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Horseback at the San Rafael Swell in Utah: Fall Colors & Wild Horses

There is so much beautiful country to explore in Utah, it is hard to decide where to start! I signed up for a horseback adventure to cover an area that I hadn’t been before–the San Rafael Swell in south central Utah. It is next door to Escalante Grand Staircase, Capitol Reef and nearby Bryce and Zion National Parks.

The San Rafael Swell is 2,800 square miles, uninhabited wilderness and nearly two times the size of Rhode Island without a single human resident. The Swell is a gigantic bubble in the earth’s crust which has eroded into a maze of deep, multi-hued canyons punctured by the mesas, buttes and pinnacles typical of the world famous canyonlands geography.

One of the reasons that I chose this specific trip was to hopefully catch views of wild mustangs and ride through the fall colors. Hondoo Rivers and Trails was the name of the outfit that I signed up, owned by Patricia Kearney and Gary George, who have been guiding in this area for 42 years. Headquartered in the midst of the canyonlands at Torrey, Utah near Capitol Reef National Park, they are sensitive to the fragile environment they visit and have been on the cutting edge of their trade, implementing best practices management with low-impact camping techniques, small group size, well-maintained equipment and top notch horses. Hondoo is licensed under permits issued by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and State of Utah.

How about a little history of the area? Native American peoples that include  the Fremont, Paiute, and Ute, lived in this area long before today, leaving behind pictograph and petroglyph panels.

Fremont culture Native Americans lived near the perennial Fremont River in the northern part of the Capitol Reef Waterpocket Fold around the year 1000. They irrigated crops of lentils, maize, and squash and stored their grain in stone granaries. In the 13th century, all of the Native American cultures in this area underwent sudden change, probably due to a long drought. The Fremont settlements and fields were abandoned. Many years after the Fremont left, Paiutes moved into the area.

From about 1776 to the mid-1850s the Old Spanish Trail trade route passed through (or just north of) the Swell. In the past 150 years, areas of the Swell have been used for the grazing of sheep and cattle, as well as for uranium mining. Many of the gravel roads in the interior of the swell were originally used to service the uranium mining activities. Although surrounded by the communities of Price, Green River, Hanksville, Ferron, Castle Dale, and Huntington, the Swell itself does not support permanent residents.

And, here is something that I did not know. The Swell has been used by Hollywood filmmakers as a location setting for alien planets that included the Planet Vulcan in the 2009 film Star Trek.

Photo by Adélie L’Helguen

We loaded up the horses, our gear and drove from Torrey to the Swell, then began our horseback adventure, riding to our basecamp located on Muddy Creek where the Hondoo Arch towered over our campsite.


As we were driving in, we had quite the surprise seeing a herd of wild horses on our very first day.

This area is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Although the Swell as a whole does not currently enjoy special protection, parts of it are protected as wilderness study areas. Cattle grazing is only allowed in parts of the Swell that are not designated as such. The San Rafael Swell is also dotted with sections of land managed by The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, as is much of the state of Utah. Goblin Valley State Park is on the southeastern edge of the San Rafael Swell.

In 2002, then-governor Mike Leavitt of Utah proposed the creation of a San Rafael Swell National Monument. President George W. Bush, who had authority to create such a monument under the Antiquities Act, never acted on Leavitt’s proposal. The idea of federal designation of the San Rafael Swell as a National Monument resurfaced in 2010 in a Department of the Interior document.

Back to my adventure! I would like to introduce you to my trusty steed on this trip. Her name is Sawdust, aka Sawdie. She was a dream to ride with sure feet, a fast walk and easily responded to my requests of her.

One of the owners, Pat, and our wrangler, Christopher aka Topher, led Sawdie and I out to explore the big and open country from Hondoo’s basecamp, which provided a place to head out each day to a little different territory.

When we came into camp each evening, we brushed, watered and fed our horses and they were tied to a highline for the night.


We had a fantastic cook, Beth, who whipped up wonderful breakfasts and dinners for us. We made sack lunches to take with us during the day.



Photo by Adélie L’Helguen

Photo by Adélie L’Helguen






And I didn’t need to leave my chair next to the campfire to be amazed at the sunset each evening and how it cast light and shadows on the adjacent landscape.


My tent, which they provided, included a cot, mattress, sleeping bag, blankets and pillows. A warm shower was also available if you wanted. My tent was the closest one to the campfire and each morning I woke up to the soft glow of the campfire. By the time I was up and dressed, the coffee was ready.


One of the mornings, we had a sunrise that was drop dead gorgeous.

Hondoo Arch (Photo by Adélie L’Helguen)

Our rides took us through canyons with towering pinnacles that made me wonder how they could be standing like that.

The open country was just as beautiful with bright red mesas and sand dotted with sagebrush.

With country as beautiful as this, how could I resist getting a picture of me and Sawdie?

Photo by Patricia Kearney

Each day’s ride was a little different. Some rides wound through mesas that towered above us in red and white colors. We had time to explore old roads and abandoned uranium mines that we came across. Can you spot me in the picture below?

Photo by Adelie L’Helguen

Our basecamp was adjacent to Muddy Creek, which we crossed often as it wound its way through the canyons.

Sometimes the country would just open up with great big giant views of the mesas.

On one ride, we hobbled our ponies and walked out to take a closer look at The Chute, a narrow four mile canyon with 300 foot walls.

I think the ponies enjoyed their break and view also.

I had an absolutely fun time riding Sawdie though indescribably beautiful country with fall colors that contrasted with the red mesas and canyons. On next week’s blog, I will give a more detailed account of one ride that we took.



San Rafael Swell Wikipedia

Hondoo Rivers and Trails

San Rafael Swell Map

Utah Parks

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