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San Rafael Swell
Geologic Feature
Interstate 70 divides the San Rafael Swell
Country United States
State Utah
Region Colorado Plateau
Coordinates 38°48′47″N 110°51′18″W / 38.813°N 110.855°W / 38.813; -110.855
Length 75 mi (121 km)
Width 40 mi (64 km)
Location of the San Rafael Swell within Utah

The San Rafael Swell is a large geologic feature located in south-central Utah, USA about 30 miles (50 km) west of Green River, Utah. The San Rafael Swell, approximately 75 miles (121 km) by 40 miles (64 km), consists of a giant dome-shaped anticline of sandstone, shale, and limestone that was pushed up millions of years ago. Since that time, infrequent but powerful flash floods have eroded the sedimentary rocks into numerous valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes. The Swell is part of the Colorado Plateau physiographic region.



Interstate 70 divides the Swell into northern and southern sections, and provides the only paved road access to the region. The swell lies entirely within Emery County.

The northern Swell is drained by the San Rafael River, while the southern Swell is drained by a number of small creeks which eventually join the Dirty Devil River in Hanksville, Utah. The Dirty Devil River is a tributary of the Colorado River, while the San Rafael River joins the Green River before it also flows into the Colorado. Muddy Creek cuts into the western edge of the Swell, exits at Muddy Creek Gorge, and then flows into the Fremont River.

East slope of the San Rafael Reef


The San Rafael Swell was formed when deeply buried Precambrian rocks faulted, or broke, during the Laramide orogeny, about 60 million years ago. These "basement" rocks below the present-day Swell moved upwards relative to the surrounding areas and caused the overlying sedimentary rocks to fold into a dome-like shape called an anticline. The resulting structure is analogous to a series of blankets draped over a box.

Since that time, the relentless force of running water has eroded the geologic layers, resulting in older rocks becoming exposed in the middle of the Swell, and younger rocks exposed around the edges. Many of the most impressive landforms are composed of more resistant rocks, including the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, Triassic Wingate Sandstone, and Permian Coconino Sandstone. The folding is much steeper on the eastern edge of the Swell than in the west, and this eastern edge is referred to as the San Rafael Reef.

Part of the Swell has geographic features that resembles Mars. The Mars Society decided to set up the Mars Desert Research Station in the area as a Mars analog for such reasons.

The Little Grand Canyon on the San Rafael River


Evidence of Native American cultures, including the Fremont, Paiute, and Ute, is common throughout the San Rafael Swell in the form of pictograph and petroglyph panels. From about 1776 to the mid-1850s the Old Spanish Trail trade route passed through (or just north of) the Swell. In the past 150 years, areas of the Swell have been used for the grazing of sheep and cattle, as well as for uranium mining. Although surrounded by the communities of Price, Green River, Hanksville, Ferron, Castle Dale, and Huntington, the Swell itself does not support permanent residents.

Entrance to the Muddy Creek Gorge


The area is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, although the Swell as a whole does not currently enjoy special protection, parts of it are protected as wilderness study areas. Cattle grazing is only allowed in parts of The Swell that are not designated as such. The San Rafael Swell is also dotted with squares of land managed by The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, as is much of the state of Utah. Goblin Valley State Park is on the southeastern edge of the San Rafael Swell.

In 2002, then-governor Mike Leavitt of Utah proposed the creation of a San Rafael Swell National Monument.[1] President George Bush, who had authority to create such a monument under the Antiquities Act, never acted on Leavitt's proposal. The idea of federal designation of the San Rafael Swell as a National Monument resurfaced in 2010 in a Department of the Interior document.[2]


The San Rafael Swell attracts hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) enthusiasts. Many steep, narrow slot canyons popular with technical canyoneers are found in the San Rafael Reef.[3] The use of ATVs in the Swell is controversial, as environmentalists are of the opinion that off-road vehicles damage the fragile desert cryptobiotic soils.


  1. ^ Egan, Timothy (January 29, 2002), "Governor of Utah, in Reversal, Seeks Scenic Area Designation", New York Times,, retrieved 25-02-2010 
  2. ^ "Utah Wary Over National Monument Candidate List", New York Times, February 23, 2010,, retrieved 25-02-2010 
  3. ^ "Canyoneering the San Rafael Swell - Route Guide". 
  • Allen, Steve, Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell, 1992. ISBN 0-87480-372-1
  • Durrant, Jeffrey O. Struggle Over Utah's San Rafael Swell: Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, and National Monuments, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8165-2669-7
  • Kelsey, Michael R. Hiking and Exploring Utah's San Rafael Swell, 3rd edition, 1999. ISBN 0-944510-17-5

External links

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