A (San Rafael) Swell Night Out, Utah

  • Distance

    59 Mi.

    (95 KM)
  • Days

    2-3

  • % Unpaved

    82%

  • % Singletrack

    17%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    95%

  • Total Ascent

    5,513'

    (1,680 M)
  • High Point

    5,926'

    (1,806 M)

Contributed By

Seth Kruckenburg, Patrick Hendry

Patrick Hendry and Seth Kruckenberg

Guest Contributor

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/@worldsbetweenlines. Currently a resident of Massachusetts, Seth grew up in Wyoming where he learned an appreciation for riding, the outdoors, and geology. You can follow Seth on Instagram as @tipsyrider.

Less than two hours from the mountain biking meccas of Fruita, CO, and Moab, UT, lies a veritable paradise for the intrepid bikepacker – the San Rafael Swell. Rich in both geological and human history, this pair of routes (126 miles total) traverse stunning landscapes forged by dramatic tectonic uplift, numerous remnants of the region’s bygone mining era, and a creek descent sure to entice even the most adventurous riders!
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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.

  • San Rafael Swell Bikepacking Route, Overnighter
  • San Rafael Swell Bikepacking Route, Overnighter
  • San Rafael Swell Bikepacking Route, Overnighter
  • San Rafael Swell Bikepacking Route, Overnighter
  • San Rafael Swell Bikepacking Route, Overnighter

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.

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • Resources

    link

  • 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.

Additional Resources

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Great route guys. Hoping to ride it this coming fall…

  • Seth

    Many thanks and it is great to be able to share these routes as it is an incredible place with beauty rivaling anything I’ve ridden in the region. Let us know when you are headed out to enjoy the region and Muddy Creek! It is something special for sure.

  • I look at the pictures and I think it that (except for the vegetation) bikepacking in Mars in 2000 or 3000 years will be similar, including the wrecks of exploring vehicles and space stations.
    Awesome report and images. Thanks!

  • Patrick and I both described emerging from Muddy Creek canyon into the southern portion of the San Rafael monocline as landing on an otherworldly martian landscape. It is quite surreal! Glad you enjoyed write up!

  • Andrew Wade

    I just noticed the feature of scrolling through the photos using the arrow keys on desktop. Haven’t tried on mobile yet but hoping swiping works the same. Thanks for implementing this!

  • Mark Atwell

    I have spent a lot of time in southern Utah and your pictures are STUNNING. They really do the area justice. The only thing missing is the immense silence out there in the Swell.
    In the Trail Notes you seem to praise the Curtis/Hatch land grab. Please don’t think that these two politicians favor any type of outdoor recreation that doesn’t involve a motor or a fee. Go to SUWA.org for more info. Don’t let them take OUR land from US!

  • Mark, thanks for posting the links to SUWA.org. It is certainly not our intent to favor one side of the debate in this writeup, which is why we tried to only state the language of the bill as presented and to mention it has advocates and critics on both sides of the debate. As I hope comes across very clearly in our route description, however, is that one of the reasons we were passionate about getting this route out there is to continue to draw attention to the public lands of the southwest and the need for preserving these critical regions with access for cyclists, particularly in light of some of the recent actions that have affected other areas in Utah like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante.

  • J.W

    You do realize that SUWA advocates for “W”ilderness, which equals ZERO bikes in the swell right?

  • Randal GoingHAM

    Man, I LOVE this area. I’ve only been out there twice though, and always found it intimidating, so thanks for putting in the legwork. Question–on that karate monkey, is the rear water bottle cage just attached with zip ties? Been trying to figure out a good way to utilize the seat stay on mine and have struck out thus far. Thanks for your help!

  • worldsbetweenlines

    Minoura BH100S Bottle Cage Holder :) Cheers!

  • Randal GoingHAM

    Word! Same deal on the front fork with the double cages?

  • ppearson111

    Cool route and AMAZING photos – thx for posting! I imagine this will become a popular route; great quick weekend trip. Already thinking we’ll ride this in the fall.

  • worldsbetweenlines

    For smaller .75L bottles, I used the Two Fish Quick Cage Adapter (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003RLJ8L6/) on the front forks. I recently switched to 1.5L bottles (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CVT3APA) on the front forks which prompted me to upgrade the mounts to the MZYRH cage adapter (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078P1M2YK) with M-Wave Tall Bottle Cages (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007Y5EIYS). Close up of the install of the 1.5L cages and mounts. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a6048f9ab5cfd734d5bb88607ed5938a31f473532c8a9db3a9811c5417a12532.jpg

  • Many thanks!! Shoot us a message with some pictures if and when you do ride it as we are excited to hear people’s experience on the route!

  • Little Deezy

    Please don’t lean your bike on my shootin car I still got 2 payments left.

  • Randal GoingHAM

    Yesssss thank you! Very helpful.

  • I guess end of August/September would be too hot?

  • worldsbetweenlines

    If you’re up for hot, I’d simply camp at the water sources of either route. Both are roughly half way through the ride. I think even in the hottest of the hot, you’d carry enough water for one day, then resupply at camp. Morning and evening rides would be epic. Now that I think about it, where the routes split, taking the northern route under a full moon at night would be badass. I guess it comes down to how comfortable you are with riding in a (potentially) hellishly hot day. I originally did this first week of March and wore a light jacket the entire time. Second time around (northern route) it was April with a hot sun and scattered showers.

  • Charly Aurelia

    The link to the 1.5l bottles is currently dead. Any other help with that one? thanks !

  • Charly Aurelia

    Spectacular photos of a stunning area ! Definitely plan on exploring this area respectfully, thanks !

  • worldsbetweenlines

    Here are all the links again:
    Two Fish Quick Cage Adapter: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003RLJ8L6
    1.5L Water Bottle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CVT3APA
    MZYRH Cage Adapter: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078P1M2YK
    M-Wave Tall Bottle Cage: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007Y5EIYS