Camping season (for us wimps who only do three seasons) has finally arrived! I’ve had a couple places in mind for spring camping, and we finally had a free weekend two weeks ago. Since it’s far too early to camp anywhere in the mountains, I wanted to go to central Utah while the temperatures are still pleasant. Last fall we made our first foray to the southern side of the San Rafael Swell and were blown away by its beauty. So for our first trip this spring I wanted to explore the far northern section of The Swell, specifically an area known as Utah’s Little Grand Canyon.
I’d read online that there were primitive campsites along the rim but they fill up quickly on the weekends. We couldn’t drive down on Friday evening, so we resolved to leave early Saturday morning and hope for the best. We left Salt Lake at 7:30am, arrived exactly three hours later, and snagged a great spot near the Wedge Overlook. Phew.
There are two overlooks at the rim. The road first seems to end at the Wedge Overlook, but if you turn left the road continues to the Little Grand Canyon Overlook. Both are stunning. It was hard to imagine that such a deep canyon existed after our drive to the overlooks was so placid and flat. After we had lunch, we packed up the car for our hike and drove to the second overlook. Truman was actually scared to stand close to the edge; I did my best to get a photo of him. He didn’t enjoy when Zach climbed down to a lower level either. Though there was a steady stream of visitors to each overlook, it was never crowded. We even had the entire overlook of the Little Grand Canyon to ourselves.
Unlike the most popular hikes in the southern Swell, there are no signs indicating hikes in this portion. I’d read about a couple hikes online and thought we’d start with the Little Grand Canyon Hike. The trail follows the San Rafael River – not always quite alongside it – from Fuller Bottom to the San Rafael Bridge (or vice versa). We didn’t plan to go the entire way – 12.8 miles – just as far as we wanted for the day. We ended up going 2.4 miles before taking a break beside the river and then turning back. We didn’t make it to the actual Little Grand Canyon another 1.5 or so miles away, but regardless, the hike was beautiful and quiet with only a few other passing hikers.
After our hike, we drove back up Buckhorn Draw Road passing the historic swinging bridge and the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel. I figured we would stop at those on our way to another hike in the morning. (And then we didn’t end up seeing them the next day after all.) The sunlight on the road illuminated the red rock walls surrounding us and made for a gorgeous drive back to the Little Grand Canyon.
One of the advantages of camping at the Little Grand Canyon is watching the light change over the canyon throughout the day. When we returned from our hike we rewarded ourselves with some rest and a cold beer before taking in the views along the rim.
We packed up after breakfast the next morning and planned to go back down Buckhorn Draw Road for another hike. But as we drove away from the Little Grand Canyon our tire pressure light suddenly lit up. We were both surprised because we had filled our tires before leaving Salt Lake the day before. When we stopped, it was apparent that we needed to change our plans. Our tire was low enough that we didn’t want to risk having to change the tire after our hike, so we left The Swell and headed toward the nearest gas station in Castle Dale.
Since we had planned to spend most of the day in The Swell, I wasn’t quite sure what to do instead. Zach pulled up Yelp and found a coffee shop in Orangeville which was open (on a Sunday in Utah!), so we went there to grab coffees and figure out our next move. This detour ended up being quite fortuitous. The owners of Cup of Joes have renovated part of their home into a coffee house and are a wealth of information on the area. Among other things, they suggested checking out Joes Valley Reservoir just up the road in Manti-La Sal National Forest and the Rochester Rock Art Panel a little farther south. We really enjoyed chatting with them, and I was so happy to get a latte when I wasn’t expecting to find one. We’ll definitely keep Cup of Joes in mind for any future trips near Orangeville.
We took their suggestion and drove up to Joes Valley Reservoir. There were few people out on a somewhat chilly overcast day. However, we already have plans to go back for Memorial Day weekend to enjoy the reservoir and surrounding forest.
We also decided to make the trek to the Rochester Creek Panel, a 30 minute drive from Orangeville. There is a short 0.5 mile trail to the panel which is fairly easy but does have some elevation gain. Truman loved this trail; there were lots of small rises and falls over the rocky path and he relished catapulting himself over them. The panel is impressive. Of the petroglyphs we’ve seen in Utah, the Rochester Panel is my favorite. Newspaper Rock was incredible and I love the Great Hunt, but the remoteness and grandeur of the Rochester Panel lends it a special quality. There’s a more serene ambiance once you reach this panel – maybe because you have to work for it instead of just pulling your car over. This panel also had some unique creatures we hadn’t see before AND a giant rainbow. It was incredible.