it lacks in “wow factor.” Rugged, gorgeous and packed with adventure possibilities, the Swell has long been known as the perfect place to beat the crowds associated with more popular red rock destinations. Buckhorn Wash is an area well worth exploring, thanks to easily accessible rock art, great hiking/biking/climbing and backpacking areas, and of course, the San Rafael River.
The view on Green River Cutoff Road (your access point for Buckhorn Wash) isn’t very impressive. In fact, it’s little more than a glorified cow pasture with occasional hints at what sights are hiding in the canyons below you. However, as soon as you turn your vehicle down Buckhorn Draw, the reasons to spend a few days here become obvious: towering rock cathedrals form twisting and turning canyons; the road eventually takes you right to the San Rafael River. Sure, this thin ribbon of moisture doesn’t seem very river-like at first, but consider this: the entire ecosystem in the area depends on the San Rafael to deliver life in the form of water. Robust cottonwoods line the banks of the San Rafael any place there is soil to support them. Access to the river is easy; rally your car down one of the many access roads (some are just washes that lead to the river) along Mexican Mountain Road, throw it in park and take a dip! The river varies from a few inches deep to many plunge pools suited for full on cannonballs. If the weather is especially hot, you could make a great day simply walking the river and taking in all the sights. Assembly Hall and Window Blind Peaks tower over the river in much of the Buckhorn Wash area and would make a great day hike (climb them at your own risk!).
If it’s canyon hiking you want, you’re covered there, too. Calf, Cow and Pine Canyons are the biggest attractions in the area. The trailhead and parking area on Buckhorn Draw Road is a popular spot on the weekends. While not particularly remarkable, these three canyons are still perfect for a long day hike. Perennial streams provide cooling trickles and even a plunge pool or two along the way. Take 8 to 10 hours and explore all three.
Biking, you say? Well, this is the place. Well maintained roads are a great starting point, and intrepid riders will have no problem finding plenty of terrain to keep them occupied. Just a short car ride (or long bike ride) away is The Wedge, also known as the “Little Grand Canyon.” Once you see the views the nickname becomes rather obvious. Slickrock and more maintained trails and roads provide plenty of adrenaline for you fat tire junkies out there. If you prefer the slower pace of backpacking, then see The Wedge from a different point of view: a rough trail along the San Rafael River from Fuller’s Bottom to the San Rafael Rec site will give you a snake’s eye view of the Little Grand (total distance= 18 miles).
Last but not least is something that everyone can appreciate: ancient native rock art. The Buckhorn Wash Rock Art Site is located just a few feet off of Buckhorn Draw Road, and is an excellent example of Barrier Canyon style rock art. Very smart people that study these native folks estimate the site to be over 2,000 years old. Years ago, vandals nearly destroyed the site, but thanks some hard work by the people of Emery Country and various State and Federal agencies, the site is essentially the same as it was when the ancient artists created it. This is truly a must-see attraction in the area, as there are not many rock art sites so easily accessed by people of all ages. There’s even a picnic area and bathroom facility near the parking area.
So there you have it; if you didn’t have any desert plans, or haven’t been to Buckhorn Wash yet, then put it on your calendar. No matter who you’ve got in your group, this area is guaranteed to have something they want to do. Camping along Buckhorn Draw and Mexican Mountain Roads is free and plentiful, just remember to Leave No Trace. If you have an RV, horses or just want a toilet, pay sites are available at the San Rafael Rec area.
Getting There: From Salt Lake City, follow I-15 South through Provo and take Exit 258 for Highway 6. Follow Highway 6 through scenic Spanish Fork Canyon until you reach Price. Take the exit for State Road 10 towards Castle Dale. Just before Castle Dale, turn left onto Green River Cutoff Road. The BLM has signs posted along this road that will guide you to Buckhorn Draw Road and the Rock Art Site.
Dogs: Dogs allowed in all areas of Buckhorn Wash; horseback riders frequent the area so use a leash on all major trails and roads.