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Utah: San Rafael Swell’s Hondu Country

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© Tony Huegel/Backcountry Byways

Utah’s Hondu Country

LOCATION: San Rafael Swell, south of I-70 and west of Green River.

GOOGLE MAP: Utah’s Hondu Country

HIGHLIGHTS: A network of graded dirt roads, with a sandy wash-bottom segment, takes backcountry travelers into the primitive and spectacular San Rafael Swell, in a region known as Hondu Country. To I-70 travelers, the Swell—a massive blister in the earth’s crust—is noted for the San Rafael Reef, a wall of up-tilted rock at the uplift’s eastern edge. Early east-west travelers likened this barrier to a marine reef that formed an imposing barrier.

Wind, water and time have sculpted the Swell’s sedimentary rock into a world of buttes, terraced cliffs, arches and canyons. Unlike the Moab area, the Swell remains largely undeveloped and primitive. That means greater immersion in wild Utah awaits those who venture along the Swell’s network of dirt roads, like those on this route that will take you through Reds Canyon, past towering Tomsich Butte, Temple Mountain and an arch called The Hondu, in the heart of Hondu Country.

Log Swasey Cabin, built in 1921, is worth the short side trip for glimpse into the region’s ranching past. At the south end are ancient Barrier Canyon-style pictographs thousands of years old, and the bizarre rock figures at Goblin Valley State Park.

DIFFICULTY: Easy, with some sandy wash-bottom segments. However, the roads become impassable when wet even with 4WD. Avoid the area’s many abandoned and dangerous uranium mines.

TIME & DISTANCE: 5–6 hours and 70 miles for the main drive to Swasey Cabin, through Reds Canyon and to Utah Hwy. 24 near Goblin Valley State Park. Spurs and side trips would add considerably more time and mileage.

MAPS: Benchmark Maps’ Utah Road & Recreation Atlas, pp. 68 (D–G, 5–7). National Geographic/Trails Illustrated’s San Rafael Swell (712)

INFORMATION: Bureau of Land Management, Price Field Office

GETTING THERE: My description begins on I-70 at exit 129 [N38°52.851′ W110°39.514′], about 28 miles west of Green River. Zero your odometer at exit 129. You also can begin at the south end, near Goblin Valley State Park via Temple Mountain Road, off Utah Hwy. 24, and end at I-70 at exit No. 129. Watch for directional signs at junctions.

THE DRIVE: From I-70, follow the road southwest beside the interstate, through a dramatic landscape of buttes, cliffs and canyons. This area is called Sinbad Country, after scenes in The Arabian Nights, the centuries-old collection of folk tales from Arabia, Egypt, Persia and India.

At mile 3.9 [N38°50.611′ W110°42.327′] take the road on the right. At mile 4.1 [N38°45.590′ W110°48.170′] go right again. A mile farther [N38°50.209′ W110°43.341′], as you drive among pinyon pines and junipers, turn right again, through a gate. The road will head northwest, toward the interstate and the area just south of the interstate named Head of Sinbad. There it will make a long bend to the west, then south, away from the interstate.

At a small Y junction at mile 11 [N38°50.353′ W110°47.708′] the main road continues straight, but bear right to reach historic Swasey Cabin in about 0.8 mile.

Back on the main road, go left at the T junction at mile 18.4 [N38°45.939′ W110°47.738′], then again at a junction at mile 19 [N38°45.593′ W110°48.187′], where a sign indicates that to the left are Temple Mountain and Goblin Valley, and to the right is Reds Canyon and McKay Flat. At the next junction at mile 20 [N38°45.285′ W110°49.019′], a sign will state that McKay Flat is to the left (south), and ahead (west) is Reds Canyon. Continue to Reds Canyon, a magnificent red-rock gash where the road will bend to the southwest.

By mile 33, as you approach towering Tomsich Butte [N38°41.188′ W110°59.339′], scan the skyline ahead for The Hondu, named for its resemblance to a lariat’s slip knot. The road will fork [N38°41.024′ W110°59.167′], with the right going to the bottoms at Muddy Creek below Hondu arch. Bear left to leave Reds Canyon, and make a long drive to the southeast through Hondu Country toward the rise called The Big Ridge.

At mile 42.2 or so you will pass, on the right, the 10-mile (one-way), moderately difficult spur to Hidden Splendor Mine and Moroni Slopes, at Muddy Creek, a worthwhile side trip if you have time.

Your goal is to return to Taylor Flat. So continue in a northerly direction to the junction you reached back at mile 19. Turn right, and then right again at the junction you were at back at mile 19. Continue southeast toward Temple Mountain [N38°41.261′ W110°40.890′], so named because someone thought it resembles the Mormon temple at Manti.

When you reach pavement, note your odometer. About 0.2 mile farther you will see reddish ghost-like anthropomorphs painted in a large alcove to the left.