With an eastern flank of sandstone pitched to a near vertical angle, the San Rafael Swell makes adventurers of all stripes swoon.
For climbers, it’s the multi-pitch slabs and perfect cracks. For canyoneers, it’s the sinuous canyons slicing through the slanted rock layers. For hikers, it’s the rainbow of colors that paints the desert floor.
Today, the Swell’s kidney-shaped sandstone dome is the perfect backdrop for anyone chasing the vagabond’s dream. Millennials and retirees alike trade permanent homes for vans, trucks and RVs to live the dusty life, exploring the millions of acres of public lands that come at exactly the right price: free.
But a half century ago, the San Rafael Swell attracted a different crowd in pursuit of a very different dream.
In the late 1940s, prospectors arrived at the Swell with Geiger counters in hand following the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission’s uranium-ore buying program. The Swell’s sedimentary layer cake of siltstones, mudstones and shales promised both hope and heartbreak for those looking to score a load.
By the mid 1950s, more than 50,000 claims speckled the San Rafael Swell with 172 documented mine openings. While most mines in the Swell were small and produced little marketable ore, one mine — the Delta-Hidden Splendor Mine — proved to be one of the most profitable and publicized discoveries of uranium in the country.
Tucked between advertisements for mince pie-in-a-can, electric ranges, and ironing boards, an 11-page story with the teaser, “The Man Who Found $10 Million” ran in the November 1954 issue of Life Magazine. This rags-to-riches story put Hanksville on the map when a Midwestern prospector struck it big in the San Rafael Swell.
Vernon Pick, a farm boy from Minnesota, knew next to nothing about mining. With a few books and maps in hand, he explored the Hanksville area in search of the coveted yellow ore with little success. After seven months and only a couple hundred dollars left to his name, Pick embarked on his final prospecting mission into the San Rafael Swell. Near the banks of Muddy Creek, he finally made a name for himself and staked what turned out to be a very valuable claim.
After proving its worth, Pick sold the Delta Mine (now called Hidden Splendor Mine) to the Atlas Corporation for $9 million. When the story hit the newsstands, Pick’s overnight success fed the uranium mining fervor in the San Rafael Swell.
While the nation’s prospecting dreams busted along with the uranium industry in the early 1970s, Pick’s adventure tale still resonates with the modern explorer. Sub out every reference to a Scintillometer with ropes, carabineers or backpacks, and the story starts to sound like one you heard last week over a round of beers.
The story’s subtitle sums it up well: “He fought storms, rattlers, poison water, death itself to find uranium bonanza.” Apparently, the temptation to exaggerate for effect is timeless.
From getting his truck stuck in sand bars, fording the swollen Muddy Creek, hiking through Crack and Chute canyons, and digging dirt out of blisters, Pick’s story describes the typical experience in this tiny pocket of southern Utah.
Today, it’s Spandex-clad mountain bikers and Chaco-wearing backpackers — not prospectors — that flock to the Swell. Recreationists romp around the rocks looking to score adrenaline, solitude and adventure instead of profits.
Chances are you won’t find $10 million in the Swell, but you’ll come away rich in experiences instead. So pick your pleasure — camping, hiking, rafting or biking — and dream big.
Vernon Pick hiked through Crack, Chute and smaller, nameless canyons in the San Rafael Swell, and you can too.
You can start by retracing his steps through Crack or Chute canyons.
Crack Canyon is a lovely slot canyon that cuts through the San Rafael Reef, boasting cracks, holes and honeycombed walls. Several natural obstacles, including pouroffs and chockstones, add excitement and challenge to an otherwise straightforward, 6.9-mile round-trip hike.
Follow a mellow wash for a moderate 7.7-mile round-trip hike through the textured Chute Canyon. The kids will love playing in this rock playground, perfect for a game of hide-and-seek, canyon style. The pockets and holes in the sandstone provide an infinite number of hiding places.
Ellen Heyn writes for the Colorado Plateau Explorer, a free hiking and camping website. For trail guides, maps and GPS tracks, visit coloradoplateauexplorer.org.
Crack and Chute canyons in San Rafael Swell beckon to explorers
“Chances are you won’t find $10 million in the Swell, but you’ll come away rich in experiences instead. So pick your pleasure — camping, hiking, rafting, biking — and dream big.”
When: Late winter and early spring are great times to visit either place.
Where: San Rafael Swell. From Moab, take U.S. Highway 191 north to Interstate 70, and turn left, heading west toward the town of Green River. Continue for about 30 miles and turn left onto state Route 24. In 25 miles, turn right on Temple Mountain Road. Pass through the San Rafael Reef. Shortly after the pavement ends, turn left onto Behind the Reef Road. You reach Crack Canyon and Chute Canyon trailheads in 4 miles and 6.5 miles, respectively.