Insider’s Guide to Mountain Biking Trips in the San Rafael SwellDecember 9, 2022
By Susan Munroe
The San Rafael Swell in central Utah is one of the state’s best and most concentrated collections of public lands. The Swell means deep canyons, biking and hiking trails, incredible rock formations, arches, cultural sites, and more. Originally inhabited by multiple indigenous cultures, ranchers, miners, and outlaws, much of this region is still wild and only rarely visited. Biking the San Rafael Swell is an ideal way to explore, allowing you to cover large distances while maintaining the quiet of the landscape. Holiday’s fully supported three- and four-day trips are almost infinitely customizable. Get off the beaten path, and go deep into a new and exciting landscape.
Perfect for: bikers of most ability levels, active adventurers, public land enthusiasts, large groups (charter trips available for groups of 8 or more), Utah natives who’ve always wanted to explore the Swell (but just haven’t gotten there yet).
San Rafael Swell Highlights
The San Rafael Swell is enormous. It’s a unique, uplifted landform that encompasses nearly 2,000 square miles of public lands. Many areas are protected as wilderness, others are part of a larger National Recreation Area, and all of them are spectacular. Bound on its eastern and southern edges by “the Reef”, smooth sandstone fins that rise hundreds of feet out of the desert, the Reef is famous for its slot canyons, narrow, shady clefts perfect for exploring on hot summer days. Beyond the Reef, the land continues to rise in open grasslands punctuated by towering buttes, or completely interrupted by deep canyon complexes. To the west, the Swell blends into the highlands of the Wasatch and Sevier plateaus. It is a complex landscape, multi-layered and contorted.
Graded gravel roads crisscross the higher regions of the Swell and descend into some of the canyons. Rougher four-wheel-drive routes climb along mesa edges, drop into narrow, forested washes and traverse the back side of the Reef. There are even a handful of single-track trails for ambitious bikers. Whatever your group’s ability level or interest, Holiday’s guides will lead you into a landscape full of wonders, with our 4×4 support van (non-passenger-carrying) following behind with all the necessary gear for a comfortable desert adventure. Campsites are plentiful and varied, and the night skies are immense and full of stars. There are historic uranium mines and homesteads to explore, prehistoric rock art lines the walls, and wild horses gallop through the highlands. The Swell is one of Utah’s most precious resources: a region worthy of National Park status without the National Park crowds. The Swell is open to all comers, with space enough and attractions enough for everyone to find their own piece of desert to explore and enjoy.
Only in the Swell:
- Hondu Arch in Reds Canyon, poised hundreds of feet above the canyon floor.
- White Wingate Sandstone streaked with a bright, rust-colored patina.
- Historic Temple Mountain mining area, where high-grade uranium was extracted and sent to France for experiments.
- A cabin where Marie Curie is said to have stayed on a visit to the Temple Mountain mines.
- The Little Grand Canyon, where the San Rafael River slices through sheer canyon walls.
- Head of Sinbad, Buckhorn Wash, Black Dragon, Lone Warrior, and Temple Wash pictograph panels, featuring Barrier Canyon–style red artwork.
Best Known For:
Slot canyons, wide open spaces, and an incredible variety of landscapes.
The Holiday Way: Interpretive Handbooks
At Holiday, we pride ourselves not only on providing fun, quality trips, but on our ability to also provide top-notch interpretation for all of the areas we visit. One of the reasons for our success in this area is a series of small, self-published handbooks: our interp helpers. Dee, a self-taught savant of all things Colorado Plateau, first conceived of these booklets in Holiday’s early days, but their content and scope have continued to evolve.
A collaborative effort from the beginning, our interp booklets include the writing, research, and musings of generations of Holiday guides. There’s a Guide Handbook, a History Helper, a Plant and Ecology Book, a Geologizing Guide, and a general Interp Helper, each of which has been expanded over the years. And there’s a “Bicyclizing” Guide, which guides created in the 1990s when Holiday began operating bike trips. Topics and subjects are added based on current events, such as the growing awareness of the importance of dark skies, and the ever-changing intricacies of water management in the West. We’ve even added a Night Sky Interp Helper to our library, thanks to our resident astronomy expert, Tom Beckett, and we’re working to create a dedicated Water Policy Handbook. These booklets are a part of Dee’s living legacy, and an excellent resource for training guides and running thoughtful, meaningful trips on the Colorado Plateau.
Most of Holiday’s bike trips include a selection of short hikes; the San Rafael Swell trip is unique because in addition to short side hikes, there are also several longer hiking options. Groups could choose to spend an entire day hiking instead of riding.
- Swasey Cabin and Ice Box, a well-preserved homestead tucked into white sandstone cliffs and pine trees.
- Eagle Canyon Arch, a five-mile round trip hike or side ride down into a sandy wash at the foot of the towering, black-and-tan arch.
- Chute Canyon, an easy stroll along the sandy bottom of a narrow canyon.
- Crack Canyon, a short slot canyon with a few rock obstacles to scramble over and around.
- Flat Top: follow an old mining road to the top of a small mesa for unbelievable views of the southern Swell.
- Lucky Strike Mine: check out machinery and buildings left from the mining days, and read interpretive signs explaining the site’s history.
- Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons, a long day hike through two non-technical slot canyons.
Starting and Ending Points:
Meet at Holiday’s Green River warehouse. We most frequently begin our ride just south of Interstate 70, near the Head of Sinbad exit, and gradually ride our way south over three or four days, exiting the Swell near Temple Mountain. We could also ride in the opposite direction, or work our way north from the Head of Sinbad, moving toward the Wedge Overlook and the San Rafael River. As a general rule, we ride approximately 15 to 35 miles a day, although groups can choose to tackle longer, more challenging routes, or spend a day hiking instead of biking.
- Our most commonly traveled route includes approximately 70 miles of biking over three or four days, but this mileage can be adjusted up or down depending on the interests of the group.
- None. The Swell primarily consists of federal public land, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. This means that it can be explored with relative freedom. It also means that users must be especially informed about Leave No Trace practices and conscientious desert travel so that this incredible resource can remain free and open to everyone.
- There are a few pit toilets in heavily visited areas of the Swell, but otherwise it is almost completely undeveloped. Holiday brings a portable toilet system to set up at each campsite, as well as a handwashing system to keep us all healthy. We also carry in all of the water that we will use on the trip: a gallon per person per day for drinking, plus everything we need for cooking and cleaning, plus water for solar showers!
San Rafael Swell Weather
Things to Know for Maximum Enjoyment of Your Bike Trip
The San Rafael Swell is our most customizable trip, which means that we can generally tailor each day’s activities to the abilities and interests of our group. However, we do recommend a minimum level of fitness and riding experience in order to enjoy your bike trip to the fullest.
- You must be able to ride your bicycle for the full length of the trip. Our 4×4 support van cannot carry passengers except in emergencies.
- Much of the riding is on graded dirt roads and double-track trails with some steep climbs and descents. More difficult routes or single track trails are available as options for advanced groups, but at a minimum, you must come prepared for multiple days of riding a mountain bike on a dirt road/trail. There’s a big difference between 25 miles a day on a road bike on pavement, and riding 25 miles on a mountain bike on dirt. Prepare for your trip by riding a mountain bike on a dirt road or trail at least once a week.
- If you’re new to mountain biking, no problem! Just be sure to do plenty of practicing before your trip. Don’t let the first day of your Holiday bike trip be your first day on a mountain bike.
- If you’re organizing a trip for a group of friends, consider everyone’s ability level. Groups have more fun when everyone can ride together. It’s also safer: part of the guides’ job is to keep riders within a certain distance of each other. Staying together is particularly important in the Swell. There are a lot of roads out there!
Holiday’s rental fleet consists of full-suspension Specialized mountain bikes with 27.5- and 29-inch tires. This is also the style of bike that most of our guides use, and what we recommend as being the most comfortable and fun bike for this trip. For our standard route through the Swell, it would be possible to ride with a hard-tail bike (front suspension only), although if you’re interested in doing some of the more advanced routes, rear suspension is highly recommended. This route is not suitable for road bikes or skinny tires. If you plan to bring your own bike, we strongly encourage you to have it serviced by a professional shop before the trip. Overall tip: the better shape that you and your bike are in, the more fun you’ll have!
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com