A Treasure Hunt in the Wilds of Utah

My step-daughter, Kim, wanted to find some new rocks, as she’s an addicted rock-hounder. I’m a converted rock-hounder since I picked up some geology from my years as a petroleum engineer and I’ve always loved petrified wood. Kim wanted to go back to the Yellowstone River in Montana, while my friend, Dave, reminded me there are lots of rocks in central Utah. We threw a dart at the map and it came down on the San Rafael Swell, which I’d never heard of. It is in central Utah, more-or-less, and just an hour from Moab, Utah.

My pickleball friends, who know Utah, said it was very isolated and very dry, but very beautiful. Now, isolated and dry didn’t bother us at all, but perhaps they should have, since for various reasons we couldn’t leave before June. I did a weather check which said maximum temp in early June was 92F. That’s nothing to be feared, except that my Subaru differential gets over-heated if the day temp gets above 95F. It happened once before and I had to get towed. We departed on June 2.

We passed through Durango where the river was high as the snowpack this year was thickened by late snowfalls in Colorado. I’ve rafted this section of the Animus River before, with Kim and daughter Kara in a high-water year, and it was exciting.

Just before Moab, Utah, where we spent the first nite, we exited the main road to Overlook Canyon. The view makes you feel dizzy looking so far down at the Colorado River,

Next day, we were off early as the clerk in the rock shop told us about Agate Loop which is close by Klondike Bluffs. After a wrong exit we discovered, not agate, but some colorful chert beds: the green, reds and yellows were outstanding.

On to the town of Green River, where we spent the nite. I70 runs east-west past the town which sits on a bend in the river. The San Rafael Swell lay to the west of us like an enormous loaf of tough crusty bread. But all we knew about the Swell came from a blog article by a lady who revealed in words but no map where the best rocks and the best hikes were.

One of the must-see ventures was Little Wild Horse Canyon. Driving south, while I tried not to be lost, Kim jumped out to see if there were any interesting stones. There were – red agates which we’d heard about, and they were pretty stones, with seams of white, red, and occasionally green. In truth, these beautiful rocks were everywhere and they got our day off to a super start.

We drove on to Little Wild Horse Canyon, which was the most accessible of several canyon hikes. To our surprise, by 9 am there were already eight cars parked there. This hike becomes a slot canyon, and what a thrilling adventure it was.

About a half mile in, the slot narrowed so much it was like walking between two walls that were a hundred feet high touching us and squeezing us in. After twenty yards of this, we felt claustro and turned back. We heard it was the best slot canyon in the USA, and I can believe that.

Goblin Valley state park is on all the maps, and it was a treat — surreal landscapes of tortured rocks ground down by wind and water erosion over tens of millions of years.

We ate supper in Green River, in a new, good Mexican restaurant. Green River is a small town, and not a tourist town like Moab where dozens of shops line the main street.

Next day we set out for the north section of the Swell. The previous day we were in the south section of the Swell meaning south of I70. Turning north from I70, the road was gravel and nasty with many corrugations. Early on, the only interest was some stark but imposing scenery, such as battleship rock.

After 15 miles of bone-jarring corrugations, which my Subaru SUV didn’t appreciate, I began to think this road was a mistake. So dry and no trees – but the early morning light softened the harshness of the rugged desert terrain.

We trundled on and, surprisingly, the road suddenly became better. With lifted spirits, we came to a line of trees, and there it was – the San Rafael River churning along and running a banker.

The soft green tree-line contrasted with the scarred and fractured ledges and cliffs. In size, the river was nothing like the Colorado River, of course, but it did remind us of the ancient scriptures about streams in the desert.

One of the rock-hounding sites was along the San Rafael River, but at flood stage there was no way to get at the rocks at the bottom of the river.

So we drove on to Buckhorn Draw, which we had to google on to see what “Draw” meant (it’s the V-shaped river valley). Kim walked around and said there weren’t any keeper rocks there. It was dispiriting, after driving through all those corrugations to get here. But we weren’t giving up. After we passed some pictographs, we decided to look one more time in the Buckhorn creek bed, and in ten seconds I found a nice pinkish-yellowish agate and a colorful chert (on left). Kim found a red agate vibrant with color (on the right). We found lots of keepers in this part of the creek-bed, many blue agates and chert. After an hour of collecting, we were happy once again.

The last thing on the rock collecting list was the Wedge Overlook. Although we found no keeper rocks there, the view was remarkable, and a bit like the Grand Canyon.

That ended the day on a high note. Except for a couple things. First, I had a scratch in my throat. And second, the max temp the next day was going to be 90F and 100F the day after that. The fierceness of the desert heat and isolation of San Rafael made us uneasy. The problem was we had a five-nite hotel commitment there at Green River.

Kim and I hunkered down in the evening. I checked with the hotel front desk and they were flexible as to us leaving two nites early without having to pay. We called the Matterhorn Inn in Ouray, Colorado, about 6 hours away, and got the last room for the same price. We were grateful. When we arrived in Ouray, it was 15 F cooler than at Green River, because its up near 8,000 feet altitude.

The downer was I became ill with Covid, and Kim had to drive almost all the way from Green River to Ouray. Kim was fascinated by Little Switzerland, as Ouray is called.







The next day we visited two fabulous waterfalls, Box Canyon and Cascades in the morning. Then I went to bed, sick.







Later, we drove 45 minutes to Montrose to an Urgent Care, where they affirmed I had Covid. They said day four and five would be the peak of the illness. It was day four for me. And it was day two for Kim. Kim was able to drive the next day when we lit out for Albuquerque.

Now as I write its day seven for me and day five for Kim, who is still unwell, while I’m over the hump. It’s a tough way to end the trip, but it would have been much tougher had we been locked in at Green River with Covid when it was 100F.

We are grateful to God that the Subaru held up, and that we could meet all of our hiking and rock hounding goals, and for the strength and timing that allowed us to return to Albuquerque safely. And what fantastic things we saw and felt as we drove past and walked on the marvels of God’s creation in Utah and Colorado.

The Gray Nomad — wishing you a happy summer.
For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool; and the thirsty land, springs of water. [Isaiah, chapter 35.]

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 days ago

Super blog post Ian. Great Pictures. Thanks

John Korstad
John Korstad
5 days ago

I love rock-hounding and hiking!! 🙂 Sounds like an excellent trip except for both you and Kim having Covid! Praying for your and Kim’s full healing. God’s Shalom, John
PS Looking forward to playing PB again with you on your next trip to OK.

13 days ago

This is lovely, Ian. Thanks for sharing your most incredible trip!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x