Desert Dream: San Rafael Swell

On Sunday morning, I had some time to myself at camp. I poured myself some hot coffee and sat in a faded folding chair where I soaked in the beauty of the morning. At that moment, I wasn’t focusing on the poor baby bunny that Cholula had “played with too hard” on Saturday, or the mama bunny that was surely missing her little one. I wasn’t thinking about the ant colony near the fire pit that seemed to be doubling in size every ten minutes. My mind wasn’t on the steep, rocky 4-wheel drive road we’d have to somehow lug Betty the Trailer back up to get home, or stressing about the propane I was sure I’d smelled. I wasn’t thinking about the chore of breaking down camp or calculating how many pounds of desert sand we’d tote home to Park City that afternoon. I didn’t yet know that Cholula would coat her left front paw in sticky tree sap in a couple of hours, super-gluing gravel and sand in between her toes. At that moment, with a killer view and my steaming cup of joe in hand, none of that was relevant. I listened to the river burbling. I hummed along with the birds. I tried to find the woodpecker in the leaves above me, peck-peck-pecking a “good morning.” I watched the sun illuminate the red cliffs on the horizon and felt completely at peace.

Two days prior, we’d left the mountains of Park City for the southern Utah desert. It was our first visit to the San Rafael Swell, and what a treasure it is! I’d driven through Price, Utah a hundred times, en route to and from Durango or Moab. The town seems desolate and dry and a place to fill up the gas tank…nothing more. We turned off of Highway 6 at Price and drove through miles of barren, flat land and rough desert farming. I imagined that this was as green as the area would be during the year and felt a pang of pity for the corralled horses and ranch animals. We turned onto a well-maintained dirt road which, 20 miles later, would lead us to Buckhorn Wash and the San Rafael River and (hopefully) a decent camping spot for the next two nights. We drove on, watching the sky change as a storm built in the distance, eager to see what it was that drew so many of our friends to the Swell.

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I should know by now that Utah’s desert is full of surprises. One moment, it’s flat and dry and dusty and hot; suddenly, you dip down into the most stunning canyon, vibrant and green and cool and alive. That’s exactly what happened as we neared Buckhorn Wash. Though the clouds were menacing, we took our time gazing up at the sheer red walls (some with ancient drawings still visible!) and noticing the lush sage brush, various wildflowers and full cottonwood trees blowing in the breeze. I love spring.

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Without too much detail, I’ll just say that it took longer than we anticipated to find a good campsite. We’d hoped for some privacy, off of the road and near the river, and others seemed to have the same idea. By 7pm, we were hungry and parched and ready to stop looking, which is probably why John decided to pull Betty down a stretch of road so uneven and rocky that his big truck skidded on the way down. He must have known that with risk comes reward; the camp site was beautiful. The late afternoon sunlight dimmed just as we got out of the truck to unhook and stabilize Betty (whose interior was only slightly shaken up from the drive). The wind started blowing with intent and the sky grew dark as the first fat raindrops fell. Luckily, it was just a quick burst of weather and the sunshine had returned by the time John had poured our drinks. Any doubt that we were in the right spot vanished when a full double rainbow appeared, arcing directly over our camp. Talk about a happy hour!

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The light was fading fast, so we got right to work setting up camp, starting the fire, and prepping dinner, pausing for some family portrait attempts. After exploring the area (and immediately helping herself into the river), Cholula became ball-obsessed– her usual camp behavior. We devoured tasty turkey burgers, spicy charred sweet potato wedges, and grilled veggies by candlelight before John serenaded me with his guitar by the fire. The combination of the food, music, and cool desert air worked like a sleeping pill and soon, we were tucked into Betty for the night.

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We took our time the next morning, sleeping late and sipping coffee while examining maps and gazing in awe at the cliffs surrounding us through binoculars. After a delicious breakfast of sausage-sweet potato-veggie-egg scramble, we walked along a dirt road toward a bend in the river. The weather was perfect: sunny, not too hot, with intermittent clouds and a light breeze. Cholula did her best to get fully muddy before we strolled back. I made us a couple of sandwiches and we packed up for a day of exploring.

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We headed back through the canyon toward The Wedge Overlook. Along the way, we checked out the old San Rafael Bridge, which is the last remaining suspension bridge in Utah, built in 1937 and now a historical marker. We stopped and examined the incredible artwork at the Buckhorn Wash Panel, painted by artists from two ancient cultures dating back 1,000 and 2,000 years. Incredible! I also found the old graffiti near the site intriguing; people back in the 1930s were standing in this exact place, amazed by this same wall art and leaving their mark, possibly camping and hiking and enjoying a weekend much like our own. Nature is a powerful common denominator, even over generations.

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We reached the Wedge Overlook around lunchtime. We’d heard that it’s known as the “Little Grand Canyon” and one peek over the edge earns the canyon that name. What a view! It’s amazing what a trickle of water can create over time!

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After lunch and a walk with Cholula along the canyon rim, we checked out another (equally amazing) viewing area, at the end of a point no wider than 15 feet across with a sheer drop on either side. Moments like this make you realize what a tiny speck we are on this earth- just part of the bigger organism.

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Back at camp, I enjoyed a nap in Betty while John read a fly-fishing magazine in the shade. Before happy hour, we took a late afternoon walk under the cottonwoods by the river, stopping to throw the stick in the water for our amphibious beast. For dinner, we grilled BBQ chicken skewers with onion and pineapple which would end up wrapped in a tortilla with cheese, rice, beans, and jalapeno and thrown back on the grill.

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There was plenty of time in between grilling to sit by the fire, munch on cheese and crackers, and enjoy the setting sun and rising moon (while doing my best to ignore both the ant colony and the Baby Bunny incident). I served corn and black bean salad with our BBQ burritos and let the campfire lull me into slumber again.

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It’s not easy to sleep in a full-sized trailer bed with a 52-pound bed hog of a dog. I woke up earlier than I wanted on Sunday, took one look at the clutter and stack of last night’s cleaned dishes, and decided to get up and take Cholula on a walk while John slept. The sun wasn’t yet brightening up our little canyon and I needed a sweatshirt in the cool morning air.

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As I flip-flopped along the dirt road, I thought about my Grandpa, who’d been in the hospital. I thought about our latest struggle on our never-ending journey to parenthood. I thought about friends and their recent family trauma or unexpected life changes. I took a deep breath and, as I exhaled, I let it go. There’s so much in this life that is beyond our control, yet we try so hard to do just that. By the time I got back to camp, John had started the kettle on the stove for coffee. He left to check out our exit strategy (aka the road we shouldn’t have taken Betty on) and I sat in the old camp chair, listening to the sounds of morning in the desert, completely present. It was exactly what I’d hoped for with this weekend away.


We’d spend the rest of the morning munching yogurt and granola, listening to reggae while we broke down camp, and talking about a bike ride John wanted to do. We miraculously got Betty back up the sketchy hill without issue (whew). I dropped John and his bike off at the second overlook point and met up with him further down the road an hour (and 10 biking miles) later. In the meantime, I made leftover BBQ chicken wraps for lunch on the road and took Cholula on a hunt for wildflowers.

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We took the long way home, through Duchesne, and stopped at a car wash in Heber City to rinse the desert dust off of Betty. I’d have more than one load of laundry ahead of me to do the same with our clothes. It didn’t take long for life to get back to the usual: a hot shower, Sunday night baseball, take-out from Whole Foods, a glass of wine, Cholula stalking chipmunks in the yard. I went to bed feeling refreshed, the good kind of tired, and grateful for the weekend. We’d discovered a magical place and I can’t wait to go back and explore more. I wouldn’t change a thing.*

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(*Except for the dead baby bunny. Sigh.)

Wanderlust? Take a look at more of our adventures here!

Betty the Trailer

One year ago: A glimpse of the single life


  1. Sounds like an overall fabulous weekend camping trip. Love your amazing photos (like always)! I need the reminder to let it go more often. I hope your grandfather is doing ok.

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