San Rafael Swell – April 2012

April 4-7, 2012

Once again for spring break, the Barton family, Bradley family, and Gardiner family enjoyed a few days exploring the beautiful San Rafael Swell.

The trip turned out pretty well, but not quite as good as I had hoped.  Reflecting back on my objectives, here is how we did:

  • Explore new trails and add to my San Rafael master GPS file.  Check.
  • Enjoy quality time with friends and family.  Check.
  • Enjoy beautiful spring weather.  1 out of 3.
  • Enjoy rides that everyone will enjoy.  Fail.  (Two were too long and the third was too technical.  But at least Scott seemed to enjoy them all!)
  • Avoid injury.  Check.  (Other than Peter’s bruises.)
  • Avoid mechanical breakdown.  Fail.  (The Bradley’s took the big hits this year.)

Wednesday April 4: Dinosaur & River Museum

Last year we concluded that riding four days in a row is too much, so this year we decided to visit a few museums we haven’t seen since the kids were little.  We drove to Price and enjoyed our lunch at Washington Park.  Kevin and Jason had fun pretending they were small again.

Having fun at the park

After lunch we visited the Prehistoric Museum at the College of Easter Utah.  They have a fairly decent display of dinosaur fossils and bones, as well as some old Indian artifacts.

One of the dinosaur displays

We then drove to Green River and visited the John Wesley Powell River Museum.  Being avid river rats, this museum always holds some interest for us.  They have a new movie in the theater that is really well done.  It is a ‘ghost’ re-enactment of Major Powell’s river trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Nathaniel Galloway invented the modern form of rowing on a river

We normally stay in the Holiday Inn Express, which is right next door to the museum, but we are seldom in town while the museum is open.  It was fun to visit it again.

Thursday April 5: Behind The Reef and Temple Mountain

The Behind The Reef trail is one of the most beautiful trails in the San Rafael Swell.  The “reef” forms the eastern and southern boundary of the swell.  The reef contains numerous slot canyons, including the famous “Little Wild Horse” canyon.  A popular hike goes up lower Little Wild Horse, and then follows a portion of the Behind The Reef trail to the west, and down Bell Canyon.  From experience, I can say that traveling the Behind The Reef trail is much more enjoyable on a dirt bike than on foot.

For this ride we had 11 people (the 3 college kids came down later that evening).  The weather was warm, but very windy.  We met the Bradley’s and Barton’s at the Temple Mountain staging area about 10:30 AM – pretty much right on schedule.  I think we began our ride before 11:00 AM.

In my quest to explore new trails, we rode up the Temple Mountain rode to the “Flat Top” area, and then took trail #850 down to the Behind The Reef road.  This was a fun ATV trail about 2 miles long.  We then followed the road to be trailhead for the Behind The Reef trail.

Behind The Reef loop

The first part of the trail is rated as advanced.  It begins with a narrow rocky climb on the side of a steep hill.  The climb wasn’t too bad.  Years ago this portion of the trail was buried with large boulders that rolled down the mountain.

Once you get to Little Wild Horse, the trail tames out and becomes an enjoyable intermediate level ride.  The trail is enjoyable and extremely scenic.

One of many scenic vistas

The Barton’s and Bradley’s had been on the road since early that morning, so we stopped for an early lunch break at an old miners cabin.  We were surprised to see the cabin had electrical wiring and a stove.

Our lunch stop, just west of Bell’s Canyon

We continued our ride to the west until we came to the junction with Horse Valley.  Rather than continue to the end of the Behind The Reef trail (which is another advanced section), we decided to explore Horse Valley.  At one point the trail splits.  Kim recorded the eastern route with her GPS while I recorded the western route.  Jason and I were the only ones that took the western route, and it turned out to be quite rocky.  Jason temporarily lost the trail in exactly the same spot I lost the trail back in 2001.

Once we joined back up, we enjoyed a quick and fun ride up the trail.  Peter took a spill on a tight corner and bruised his ribs.  Unfortunately, he just passed Jason so we didn’t capture it on video.

The ladies rode their ATVs to the main road in McKay Flat while the boys rode out to Baptist Draw.  We enjoyed a scenic view of the valley through which the “Waterfall” single track trail travels.  While at the scenic overlook, Kim called me on her radio to let me know they found some wild horses.  I figure we were slightly over 4 miles apart at the time.  Not bad for family service radios!

Wild horses near McKay Flat

The boys caught up with the ladies just as they reached the junction for trail #846 to Temple Mountain – another trail I wanted to add to my GPS collection.

Liz’s ATV was acting up, so she limped back to the car on the main road while the rest of us bounced our way along trail #846.  What a rough and bumpy trail!  It wasn’t particularly hard (with the exception of one steep hill climb), but it was very bumpy.

Temple Mountain

We returned to the car via North Temple Wash – an interesting slot canyon.

North Temple Wash

My GPS recorded the trail at just over 56 miles, while our bike odometers measured more in the neighborhood of 66 miles.  I think the GPS comes up a little short because it does straight-line approximation than the actual route, and sometimes it may lose signal for a while.  It usually only differs by a few miles.

In spite of the wind, it was a nice ride – although next time I would vote to finish the Behind The Reef trail and skip the Temple Mountain section.  We got back to the car, loaded up, and arrived at our motel with plenty of time to shower and get ready for a nice meal at the Tamarisk restaurant.

Friday April 6: Reds Canyon Scenic Loop

Reds Canyon is a scenic loop suitable for SUVs.  The San Rafael brochure suggests that it is the most scenic drive in the San Rafael.  For an SUV, that may be true – but for ATVs, I think Behind The Reef and Eagle Canyon/Fix-It-Pass have it beat.

This wasn’t my favorite ride, but it was worth doing at least once.

Our plan was to start our ride at Exit 131 off I-70, but due to the wind and the cold front that dropped the temperature (to 37º) we decided to drive further in and park.

Rather than take the main dirt road to Swasey’s cabin, we decided to try one of the ATV routes.  We took trail #925 on the way to Swasey’s cabin, and #924 on the way back.  Even though these trails are shorter than the road, they are not faster.  But they were both fun.

Reds Canyon loop

I arranged to meet Tony Barlow and his family at Swasey’s cabin at 10:30 AM.  Tony is kind of like me (only much younger); he likes to write trip reports and post his family trip videos.

I was running about 20 minutes late, and pulled in to the staging area just as Tony and his family were starting down Eagle Canyon.  I hurried to catch them, and finally got to meet him and his family.

Tony was kind enough to let me try his KTM 250 two-stroke.  The KTM 250 and 300 two-stroke bikes are perhaps the most popular trail bikes right now.  I wanted to see what all of the excitement was about.  I got to ride his bike for about 3 miles from Swasey’s cabin to Eagle Arch.  It wasn’t a thorough test since it was mostly downhill, but it did include some soft sand.

I can see why people like these bikes!  It was so light and nimble – it almost felt like riding a mountain bike.  It was so much easier to maneuver than my four-stroke – especially in the sand.

But I also noticed that you really need to be a skilled rider.  With a four-stroke, you can be lazy – like me.  With a two-stroke, you need to shift more, slip the clutch more, and use the brakes a lot more.  With my four-stroke, if you don’t feel like shifting, you can just lug it along.  The most noticeable difference was the lack of engine braking.  I quickly learned that out of habit, I seldom use my back brake.  Poor form, but as I said, I am basically lazy.

Eagle Arch

From here, Tony continued down Eagle Canyon for an exciting adventure on Devil’s Racetrack (be sure to check out his trip report on his blog).  We backtracked a ways and exited the canyon via trail #822.  This was a very fun trail!  We joined road EM1024, which had been recently graded.  We stopped for lunch and sought shelter from the wind at the Green Vein Mine.

Green Vein Mine

After lunch we turned onto the Reds Canyon road (EM1019) near Family Butte.

Family Butte

The Reds Canyon road quickly drops down into a dry wash (don’t go there if there is a chance of rain).  I worried that the wash would be loose sand, but it was nicely graded dirt and gravel, so our travel went very quickly.

We took a short detour to the Lucky Strike Mine in a beautiful small canyon surrounded by sheer cliffs.

Lucky Strike Mine

After a brief tour of the area, we continued on our way to Tomsich Butte.  The map shows a Jeep road that goes completely around the butte, but it is now closed.  Moving around to the southern end we found our way back to our launch spot for last year’s float down Muddy Creek.

Road EM1021 returned us to McKay flat near our ride from the previous day.  Driving this road in a car is a fairly scary undertaking due to the exposure of the road, but on dirt bikes it was not a problem at all.

We returned to the Swasey’s cabin area via Rod’s Valley road (B6852).  This was an easy but fun ride, until we got stuck behind a slow truck that didn’t want to let us pass.

The ride totaled a little over 60 miles and took longer than we expected.  Everyone was glad to finally return to the cars and get out of the wind.  Liz was also pleased with our return since she spent the day waiting at the car with her broken ATV.  And then to add insult to injury, Paul got a flat tire on the way back to the motel.

Saturday April 7: Lost Spring Wash and Calf Mesa

Last year we planned to ride the ATV trails at Buckhorn Flats on our last day of the trip.  We changed plans due to weather.  This year, we had the same plan, but decided not to risk driving that far on dirt roads since Paul was without a spare tire.  So, we decided to ride a new loop I learned about from the Emery County OHV Trail Map.

I found a 38 mile loop in the Calf Mesa/Tidwell Draw area.  It turned out to be about 45 miles, and it was significantly harder than I expected.  The trailhead is about 2 miles north of I-70 on Hwy 6, so it wasn’t far from Green River.  We found a nice staging area about ¼ mile from the highway.

Calf Mesa loop

The first part of the ride was very easy, on gravel roads.  We then turned north and followed a seldom used ATV trail.  This trail was not particularly hard, but it was very rocky and rough, so it was slow going.  There was one interesting canyon that we rode through.  It almost felt like we were riding on the moon (see photo below).

An interesting portion of the trail near Tidwell Draw

We stopped for lunch before dropping into Lost Spring Wash.  Paul decided to ride the wash south, back to the car, so he could drive home during daylight hours in case he had tire problems.  The rest of us turned north, thinking we would be riding a sandy wash.  The wash was full of sand and gravel.  It looked like gravel, but it had sand underneath.  It was very difficult to get traction – our tires would just spin.  Furthermore, there were scattered large boulders that made it difficult to get enough speed to ‘plane’ on top of the gravel.

Eventually the trail left the wash and became even more difficult.  In my opinion, this should be rated as an advanced trail, not intermediate.  And perhaps it should be listed as a single track trail rather than an ATV trail.  There were numerous steep, rocky, and narrow sections to work our way through.

At one point we met a group of bikers that were staying at the same motel as us.  They had stopped to repair a flat tire.  They were surprised to see ATVs on this trail – but the map clearly lists it as an ATV trail.

We finally made it to the Green River Cutoff road, turned left, and turned left again on the Calf Mesa road.  This road was much more to our liking.  It was fast, but had enough sharp corners to keep things interesting.

Upon arriving back at Tidwell Draw we stopped to visit the old Smith cabin.  I don’t know the history of this cabin, but it is in a very remote location.  It even has a giant sandbox!  The last few hundred feet of the road consisted of very deep, soft sand.

The Smith cabin

We returned to the car about 2 hours behind schedule.  The trail was quite diverse, and the weather was gorgeous.  We had no major mishaps – just a broken clutch lever.  We were tired and ready to head for home.  Everyone made it home safe and sound later that evening.



About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
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