The Swell… and beyond

For the photos from this trip check out: The Swell in Photos

For Memorial Day my friend Tamara and I went on an epic camping/sightseeing weekend. Our trip began Friday night after work, we made our way to “The Wedge”. We left a bit later to avoid traffic and had dinner along the way, so we arrived way after dark. It was pitch dark, not even a moon for light. We had glimpses here and there of the scenery, it seemed to be mostly desert but we could just make out outlines of trees and cliffs on the horizon. It was slow going, as the road was dirt and gravel. We were a bit nervous as we drove “blindly” down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, somewhat comforted and somewhat unnerved by others travelling the road. I started to feel more confident as we came across more encampments, and finally signs for campgrounds for the lower Wedge campgrounds. Finally we had arrived.

I wanted to camp right on the ledge, so I insisted we keep going. Most of the spots were taken but we found a place to pull off and set up our tent.  We set up a about 3 feet from the ledge. The wind was blowing and the ground was so rocky it was hard to stake the tent down. So one of us had to stay with the tent while the other grabbed gear to weigh it down. We couldn’t see anything past the ledge, except for our shadow on the rim in the distance. And the based on the sound of rocks I kicked out of our tent space over the ledge it didn’t sound too deep. I worried maybe this place wasn’t as great as I’d been told, but figured I would wait until morning. Once the gear was unloaded, Tamara turned off the lights. We didn’t realize just how dark it was until right then; we couldn’t see the ledge. I stood in place, afraid to move until she turned the lights back on and grabbed my flashlights.

We loaded into the tent and setup our sleeping arrangements. I reached under the tent and removed more rocks, including a giant pointy rock we had failed to see right in the middle. The “fossil” as we called it, left a giant hole in its place, which was uncomfortable, but better than a 2 inch spike in our backs. We set up a Snapchat story “2 Bitches in a Tent”, to narrate our travels, set my alarm for shortly after sunrise, and giggled until we finally fell asleep.

We awoke just after 6:00 am, just as the sun was brightening the sky. I yawned, turned off my alarm, and paused unwilling to disturb the warm cocoon we had created for ourselves. But curiosity compelled me to move. I sat up unzipped our door, the rain fly and poked my head out into the chilly desert morning. I was speechless. For as far as I could see were twisty curves of layered rock set against the violet clouds, and highlighted by the sun pushing through the clouds. Behind me Tamara asked how it looked. I couldn’t even begin to describe it. I took a deep breath, and attempted to speak. All I managed was a quiet laugh, and on second attempt all I managed were the words “Oh, Tamara”. She seemed to understand, I heard her sit up and soon enough she was leaning over my shoulder taking in our view.

We sat there in silence for a couple of minutes, huddled up together in the cold taking in everything we could see. Finally one of us broke the silence, we marveled at the beauty, and then one of us remarked that unfortunately nature was calling. There was a bathroom down the road so we headed over and took care of business. We were back at our campsite within 20 minutes, and I started taking pictures. Tamara put together our breakfast. For convenience we had grabbed cereal and some cold brew coffee, and soon were settled on the edge of the cliff enjoying the scenery while we munched on our cereal. We eventually headed down to the overlook, and took lots more photos.

We talked about our plans for the rest of the day, we wanted to float the San Rafael, but the water was really moving too fast for a calm float, so we decided to check out the Dinosaur Quarry we had seen a sign for last night on the way to the Wedge, and figure it out from there.  We packed up and headed down the road. We were able to travel faster now that we could see the road ahead of us. But it felt as though much further than the night before. It also allowed us to see that the large animal that had terrified me the night before, was indeed a cow. We passed many herds, each with a number of calves.

We weren’t sure how far we had to go, or how accurate GPS was out in the middle of nowhere. After a bit of reversing and faded sign reading we knew we were on track. The only other vehicles we saw were pickup trucks, razors and dirt bikes, all wanting to travel much faster than us. We’d let them pass and continue on, all the while taking in the scenery and telling stories. We paused a few times to watch the miniature sandstorm funnel clouds that formed out of nowhere, and lazily traveled across the ground. We tried to catch them on Snapchat, but they either moved too far away, or dissipated before we get our phones out.

Finally, after what felt like hours, we reached the entrance to the quarry, we were hungry so we grabbed our food and had a proper picnic lunch. There was group of college students leaving to go out to the quarry, which verified this was still an active dig site. I would have loved to speak with them, if they hadn’t been headed out. After lunch we wandered into the visitors center and then out to the site. We ended up doing a 1.5 mile hike up to the top of hill that overlooked the quarry (and so much else). We took tons of photos along the way and by the time we reached the top, it was 2pm. We trekked back down and explored a few more things before walking back in the visitor center to grab some travel brochures and say thanks. We snapped a few pictures by the welcome sign and were once again on our way.

For a while we were aimless, eventually deciding to head towards Monroe (our next solid destination) and see what we could find along the way. It was about 50 miles to the interstate, almost 2 hours on dirt roads. The drive brought us through the heart of the San Rafael Swell. We twisted through walls of redish-orange rock towering hundreds of feet above our heads. We drove for miles and miles eventually stumbling upon the Buckhorn Wash petroglyph panel. We pulled off and admired the faded ancient paintings that are slowly disappearing due to years of wind, rain and ice. It was fun interpreting each panel prior to reading the plaques, we were pretty good at it! After about 30 minutes and many more photos, we were ready to keep going.

We didn’t stop again until we reached the river. The water was brown, choppy and incredibly fast-moving. We watched as people directed their kayaks to the shore, and climb out (or attempt to, a few were stuck in the current and were forced under the bridge.) We took some photos along the swinging bridge, and talked about our plans for the night.  We decided to find a place to sleep for the night so we checked out the pay sites across the road. None of sites were available, and the road heading deeper into the Swell was so sandy we were afraid to get stuck. So we drove for another 10 miles or so, not finding much. I was starting to get worried about how far we might have to go to find a location that was accessible.

After another few miles, we came along a well-worn road, there was a camper and some trucks parked around a large pile of dirt. The road traveled past their site, and came to a dead-end next to a corral. There wasn’t any cover from the sun, but since we weren’t sure what other options might be, and the sun was going down we decided this was our best bet. We unloaded and set up our tent, changed clothes, and made ourselves some alcoholic drinks. We then realized we were out of cell service and should probably let someone know where we had ended up. We had no idea where we were or how far we would have to go for service. So we walked down to our “neighbors” hoping they could give us some insight to where we were and how far we were from I-70. They were nice enough, told us we were 11.8 miles (or so) from the freeway, but that cell service was only about a mile north. We told them how we had been looking for a place to camp but weren’t able to travel too far off-road. The man guffawed telling us this was unrestricted land and exclaimed, “This ain’t no campsite! This here’s a county pit!” I chuckled and told him that we had assumed we’d be just fine camping by the corral. Soon enough we left our new friends and headed back to our site. We went down the road roughly a mile, saved some of our snapchats, and let people know where we’d ended up.

Upon return to our campsite we mixed up a few more cocktails and set out to make dinner. We foraged some rocks for a fire pit, and then gathered up the numerous pieces of wood lying around. Soon enough our fire was burning and our “table” was set up. Tamara wrapped two corn cobs in foil while I grabbed our pan and the shredded chicken. We placed the corn on the edge of the fire, and heated the chicken over the flames. We had no utensils with the exception of plastic cutlery, so I turned the corn with gloved hands, and stirred the chicken with a plastic fork. It wasn’t long before the aroma of sweet corn wafted with the wind, and the chicken was sizzling. We pulled out plates, butter, and paper towels for napkins. We shucked and buttered the corn, and dished out the chicken on slices of bread. Our chatter settled as soon as we started eating, happy to be having a warm meal, watching as the sky faded from blue, to orange, to violet as night set in.

We had a few more drinks, and burned almost all the wood we had gathered, leaving just a little for morning. The moon was just a sliver, the first phase after a new moon. We watched it sink in the sky, quickly following the sun behind the cliffs. Once again we were surround by the total darkness, the only light was provided by our ever dwindling fire. Tamara went to bed first, and I attempted some long exposure photography. We were both asleep by 11pm exhausted from our adventures, and excited to start again tomorrow.

We awoke around 6AM, we decided to try to sleep longer as to not tire out too early that night. I awoke around 9, sweating, thanks to the sun beating down on the tent. I tried to get out without waking her up, but by the time I did, she was awake. I walked over to our tiny fire pit and attempted to start a fire, but the lighter was low. Tamara came over and got a paper towel burning, and once again we had fire. She started packing the tent while I tended to breakfast. I made us each a few eggs, and poured some of the cold brew. We ate breakfast in the cool morning air, and discussed our plan for the day. It was essentially the same as the day before: find things to see along our way to Monroe.

We spent sometime reorganizing, and packing our stuff. It wasn’t too long before we were back on the main road heading for I-70. It twisted and turned for miles, until we finally could see the freeway. We’d only gone about 9 miles before we decided to pull off at the Ghost Rocks View Area. We wanted to use some semblance of a bathroom, and check out the view. It was, as expected an amazing view, a large canyon, not viewable from the road. Tamara joked that it was a good spot for a topless photo like the ones many women seem to post. I giggled and said, “You’re right, let’s do it.” Tamara questioned who would take it. I turned and headed for the parking lot, saying that we just needed to find some guy.

I had said “guy” pretty loudly and a man not too far away turned, and looked at me. I pointed at him and said “You, you’re going to take a photo for us.” He looked away, and by the time I got over to him he had turned to walk away. I yelled after him and when I got a little closer asked him if he would take a topless photo.  He obliged,  not surprisingly, and we convinced him to walk a little further on the overlook so we would be sheltered from the parking lot by some trees. We whipped our tops off and faced the scenery. He started taking photos, but before he could get too many, two young boys came running around the edge of the cliff. Tamara and I quickly covered ourselves and scrambled for our clothes. The boy’s mother was yelling after them in a different language, and they turned back towards her. We quickly got dressed, thanked the man who took the photos, and headed for the parking lot.

We drove all the way to Richfield, in awe of the geology surrounding us. We stopped for lunch, and to wash up in an actual sink. We stayed for a little over an hour, charging our phones and relaxing while eating a full meal. We eventually left and headed to buy groceries for the night. We reloaded on juice for our liquor, bread and brats to cook for dinner. Finally, we were ready to head to Mystic Hot Springs and settle in for the night.

After checking in and setting up, we changed clothes and headed up to the springs. Mystic is well-known for having porcelain tubs for soaking. The tubs are now part of the hillside as the mineral deposits have built up around most of them. There are also two pools for soaking, one deep and one shallow. We bypassed the larger pools and made the climb up to the tubs. There was only one other person up there; he was photographing the tubs. I wanted a picture of the two of us, so I convinced Tamara to climb in a tub with me and when the photographer (whose name we later found out was Brett) got close I reeled him in to take a few pictures. We talked to him for quite a while, the two of us soaking in the tub and he standing there telling us about his trip. He was travelling alone, out west from Detroit, exploring the sites of Utah, Arizona and a bit of Nevada.

Eventually Brett headed back to his cabin, but promised to catch up with us a little later. We didn’t stay too much longer, wanting to eat dinner and get a few drinks in before returning for a sunset soak. We climbed down and returned to our campsite where I grabbed the pan and sausages while Tamara made us drinks. Rather than build a fire, we headed over to the bath house to use the electrical hot plate to cook the brats. They cooked rather quickly and nicely; soon we were sitting at the picnic table near our campsite eating dinner. We had been charging our phones at the outlets feet from our tent, so we took this opportunity to snap, text and generally catch up with the outside world. (We were told later this was actually quite entertaining.) Shortly after eating I grabbed my camera and we headed back to the springs.

The tubs were full, so we walked around taking in the scenery and snapping photos here and there. Eventually we snagged a tub and soaked for bit. Brett had snagged the tub farthest away (and also the hottest) so we eventually wandered over and joined him. It was a bit of a squeeze, but the temperature of the tub made it worth it. Once we’d had our fill, we followed him back to his cabin, grabbed some beer and we all went back to our site. The communal campfire had been lit, so we joined in. We sat around the campfire for a few hours, laughing, drinking and generally enjoying each others company. Someone proposed a midnight soak, so about 10 of us headed up to the pools. We stayed for about 30 minutes and slowly people started heading to bed. I was getting tired, and soon the final group of us headed back. Only about 5 of us were left, including Tamara and Brett. We gathered at the table near our tent and kept talking and exchanging stories. Eventually though the hour caught up with all of us, and we said goodnight.

I slept so well that night in part due to the alcohol and the activities of the day, but also I’m sure in part due to the atmosphere and the effect of the springs. We didn’t wake until almost 10. We went for a morning soak, showered (finally) and began packing up. Our friends from the night before brought us breakfast burritos, saving us the time of cooking our own breakfast. We exchanged contact information and said our goodbyes. We then set to packing up camp one final time. It seemed slow-going, possibly influenced by the previous night’s activities. Finally at noon we were ready to go. I took a deep breath, looked over our campsite, and was ready to go. I felt a real connection to this place and part of me wanted to stay, but I was exhausted and missed my bed. Only 175 miles stood between me and my bed, and I was ready to go.


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