A (San Rafael) Swell Night Out, Utah
59 Mi.(95 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Patrick Hendry and Seth Kruckenberg
Patrick and Seth hail from different parts of the U.S. but share a love of bikepacking and the Mountain West. Patrick currently lives in Utah and, when not at his day job, is an avid photographer posting online at unsplash.com/@
The San Rafael Swell is a massive (approximately 40 x 75 mile) geologic dome in central Utah, formed by deformation and uplift of the Colorado Plateau that began during the Laramide orogeny some 60 million years ago. What’s left is a warped landscape of idyllic bluffs, mesas, spires, and narrow canyons shaped by the bending and erosion of sedimentary layers awash in color. It is a region rich in cultural history, spanning from early Native American inhabitation to more recent exploitation of its natural resources fueled by wartime efforts to mine uranium throughout the region, which peaked in the 1950s. For the bikepacker, it is an accessible but remote high desert with immense bikepacking potential and scenery that rivals (or exceeds) many of the areas of Utah more frequented by riders and tourists alike.
“A (San Rafael) Swell Night Out” was designed with a few complementary goals in mind: (1) To continue to draw awareness to, and appreciation for, the expansive reaches of public land in the West that are host to this cultural history, and to the geologic marvels in the region that formed through monumental tectonic forces and the slow passage of time; and (2) To provide an accessible riding experience that is sure to have something for everyone, whether you are an experienced bikepacker or just starting out. Consequently, this collection of routes is designed to be a bit of a “choose your own adventure” with both routes beginning just west of Temple Mountain (north of Goblin Valley State Park) and traversing the backside of the San Rafael monocline along the immensely beautiful Behind the Reef Road. While both routes share this common artery along the Behind the Reef Road heading westbound, and ultimately culminate in the east with a climb up Temple Mountain to explore the remnants of uranium mining efforts in the area, they diverge significantly in the west near Muddy Creek to offer two distinctly different bikepacking experiences.
For the experienced bikepacker, a more challenging fatpacking route complete with river fording through ankle to shin deep water and an epic descent down Muddy Creek will take you through its narrow gorge and counterclockwise toward the other side of the San Rafael monocline into a moonlike, otherworldly landscape of color and dry desert washes. There’s an alternative route for folks who are newer to bikepacking or who are still gauging their level of comfort in remote exploration. This route bifurcates from the Behind the Reef Road east of the Muddy River and instead trends northward and clockwise into the interior of The Swell along well established gravel roads that are equally beautiful in terms of scenery, but with more predictable conditions. Most notably, the northern route provides a stunning view of the Hondu Arch, a keyhole formation that marks the only water resupply point. This alternative route also serves as a critical bail-out option for those hoping to descend Muddy Creek but who may be unable to do so due to changing or unfavorable conditions in the creek.
Whichever option you choose, the San Rafael Swell will not disappoint. Should you have time, don’t forget to also check out the many other opportunities for exploration nearby, including numerous slot canyon hikes that can be accessed directly on route. Given the proximity to these features, nearby Goblin Valley State Park, and an abundance of free camping, we suspect (and hope) that this route will also entice those looking to squeeze in a memorable bikepacking experience during family vacations, or amidst other forays to the nearby riding meccas of Fruita, Colorado, and Moab, Utah.
GPX download includes both routes.
- The beauty of the Behind the Reef Road, which traverses the folded landscape of the San Rafael Reef amidst towering bluffs and spires.
- An epic, “open to interpretation” descent down the Muddy Creek gorge – a bikepacking adventure in the truest sense of the word with endless creek crossings and (occasionally) challenging route finding!
- Emerging from the southern end of the Muddy Creek gorge into an otherworldly landscape of endlessly changing color forged by uplift, tilting, and erosion of diverse sedimentary layers along the San Rafael monocline.
- Exploring mine ruins and abandoned structures now frozen in time, sand, and mud on Temple Mountain and at “The Bunkhouse” at Hidden Splendor overlooking Muddy Creek.
- The picturesque Hondu (also spelled “Hondoo”) Arch on the alternate northern gravel route.
- Opportunities for hiking a number of extensive slot canyons that cut the San Rafael Reef (e.g., Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons) and are accessible directly on route.
- Sightseeing in nearby Goblin Valley State Park and riding the network of newly constructed mountain bike trails within the park.
- Difficulty: Southern Fatpacking Loop: 6.0; Alternate Northern Gravel Loop: 5.0
- This route is best ridden in the early spring to fall. Sections of Muddy Creek may become impassable in the late spring to early summer when creek levels reach flood stage, particularly after heavy rains. Similarly, the summer months should be avoided due to the potential for extreme heat.
- The descent down the Muddy Creek is one of the most beautiful and memorable aspects of this route. However, given the extremely remote nature of riding in this region, and the potential for flash flooding, it is highly recommended that riders have a realistic assessment of their abilities and that they pay close attention to changing weather conditions (including those far upstream) that can rapidly affect water levels in Muddy Creek. For riders who either chose not to descend the Muddy Creek gorge, or who are unable to do so due to unsafe conditions, an alternate – and beautiful in its own right – gravel route is provided that forgos the creek passage and instead heads northward and clockwise from the western end of the Behind the Reef Road near Muddy Creek (see additional trail notes).
- It is highly recommended that the southern fatpacking route be ridden counter clockwise down Muddy Creek, whereas the alternate gravel route to the north is best ridden clockwise from where it leaves the Behind the Reef Road. Given that both routes share a start along the Behind the Reef Road, it is advised that riders begin the route near one of the free campsites off of Temple Mountain Road as these locations also offer numerous good options for leaving a vehicle overnight.
- Be sure not to camp on the airstrip on the north side of The Reef near where the route turns south into the Muddy Creek gorge. This airstrip is still active and is frequently used by backcountry pilots.
- Similarly, due to the risk of flash flooding, do not camp along Muddy Creek. It is generally recommended to camp just north of the gorge on the back side of The Reef such that there will be ample daylight on the next day to safely descend and explore the creek.
- Due to significant sections of the trail containing sand and mud, particularly within the Muddy Creek gorge, the southern loop should not be attempted on anything less than a mid-fat / plus bike. Both authors completed development of the route on plus bikes with 3” tires, although fatbikes would be equally suitable, save perhaps along a few miles of necessary (but scenic) pavement in the southern portion of the route.
- Both routes cross sections of bentonitic clay, particularly along the southern loop, which can make passage or travel by bike extremely difficult, if not impossible, following or during rain.
- Cell phone service is almost entirely non-existent along the length of both routes. Satellite communicators or SPOT devices are strongly recommended.
- Rock art and historic sites are fragile, non-renewable cultural resources that, once damaged, can never be replaced. Avoid touching or disturbing any petroglyphs, pictographs, or artifacts encountered on your travels.
- There is no shortage of excellent camping options along either route. With the exception of land belonging to Goblin Valley State Park, the majority of the route is on BLM land with abundant opportunities for free remote backcountry camping.
- As always, use minimal impact camping practices and avoid disturbance to, or camping on, regions of cryptobiotic soil. #leavenotrace
- A number of primitive campgrounds with pit toilets are present along Temple Mountain road that make ideal starting locations for the route. Note, however, that none of the free camping locations in the San Rafael Swell have water. The only exceptions to this are paid campgrounds or yurts within Goblin Valley State Park proper wherein there is also access to flush toilets and showers (see resources section for additional details).
- You should plan on carrying all of the water you will need. Muddy Creek is the only natural source of water along either route. However, due to its high mineral content, it is not recommended as a reliable water source unless you are in a pinch or really enjoy filtering extremely silty water and backflushing your filter repeatedly.
- Green River is the nearest “large” town for food and supplies, though Hanksville (approximately 25 miles to the South on Hwy 24) also has a number of small restaurants, gas stations, and a market that will have limited food choices. Riders coming from Fruita, CO, or Moab, UT, will have abundant options for food, gear supply, and bike repairs in those localities.
- The GPS Coordinates where the two routes bifurcate along the Behind the Reef Road is: 38.585096º N, 110.925548º W.
- The route down Muddy Creek is “open to interpretation” in that the creek itself is the route. Sections of this route follow established footpaths but otherwise the creek channel and its salt washes are your path through the gorge and to the other side of the San Rafael Reef. To minimize environmental impacts, avoid disturbance to native plant species and soils.
- Within Muddy Creek there is an old gate at 38.555397º N, 110.951478º W that should remain closed.
- On May 9th, 2018 a new bill was introduced by Utah Rep. John Curtis and Sen. Orrin Hatch that would set aside more than a half-million acres of wilderness in Utah’s Emery County. The Emery County Public Land Management Act of 2018, as it is known, calls for the establishment of a 336,467-acre San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining National Conservation Area, expands Goblin Valley State Park, establishes a new Jurassic National Monument, and converts nearly 578,000 acres of wilderness study areas in the San Rafael Swell to designated wilderness areas. Proponents of the bill, including many in the outdoor community, have praised the bill as an important first step toward legislating important protections for public lands in the county, while others have criticized the efforts as a land grab that leaves important regions unprotected. While potential outcomes for outdoor recreation and access in the San Rafael Swell remain unknown, it is clear that the ever-evolving issues surrounding public land use in the West are far from over.