San Rafael Ride
This is a story I wrote and it was pubished in the Trail Rider Magazine about two years ago.
San Rafael Swell
My cell phone rang. It was Kirk a friend of mine who I occasional ride with in the summer. It was early November and I hadn’t talked with him since hunting season had started several months early. He asked, “You done hunting”. Yep, I replied. Kirk continued, we are heading down to the Swell for a ride tomorrow. We've got room in the trailer for one more if you want to come. When are you leaving I asked. Kirk replied “In about two hours”. When you coming home, I asked? Tomorrow night Kirk replied. So it’s just a day trip, I summarized. Where are you sleeping tonight? We will get room at a motel in Ferron, he said. I quickly ran through what things I had planned to do this afternoon and tomorrow and weighed in my mind whether they could wait. Kirk was famous for short notice trips and I had joined him many times before.
I decided winter wasn’t too far off and this may be one of the last rides I’d get before winter set in. So I said sure, I’m in. Want me to drive? Kirk replied, No, we can’t get the bigger gooseneck trailers into the trail head that we are going to use. There are a lot of washes that we just can’t get the longer trailers through. We have borrowed some smaller bumper pull trailers to haul the horses out into the desert. Just be at my place at 6:00 pm he said.
I hustled home, quickly fed my horses and headed in to pack a duffel bag with a change of clothes. I had never ridden the swell, I had no idea of what to expect. Do I need a coat, Should I bring chaps or chinks? I hooked up my trailer to haul my horse over to Kirks place. As I pulled up along my horse paddock, my four horses all ran to the gate. I looked them over trying to decide which one to take. I chose Ramblin Spirit, a tall 3 year old Missouri Foxtrotter colt I had started during the summer. I had not ridden him for 5-6 weeks because I had been hunting. I thought we are leaving late this evening and coming home tomorrow evening. It can’t be too long of a ride. This colt still needed some work; one more trail ride this fall should do him some good. I loaded him the trailer and headed for Kirks.
As I arrived Kirk was catching his horses and starting to load them. I unloaded my colt and loaded him in Kirk’s trailer and we were off. I asked who else was going. He said Eric has a load of horses and so does Mark, They left a couple of hours ago, and we’ll meet them at the motel.
It was a three hour drive to the small town of Ferron. We arrived well after dark. Found the motel and got a room. There is a city fairground nearby and we stalled the horses for the night and came back to our rooms and hit the sack.
At first light we were up and going. Grabbed some donuts and chocolate milk from the C-store out front and headed out to the San Rafael Swell. It was a rough dirt road going in the way we went. Eric our leader for this trip kept calling somebody on his cell phone and getting direction on how to reach the trail head. Finally we stopped and he said “Saddle Up” I looked around and asked, “Where are we ridding” We were in a pretty bare spot with what I thought looked like very little of any interest to ride through.
We tacked up and the twelve of us headed out. We immediately dropped down off the plateau top we were on. We followed a whisper of a trail down a knife edge. We crossed a little flat and come to a small stream in a large wash. You could see that during thunderstorm season, this wash really flooded. But right now the water was only an inch deep and 5-6 feet wide. We picked a spot that had a lot of small gravel showing and crossed. I was the 4th horse across the water; I felt my colt working a little hard, like he didn’t have solid footing. Then I heard the next rider behind me cry out. As I turned to look, I saw his horse’s front end buried in the stream and the rider flipping over his horses head. He landed flat on his back in the water still holding his reins. His horse thrashed a couple of time and came out. The sandy gravel bottom of the wash had jellied up from the weight and motion of the first horses to cross. When his horse stepped in, his front legs dropped, sinking in the stream bottom till his chest hit and burying its head and neck. With his hind legs still on solid footing the horse’s front end had dropped into the mud, and launched its rider over the horses’ head. It’s pretty strange to see a horse with his front end and head all muddy and his back end dry and clean.
While the rider checked out his horse and cleaned the mud out of its eyes, nose and ears, the rest of us watered our horses. After all we were in the desert and most of us didn’t know when we would see any water again. Eric was the only rider who had been here before and had any idea of where we going.
We followed the wash downstream crossing it several times as it meandered. We had one more horse go down in a bog. It lunged free. I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten into. We were only a half mile from the truck & trailers and already had two horses go down in bogs.
We started to climb back up onto a higher shelf. Leaving the wash behind, We had high bluffs all around us as we rode along. We were following cow & deer trails. There would be a strong identifiable trail that would soon vanish. We just picked our way along finding the best routes down and across the many draws and dry washes.
We soon entered into McCarty canyon. It had a wide flat sandy bottom. Lots of grass had grown there during the past summer and the horses grabbed at bunches of the sun dried grass. The sides of the canyon were all rock, only a few cedars were growing out of cracks in the rock. The canyon walls were very steep. McCarty was a hide out for the Wild Bunch in the late 1800’s. I could see why. It was remote, had feed and water for the livestock and lots of places to hide. We urged our horses into a canter and enjoyed the soft footing.
About half way up the canyon we turned up a small side canyon. Eric announced this was the only way to climb up and out of the canyon and the canyon walls just kept getting steeper and higher the farther up the canyon you went. This side canyon had a solid rock floor. Occasionally there were depressions in the rock floor that held water from past rainstorms and flash floods...
We stopped and let the horses drink in these bathtubs of water. It was bright day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. Temperatures were in the low 70’s. It was just a wonderful day for a ride.
The side canyon continued to climb up, it got narrower and the walls got higher. We started to see ledges in the floor of the canyon. These were often 3 feet high. The first one we came to, I was wondering how my young colt would handle it. Two horses in front of me scrambled up and over it, my colt approached it and calmly stepped up and over. I guess there is some good to riding a 16h horse with long legs.
We came to a portion of the canyon where the cliff type side walls of the canyon opened up a bit. They were still steep, but not the cliffs we had been riding along. We scrambled up the side hills and came out on shelf. We continued along this rocky shelf.
The shelf brought us up on top of the mesa. We followed the game trails across the mesa top. We were looking into the head of McCarty canyon. It was a box canyon at this point and if we had stayed in the main part of McCarty canyon, we would have been trapped in the box end of the canyon.
We eventually reached a view spot looking out over Saddle Horse Canyon. The canyon walls dropped off very steeply here for several hundreds of feet. The view was stunning. It was lunch time, so we tied the horses to cedar trees and ate our lunches as we enjoyed the view.
To continue on we had to cross a narrow neck of land that formed a bridge between to mesa tops. This narrow neck of land was about 25 feet wide and sloped off very steeply on both side. As we left the top of the first mesa and started across the neck, we had to descend several large steps. They were 3-4 foot drops. I was building confidence in my young colt and was eager to see how he would handle them. He did just great. As I sat on the other side and watch the rest of our party cross, many off their horses and on foot. I wondered about the wisdom of staying on top of a colt during such a crossing. One stumble and we both could have been launched off the cliffs.
As we got on top of the second mesa we searched around looking for a trail to continue to follow. We finally picked up a cow trail that appeared to be heading down hill into Mesquite Canyon. The trail crossed a lot slick rock and ledges where it would disappear and we would find it on the far side. We figured the cows that grazed this range land had to head downhill to get water every day and the trail would lead us back to the wash. Along the trail we found a skeleton of a Bighorn sheep.
We had to descend down some rock ledges. Again I was proud of my colt. He was very sure footed and picked a good path down and remained calm. As a group, we were mostly riding fox trotters. But in this type of terrain, we couldn’t ask for any kind of gait. You just walk along letting your horse pick his footing.
We reached the floor of the canyon and followed it down until it dumped in to the main wash. We followed the wash to point where we had dropped into it, and climbed back up the knife edge to our waiting trucks and trailers.
The ride had taken us about 8 hours. My GPS said we had traveled 22 miles. This was way more than I had planned on for my colt. But he had done well. I could tell he was tired. But he kept up with the other horses and went where I pointed him. He crossed obstacles that I know some of my older geldings would have balked at.
Since that ride, I’ve made numerous trips into the area. There are many county maintained gravel roads in the area. That easily accommodate larger trailers. But there are several roads I wish I had never taken my trailer down. This is a desert area that often has thunderstorms that send water surging down dry washes. What may be a great road today, can be a muddy wash tomorrow with nowhere to turn around. I suggest that you park some place close to the pavement, drop your trailer and explore the roads that you think you want to haul your trailer down before you actually pull your horse trailer down those roads. There are lots of old jeep roads that the BLM has designated as ATV trails. They are marked with trail signs with numbers that correspond to the ATV trail map that the BLM hands out.
If you are unfamiliar with the area, I suggest you ride and explore along the marked ATV trails or join an organized trail ride. The ATV trails are easy to follow. I rarely saw more than a group or two of ATV riders on any given day during the spring and fall rides that I’ve done. Most of the ATV trails have abundant room to get off the trail and allow the atv’s to pass. If you explore off the marked trails, beware this is canyon country and it’s easy to get ledged up by cliffs where it’s difficult to go any farther. Pay attention to where you are going, if the area you are riding in becomes too narrow and too close to a cliff, turn around before you endanger yourself. There are lots of large open flats where the Wild Mustangs, Donkeys and Antelope hang out. These can offer great places to ride away from any roads or trails. There are many abandoned mines in the area. Be careful around the old mines. Boards with old nails, old pieces of mining junk often litter the area around the old mines. It could ruin you day to have your horse step on something sharp. Don’t enter the mines. The mine shafts often contain dangerous gases like Radon. But it’s fun to see how previous generations eeked out a living in a rough and hostile country.
If you go. The San Rafael Swell is located in Central Utah. It is about 100 miles North to South and about 50 miles East to West. I-70 cuts through the middle of the Swell, dividing it into two areas know as the North and South San Rafael Swell. John Wesley Powell while exploring the Colorado River had looked upon the Swell and said something to the effect “it was of no interest to anybody except Artist and Geologist”. That may have been 150 years ago. But today it’s a recreation wonderland. Its’ rough colorful canyons give hikers and horsemen many areas to explore. It has many jeep and ATV trails. These are marked by signs and are shown on the BLM maps of the area. Most foot and horse trails are not marked or included on any maps. The trail up McCarty Canyon was difficult and challenging, But there are many other trails in the San Rafael Swell that are easy or moderate to ride. All camping in the Swell will be primitive. There are no developed camp sites. Most will be dry campsite. Meaning you will need to bring people and horse water with you to the campsite. You can usually find some water during a trail ride for the horses to drink. Rain is trapped in potholes, wildlife guzzlers, stock ponds, and the occasional stock pond. The San Rafael Swell is a high mountain desert. It ranges from 4000 foot elevation to almost 8000 foot. It can be very hot in the summer months, with the heat radiating off the steep canyon walls, and it can be very cold in the winter.
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