Outside the Reef

Allan and I are on adventure again. His girlfriend is at a nine day conference so we picked a place that is close to both of us and yet unexplored: the San Rafael Swell. “The Swell” as it is simply called by the locals is a large hump in the rocks west of Moab that geologists would call an anticline. The center of the hump is rough, isolated, and foreboding, even higher and colder than the rest of the Colorado Plateau’s high desert. It is also the place from which the heart of the United States’ WWII-winning bomb was extracted: Temple Mountain sits atop the swell like a hood ornament on an abandoned desert Cadillac. It’s rumored to have passages that span the entire mountain, allowing you to enter in one place and come out in another. But we’re not headed to Temple yet. The Swell is wrung by sedimentary rock that uplifted and tilted to the point that the beds were almost on end. Then erosion removed softer layers and water draining off the hump of the swell ate giant gorges through the upstanding rocks, leaving a giant reef encircling the entire anticline. Nowhere is this reef taller, steeper, and more prominent than on the Swell’s east side, which happens to be the side we’re approaching from. So why not spend a couple days in awe of the grand San Rafael Reef before heading inside?

Exploring the San Rafael Swell: Black Dragon Pictographs, The Uneva Uranium Mine, and a 3rd Canyon Stymie

Allan and I finally went and found those pictographs I’ve been meaning to stop and see for years: a pair of black and red panels left by the Anasazi in the very bottom of Black Dragon Canyon but just a few minutes from present-day Interstate 70 near Moab. To get there, you simply pull off the highway at milepost 147 onto a dirt road. Watch out, it comes up so fast that before I was looking for it with a GPS in hand yesterday, I’d never actually seen the turn. You drive through a rickety gate (or open it and close it behind you, you know what I mean), cross a wash heading north, and stay left at the two forks. Soon, you’ll drive into the bottom off Black Dragon Canyon, which, incidentally, can be seen more completely but just as spectacularly from the next Interstate 70 exit, Black Dragon Canyon Rest Area. For now, park here at the bottom and walk the rest of the way, about 1/2 a mile of driving and and a 1/4 mile of walking, to the life size refrigerator figures and the soaring red phoenix on the north wall. Excuse the naughty visitor who outlined these faded ancient artworks in tacky white chalk. And yes, it will be there for decades because it doesn’t wash off for the same reasons the paint doesn’t wash off of this sandstone canvas.

From Black Dragon Canyon Allan and I doubled back and drove under I-70 to the nearest possible adventure: the Uneva Uranium Mine. Again we drove the car as far as the rough desert tread would take an Outback, then parked and walked up the canyon, eyes peeled and packs loaded with coats, headlamps and water.
The mine was easy to find, a full sized addit with a flagstone-fortified entrance. We slipped inside and dawned headlamps. We found the usual abandoned uranium mine accessories – rusty track, rodent scat and seams of yellow sulfur and black uranium ore – plus something unexpected: white fur growing in long strands from the walls, like an ancient living gem gallery. I reached out and touched them, squeezed them pulled them from the walls. They were everywhere, patches, clumps and panels of long sparkly white crystals that grew from the wall, got too long, and bent under their own weight but just kept growing, then bent again, grew another inch, on and on, undisturbed for who knows how long. What is this stuff? Has it always grown here? Is it some form of gypsum crystal? Will it make we itchy or sick, and is it safe to breath? It feels like fiberglass. Oh, there’s a bat. Allan’s up ahead. “There’s a bat!” Yeah, I see it. Which fork? I tell Allan “You take that one, I’ll go up here,” but I know he’ll just follow me, and that’s the point. More of the old man’s crystally beard grows along these walls, but soon we come to the end of the addit and turn around to see that the bat is back with a few friends.
“More bats!”
“Yea… Shit!” Allan ducks and one almost hits me in the face. We walk back to the confluence with our arms blocking a direct hit to the face and talking and singing to try to warn the blind critters of our presence.

We turn left at the Y to explore the other arm and quickly realize we’ve cornered 30 bats in a dead end. But we like to see things threw, so we duck down and walk to the headwall and turn around, both of us silently excited to get out of this rodent-, rabies- and radiation-ridden hole. We explore further up Uneva Mine Canyon and check out some more mine ruins, then climb up the pass that separates us from 3rd Canyon, the next canyon south. We have no beta, but figure we’ll come out that canyon and hike back around the steep eastern front of the Swell to the car.
In 3rd I just have to see if there’s water in the up-canyon pothole because it sits at the base of a 100-plus-foot pouroff that would make an epic cliff jump into an alcove. A tree and – to our surprise – cattails, a very non-desert plant, grow from the accumulated sand around the entrenched trench. It’s been a very wet year. But the water is murky and with temperatures in the low 50’s and the sun gone behind the Swell I’m not feeling adventurous enough to follow through on my commitment to discover an amazing new cliff jump.
We trek down canyon but discover a final large pouroff to the floodplain below. This one is massive, a rappel of 100-300 feet with a perennial spring leaking down it and we don’t have any rope or rappelling gear. We double back and climb up the sticky sand stone slab to the north using friction, only to find ourselves cliffed out. At least we can see the car, way out on the flood plain east of the Swell. The view, with the plateaus and buttes lit in a pink limelight of the setting sun, is astounding. We are above it all. Through an hour of free downclimbing we thwart the cliff bands and scree-stricken ravines and descend back the way we came through Uneva Mine Canyon. Back at the car I heat us up slabs of homemade organic lasagna that I was saving for just such a long day… As long as it was the first day, since we don’t have a cooler.