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Monday, May 23, 2011

Down to the river

We spent the majority of our trip in the little-known San Rafael Swell. It's an area that was uplifted by a shifting fault deep below the Earth's surface about 60 million years ago. Since then, the dome-like Swell has developed deep canyons as running water and wind have eaten away the softer rock in the formation. The result is a land of canyons with towering red cliffs. It's not a well known area so it's easier to find solitude than in nearby areas like Moab.

As we drove toward the Swell, we crossed huge grassy fields with red-hued rocky cliffs in the distance. Storms still swirled around us.
We drove until late in the evening, stopping at a pretty campsite in a wide canyon. Cliffs loomed high on both our east and west sides, giving us prolonged shady times at the start and end of the day.

One aspect of the Swell that I didn't like so much was that a lot of land has been designated as "Wilderness Study Areas", meaning that only hikers and horses are permitted to use the trails. We didn't realize that until the next morning when I realized that there were no trails nearby that I was allowed to ride my mountain bike on. So, I did a dirt road ride while the rest of the pack went for a trail run.

Although I prefer trails, the dirt road was deserted and pretty. By the side of the road, a towering cliff held pictographs and petroglyphs from more than 2000 years ago. In the photo below, a red pictograph is in the lower right corner, depicting a person who appears to be striking a coiled snake. You can see more pictographs along the lower edge of the photo. I took the photo from this viewpoint because I was pondering why the artists chose this wall for their pictures. Perhaps they liked the overhanging rock at the top?
After seeing the rock art, I kept pedaling, with ever increasing urgency because storms seemed to be closing in on me from all sides. Here, you can see that I was in clouds but sun still shined further down the canyon.
I beat the storms to the edge of the Little Grand Canyon (also known as the "Wedge Overlook").
As I peeked over the edge, I wondered if I could get down by the river in a future ride... It looked like an inviting green oasis.
As I sat on the edge of the precipice, a bolt of lightning pierced the sky on the horizon and a boom of thunder rattled the ground underneath me. I decided that it was time to hammer back to our faraway van. Fortunately, the storms didn't follow me so I made it back in full sunshine.

The next day, we drove the van to a trailhead at the top of a wash (narrow canyon that fills with water during storms) that led down to the San Rafael River. Like usual, there was absolutely nobody else in the vicinity. Before going to the trailhead, I believed that I wouldn't be allowed to ride in the wash because the rules about mountain bikes seemed so strict. However, as I set out for my ride, I headed toward the wash to read the signs. To my disbelief, the last sign that I saw said "Only hikers, horses, and mountain bikes allowed beyond this sign". I decided not to question my good fortune and started pedaling down the wash.

Soon, I caught up with the Runner and the two dogs, and we enjoyed a pack excursion for a while. Based on the pools of water and soaked gravel/sand surface, we surmised that the wash had flooded during the recent storms and was just drying out. I saw a remnant of a barbed wire fence in the wash that looked like a storm current had ripped past it, leaving debris caught in its wires. On that sunny and hot day, it was hard to visualize the canyon in a flash flood.

When the rest of the pack turned back, I kept riding down the wash. It got narrower as I rode, and overhanging cliffs provided respite from the relentless sun.
Primrose flowers bloomed in the aftermath of the wet weather looking radiant in the sunshine.
Common Globemallow flowers also decorated the otherwise barren terrain. Their orange glowed against the blue sky.
Because I hadn't planned on riding down the wash, I was stunned when I suddenly emerged at the San Rafael River. I hadn't scoped out the ride on the map ahead of time so I thought that the river was much further away.
I rode along side the same river as I'd seen from the clifftop the previous day. The vegetation lining the river was a haven for a huge variety of birds, reptiles, and mammals. I saw deer hoof prints in the sand as I rode.
Alas, I couldn't stay very long because I'd reached my turnaround time for meeting the rest of the pack back at the van. I wished that I could bask in the sun next to the river like a lizard for the afternoon.
That lizard had a nice place to live! I'm not sure what kind of lizard he was. Does anyone else know?
That night, we visited the rim of the canyon holding the river. When we first arrived, we stood in shadows but a section of the canyon was in the sun's spotlight.
As the sunset progressed, only the tops of the cliffs glowed.
My ever-patient K let me take innumerable photos of her chocolate fur bathed in the glow of the setting sun.
That was our last day in that part of the Swell. The next day, we traveled toward an area known for its slot canyons - narrow crevices in the rock dome that carry torrents of water in big rain storms. We still had lots of fun (and no more mud) ahead of us!


  1. Awesome photos. We just love that you and your photography take us places we will never likely see for ourselves. It sure looks like you had a wonderful time.

  2. Da OP Pack said it best!
    Mom and me LUVS all your fotos!

    Woofs and Licks,
    Maggie Mae

  3. What awesome pictures!! Total beauty!! No idea what kind of lizard that was but you really got a great picture of him too!! Thanks for the trip!! Lots of love, Holly & Mom

  4. Hi Y'all,

    Thanks for letting us enjoy another vicarious journey. Hubby and I would have loved such solitude. Unfortunately, health keeps us closer to civilization. Can't complain though, we love our lives and we have your blog too.

    :) BrownDog's Humans

  5. Best Pictures Yet!

    I think the Lizard used to be on Saturday Night Live in " Dregs and Vestiges". If you don't know what that is, you are too young!

    Cheers and hugs,

    Jo and Stella

  6. How amazing to be in such a heavenly place! It was awe-inspiring to see the pics, but to be there live must have been magical! Thanks for sharing and glad you were able to ride without breaking the law ;)

  7. What cool pictures...I love seeing the red rock and amazing land features! Sounds like it was such a pretty trip all around.

    Love that lizard pic...they are so cool! No idea what kind it is but I can imagine the desire to join it on the sunny banks of the river :)

  8. Beautiful nature! Nothing better....thanks for sharing your gorgeous pics!

  9. awesome, love thepictograph
    Benny & Lily

  10. You really got some fantastic pictures! Do you ever look at them just to remind yourself how vivid and beautiful it really was? I think one of my favorite aspects of blogging is seeing the beauty that other people come across and manage to capture to share. You have such a good eye for capturing beauty! I envy you!

  11. I am speechless once again! Simply beautiful and breathtaking photos:)

  12. I forwarded the lizard picture to my friend the 'lizard nerd.' Will let you know what he says :-)

  13. That last picture of K is just breathtaking! Thanks for sharing your travels with us.

    Your pal, Pip

  14. I can hear the silence.
    I think I would only be able to whisper sitting in the presence of Mother Earths paint brush.
    I would not want to blink, as I might miss a moment,
    All I can say is "gosh"

  15. The essence of America caught on camera .

  16. I think your ride along the river was nearby the spot where we camped many years ago. I don't think I could ever find my way back there. The wildflower photos are wonderful - a gift in the desert. K is looking quite regal.

  17. That landscape is incredible.

  18. I has to ask a stoopid question...why was no mountain bikes allowed on some of da trails? I is assuming not to damage da land and nature.
    And as always I has to commend you on your superb fotos.


  19. Amazing photos KB! Terrific rides you found, can imagine how fun it was to catch up to the others on the canyon trail! A beautiful expansive area!

    Sweet hugs,
    Sierra Rose

  20. I love that sunset picture! Sunsets are moms favorite :o)

  21. I suppose you already know which picture I like best...

    If he had blue spots on his underbelly, he's a sagebrush lizard. If not, he might be a fence lizard.

    Even though I like him best, all your photography is stunning. I'm glad you were able to find places you could ride. It's always so awesome to go to Utah when it's still too cold here and to be able to bike to my heart's content... with shorts and short sleeves!!!

  22. What a great trip and beautiful pictures!

  23. I've never been to visit this part of the country, or any canyons. The formations are really amazing and must be so much fun to photograph. Thanks for sharing your adventures! K is always stunning in the magical light at sunset!

  24. The lizard could be a sagebrush lizard or another memebr of the sceloperus genus, but the spotted pattern makes me think it is more likely a side-blotched lizard ( They can also have varying amounts of orange on the sides of their head or body ( That would be my best guess, anyway!

  25. OK. So you've outdone yourself again with these photos or maybe nature has outdone itself. The view looking over the precipice is amazing with the all the variations in color. What a beautiful spot!

  26. The Swell is definitely a hidden are so fortunate to be able to experience this land. Beautiful photos!


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