Sunset in the desert. There’s something magical about it. The red cliffs above us glowed a deep red as the deep blue sky faded into light blues, then grays, and the red rock cliffs glowed darker and deeper until they turned black. We stood on a bluff looking back down into Black Dragon Wash where we had ridden earlier in the afternoon. Our cowboy camp lay in a depression between two rocky outcrops, a wide drainage that eventually funneled down into yet another wash. It was a simple camp. Spread out some ground cloths, pads, and sleeping bags. That was it. The temperature dropped slowly from the low 70’s into the 60’s as we scrambled around exploring a nearby rocky wash. We got back to camp at dusk and built a small fire out of fragrant, dry and brittle cedar wood. The evening was cool and a brilliant half moon bright enough to cast shadows illuminated the rocks and scraggily cedars and prickly pear cactus plants. Jackrabbits scampered about not seeming too scared of our presence. The stars were brilliant as they are always are in a landscape far from the nearest town. (Click on photos for a larger, better view; scroll down to the end for a short video of this trip).
Earlier in the day we had left the truck at the lower end of Black Dragon Wash on the San Rafael Swell just off I-70. Within minutes we were engulfed in a deep gorge with red rock walls towering 600-800 feet above us. The wash twisted and turned as we slowly gained elevation. We rode through the bottom of the sandy wash, up onto slickrock, through red powdery dirt, across rock gardens. This is terrain built for fatbikes. Our burly 4″ tires floated across even the deepest sand, though Lars, on skinny 2.1″ tires struggled through a few sections. Fatbikes not only excel in the snow, but they are ideal in the desert as well, and Utah has enough desert terrain to last one several lifetimes of exploration.
After 2-3 miles we left the wash and began climbing up onto the open desert. Five miles later and after nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain, we found our camp. We enjoyed a pleasant evening around our small fire, brilliant stars above, reminiscing about our growing up days in Northern California, former girlfriends, previous adventures. The temperatures only dropped into the 40’s over night and we rested well.
After a breakfast of oatmeal and dried fruit, we packed up camp, but left our gear, and headed out. We continued to climb up into the desert on jeep roads. Since there is no reliable water source in this area, we packed in all of our water. I had a 100 oz. Camelback on my back, a 2 liter platypus bag in my frame pack, and a bike bottle on the stem of my bike. Bullet, Doc, and Lars also had Camelback’s. Doc had two large Nalgene bottles on his forks, and Bullet had an extra 2 liter Platypus bladder in a dry bag strapped to his rear rack. Lars had three large bike bottles on his bike. Water is heavy but packing it like this is the only option when cycling in the desert. Sometimes you can find standing water in slickrock pools, or under pour-offs in washes, and we did, but it is unreliable.
We climbed steadily several more miles before we topped out at a junction that headed toward Swasey’s Leap and Lower Black Box Canyon. After a short snack break, we headed down the jeep road toward Swasey’s. We enjoyed a nice downhill run, of about a mile or so, and into a stunning landscape with the Swell, red and craggy forming a barrier in the distance in front of us. After a couple more miles we came to another junction, that heading the 6.5 miles to Swasey’s Leap, which overlooks the San Rafael River. By now it had warmed back up into the mid-70’s. We decided to turn back here as we wanted to have enough energy to explore the slickrock ramps back at the other end of Black Dragon Wash. We had also climbed more than thousand feet to get to this point. After climbing back up to the first junction, we enjoyed a fast, bumpy downhill run back to our camp. We loaded up the bikes, then headed back down the desert and into the wash proper. The riding was fast, and the lower we rode the higher the rock walls soared above us. You feel so small next to those towering walls hundreds of feet above you. We left the hot direct sun and rode into the cool shade of the wash.
The pictographs and petroglyphs in this canyon are modest compared to other canyons. The wash is named for a red dragon-like creature painted up on a rock wall about 100 feet above the wash. A short scramble gains access to this as, well as large rectangular anthropomorphs, about four feet high and a foot across. You can’t help wondering who drew this ancient figures, what they represent. Lower down the wall is a section of rock with countless tick marks and patterns that look like they may have been used to mark the number of times they passed through this canyon. This is Fremont indian territory, which means these pictographs were made sometime between 700 A.D. and 1300 A.D. It’s hard to believe that a painting that old could still be visible today. The Anasazi, with their brilliant rock art and dwellings are further south.
We rode out the mile or so to the truck, unloaded the bikes, then headed up a massive slickrock ramp all the way up to the rim of the canyon. It was probably a 20% grade, but swithbacking up made it possible to ride. From the top we could see down into the wash, and in the other direction, out across the desert as far as you could see. We relaxed up top enjoying a cool breeze and the limitless views before heading down. In all we rode about 23 miles and gained about 3000 feet in elevation. It was a good trip. Fatbikes are ideal for this kind of terrain. We never bogged down in the sand like Lars on his regular mountain bike. And the fat tires took the edge off the rough rocky terrain. They also ride well loaded up with camping gear.
Bullet made this nice video of our trip. Enjoy.
We stopped in Price on the way home and had a nice high calorie meal at a cafe on Main Street and arrived home just a couple hours past the 24 hour mark from when we left, making this a true sub-24 hour overnighter (S24O).