Black Dragon Wash, UT: A Fatbike-packing Overnighter

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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).

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Cooking dinner.

Cooking dinner.

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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.

Heading into Black Dragon Wash.

Heading into Black Dragon Wash.

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Exploring a small side canyon.

Exploring a small side canyon.

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.

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Looking back toward Black Dragon Wash.

Looking back toward Black Dragon Wash.

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.

Sunrise in the desert.

Sunrise in the desert.

Fatbikes and the desert go well together.

Fatbikes and the desert go well together.

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Cowboy camping.

Cowboy camping.

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.

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Riders visable just right of center in the bottom of the photo.

Riders visible just right of center in the bottom of the photo.

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At the junction where the road heads down into Black Dragon Wash.

At the junction where the road heads down into Black Dragon Wash.

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San Rafael Swell and the San Rafael River canyon in the distance.

San Rafael Swell and the San Rafael River canyon in the distance.

Heading back down into the wash.

Heading back down into the wash.

Riders visible lower center of photo.

Riders visible lower center of photo.

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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.

Heading into the area where the pictographs are located, low in the Wash.

Heading into the area where the pictographs are located, low in the Wash.

The Dragon.

The Dragon. Bight direct sun makes it a bit hard to see.

Anthropomorph (human-like) figures.

Anthropomorph (human-like) figures.

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Heading out of the Wash.

Heading out of the Wash.

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.

At the top of the rim looking down into Black Dragon Wash.

At the top of the rim looking down into Black Dragon Wash.

Scrambling around on acres of slickrock.

Scrambling around on acres of slickrock.

Up top with the Utah desert in the background, looking South.

Up top with the Utah desert in the background, looking South.

Riding the slickrock playground.

Riding the slickrock playground.

Heading down with the truck in the distance.

Heading down with the truck in the distance.

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).

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7 comments

  1. Nice pics, thanks for sharing

  2. Nice write up and cool adventure. My brother and I bike packed 3 days from Price (home) to Goblin Valley last fall on our fatbikes right through the heart of the swell. Great place in the spring and fall for fat tires. If you ever come down to the swell again let me know and I’ll meet up for a ride. Thanks again for a cool blog, sorry I missed the randonnee rides, I was hoping to make one this winter but plans changed.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The Swell really does have endless possibilities and doesn’t have the crowds like Moab. Did you take Buckskin Gulch down to 70? Then where did you go from there? Sounds like a great trip. Did you have to carry all your water or are there some reliable water sources? I hear the San Rafael River is pretty silty.

  3. Our route took us on gas well roads through Carbon and into Emery counties. We stocked up on water in Huntington then caught Buckhorn Wash to I 70. I had stashed water at the freeway the previous weekend from a trip to Moab. Then we took Temple Mountain road through the reef and into Goblin Valley for a victory shower at the state park. Interestingly enough we ran into an adventure cycling recconissance group mapping some of our route for future tours. I’m afraid the secret is out. No more solitude at the swell. I’m planning another route. This time destination Moab with a stop in Green River via fat tires and sandy washes , coming this fall. Keep up the good work and let me know your next adventure down here. Either myself or my brother would be happy to lend a hand and possibly join you.

  4. Brock, I emailed you.

  5. Awesome TR- Thanks for sharing your amazing trip!

  6. Love these photos and the writeup. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been there (didn’t have a fatback then), and this put a big smile on my face. Need to get back. Thanks for sharing.

    Joe

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