SAN RAFAEL SWELL, Emery County — When a trail diminishes into a series of sloping, shale-covered cliffs, it should probably be considered a dead end.
But when an expedition is led by a man possessed of a searing desire to see what secrets the wash hundreds of feet below holds, that dead end becomes an adventure.
At least that's how Deseret News photographer Tom Smart sold me on riding through a section I am certain was never meant to be navigated on horseback.
That pep talk quickly became a strategy session on how that tiny flat area might just be a little-used trail that would lead us to the other trail that he was sure led down into the bottom of the canyon. And that, he promised, was worth swallowing a little fear.
It was an adventure, but not one that yielded a pathway to the canyon's floor. And while being lost can be a frustrating experience, when that aimlessness amounts to wandering across the San Rafael Swell, it turns out to simply be a discovery of a different kind.
The view from those cliffs was breathtaking — and not just because I battle a moderate fear of heights. It's spectacular in the way that defies description. Like so many natural wonders, one really has to see it to understand how very powerful and moving it is.
Kash Winn has lived in nearby Ferron since 1972. The cattle rancher has spent countless hours exploring the treasures of the San Rafael Swell.
Sometimes he has a purpose; sometimes he does not.
"That's one of my favorite things, to just go out and ride," he said. "It really don't matter what season. We have cattle that graze on it (the Swell), and we move them from time to time. We explore a lot. I bet you I've only seen one-third of it. It's so vast and there are so many canyons."
The San Rafael Swell measures (officially) 75 miles by 40 miles. It's a massive dome of sandstone, shale and limestone that is home to the San Rafael River, gorges, canyons, mesas, buttes. Those canyons are home to unique plants and animals, as well as old mines, shacks and Native American petroglyphs on the canyon walls.
But you really know you're in the Swell when the rocks are as mesmerizing as any plant or animal.
Our mission on the first Saturday of April was to ride 18 miles through The Little Grand Canyon. This became a bit tougher ride thanks to higher than normal runoff and a decision to release water from Joe's Valley Reservoir. Instead of 40 to 70 cubic feet per second, officials told us the flow was 140 cubic feet per second.
Smart asked Winn if we could still ride as planned.
"Sure," he said matter-of-factly. "It will just be more of an adventure."
And it was.
Winn, his 17-year-old son Jesse and Bobby Lee Thompson, also of Ferron, agreed to ride with us. They assisted our group of seven riders, most of whom were very experienced horsemen.
Being able to ride a horse well is one thing. Having riders experienced with the unique terrain was critical to success because, as anyone familiar with the area will tell you, it's constantly changing.
"The neat thing about that country down there is that it changes," said Tom Rogers, who lives in Provo but has spent two decades exploring the Swell. "Every time you go down there, it's different. It changes from the time you go in to later in the day, the way the sun hits the rocks, it's just a uniqueness when you go down there."
It's the variety that keeps luring explorers back.
"All of the canyons are drastically different," he said, rattling off the places he's been and the sights he's seen. "It's just a fun place to go."
Part of the fun is, of course, the challenge. The riding and hiking caters more to the curious, determined and independent.
"It can be very intimidating," said Rogers. "They don't call it the Little Grand Canyon for nothing."
Both Winn and Rogers have seen people get horses stuck or hurt in the often-mentioned "quicksand." Rogers cautions visitors to ride in spring or after Sept. 1 because of the vicious sand flies. Winn, however, admits he rides it — on a horse or four-wheeler — in just about every condition imaginable.
For us, the early April ride was sufficiently challenging and exceedingly beautiful.
We hadn't gone more than a couple of miles when Dave Bennion's horse, Electra, stumbled trying to follow Thompson up a steep embankment of sand and rocks. He jumped off his horse but landed on his back and hit his head. He was dazed, and we were a little worried, but after a few minutes, we were moving along the trail again.
The first two river crossings were pretty uneventful, and I spent most of my time trying to follow Rogers' instructions on where to find the first rock wall. Then we came to a section of the river where Winn warned us there might be deep holes. His young horse actually stepped a little too far to the right, and while Winn stayed above the water, his hat was swept away.
"Stay to the left," he yelled.
As I watched Big Tim and former Jazzman Mark Eaton get sucked into a hole to the left, I glanced around at who remained on my side of the bank. I momentarily considered organizing a mutiny. And then, just as quickly, realized I wanted to go back alone as much as I wanted to follow Big Tim into that swirling muddy water.
Zeus and I entered the river right after my riding pal Russ Pack and his horse, Magic. The first thing I did was look for my trusted guides on the other side. They were telling me to ride the edge of the current right to a point on the bank that sat right between those two unseen holes. We made it easily.
Winn and Rogers admit knowing where to cross and what to avoid is the key to not just enjoying a ride but walking away unscathed. They've both seen and heard of riders losing their horses to the quicksand.
"It can be very dangerous," said Rogers. "I've seen people sink their horses up to their necks. I've helped get them out. It can be very intimidating."
So how does one learn the perils and how to avoid them?
"Usually the hard way," said Rogers laughing.
The Swell's harshness makes it all the more alluring to the adventurous.
"There is an element of danger," said Winn. "You don't want to kid yourself. That's part of the fun and excitement."
We were fortunate to have locals with us on our ride, so we avoided any serious problems. Instead, I was able to follow instructions and gawk at the never-ending scenery.
Despite the fact that the canyons of the Swell house old mines, nearly 100-year-old cabins and are a grazing area for local ranchers, the canyons have that other-worldly feel. As I stood on the cliffs in the afternoon sun or rode near the river the next morning, I felt like I was inhabiting a place that not many people really knew.
The Swell is only a three-hour drive from Salt Lake City, and relatively easy to access. A lot of the buttes and canyons can be viewed from easily navigated trails that accommodate motorized vehicles. There is also the option of floating the river at the right time of year.
Still, the fact that one has to work to wander through those canyons makes many visitors feel like part of an exclusive group. The effort deepens one's appreciation for the tenacity of those who mined, drove cattle or just migrated through those washes, cliffs and canyons.
The ancient artwork adorning walls throughout the canyons is a reminder that the San Rafael Swell has offered adventure and sanctuary long before us and will continue to do so long after we're gone.
But for people like Winn, who spend a good portion of their lives getting to know the Swell, it becomes something like a beloved family member.
"Everybody that lives down here has a kind of personal attachment," said Winn. "They want to regard it as their own."
The more time you spend exploring the canyons and washes, the more kinship you feel.
"You spend so much time out there, you feel like it belongs to you," he said. "It's not true, though. Everybody has a right to it."
And what visitors find is about as unique an experience as the treasures they find.
"It's just more a rejuvenation," said Winn. "It's a chance to get away and enjoy."