San Rafael Swell: Good Water Canyon Rim Ride

Good Water Canyon Rim Trail
Good Water Canyon Rim Trail

I’m cautious about how I use the word “epic.” The Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael Swell is truly epic scenery. Friday afternoon my 16 year old son, Finn and I, drove the 125 miles down to the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. I have been down to the southern part of the Swell a few times, but this was my first time to the northern part of the Swell. And it was spectacular. I had first read about the Good Water Canyon Rim Trail in an issue of Adventure Cyclist, the magazine of the Adventure Cycling Association, of which I am a member. It was an article by Aaron Teasdale  about amazing mountain biking in the San Rafael Swell. He writes a very good blog and has a post about riding in the San Rafael Swell, here: (http://aaronteasdale.blogspot.com/2013/10/swell-on-wheels-riding-utahs-san-rafael.html)

I later looked up this trail on the utahmountainbiking.com website and decided that we had to ride this route, and soon, before it got too cold. The weather forecast was calling for sunny skies in the high 50’s to low 60’s.

We didn’t arrive until just after dark, but found the Wedge Overlook area deserted. We found an open campsite near the edge of the abyss and set up our tent. Our tent was about twenty feet from the edge. We then spent some time taking photos. The stars were bright, there was no wind, and it was completely silent, only the occasion drone of a faraway airplane. It was really peaceful.

Bright moon
Bright moon
Night time camp
Night time camp

We cooked up a dinner of sauteed garlic, onions, and peppers with curry couscous. We also brought along a small jar of mango chutney. After dinner, we put our camp chairs right next to the edge of the canyon and drank a couple bottles of soda and enjoyed the stars. Before long it got quite chilly so we headed for bed, though it was only about 8:30. We read in the warmth of our sleeping bags before going to sleep. I had a copy of Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses and Finn was reading Jorge Luis Borges’ Poems of the Night. (We both like poetry). It was a pretty cold night, probably down to the mid 20’s but we stayed warm. We left the rainfly off the tent so we could see the stars through the mesh canopy.

We had originally planned on getting up before dawn to take photos, but it was pretty cold and we stayed in our bags until the sun came up over the rim of the canyon in the East.

A warm sun on a cold desert morning.
A warm sun on a cold desert morning.
Sun through the tree.
Sun through the tree.
Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael Swell in early morning light.
Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael Swell in early morning light.
Enjoying the sunrise.
Enjoying the sunrise.
Little Grand Canyon Overlook.
Little Grand Canyon Overlook.

I had received a new handlebar in the mail just before we left so while Finn was out taking photos I put the new bar on my bike. By the time that was done and Finn was back, the sun was quite warm. We had a simple breakfast of granola, yogurt, and orange juice.

Finn eating breakfast.
Finn eating breakfast.
Our camp on the rim.
Our camp on the rim.
At our camp, getting ready to ride.
At our camp, getting ready to ride. Surly Pugsley.
Packed and ready to go. Revelate Designs frame pack and a Serius small top tube pack.
Packed and ready to go. Revelate Designs frame pack and a Serius small top tube pack.

We camped literally at the beginning of the Good Water Canyon Rim Trail. This was a 21 mile loop that followed the very rim of the canyon. The guidebook says that the trail is never farther than 20 feet from the rim. We found this to be true. We also found that at times the trail was two feet from the rim.

Close to the edge.
Close to the edge.
Not a fat bike.
Not a fat bike.
Spectacular riding right on the edge of the canyon rim.
Spectacular riding right on the edge of the canyon rim.

The trail was spectacular. The views were intoxicating, even magical at times. This is really rough, beautiful country. The trail was much rockier that we anticipated and was quite tiring, but we really enjoyed the ride. The online guidebook said that the singletrack was 15 miles, then an additional 6 miles on dirt roads to get back to the beginning. At one point on the ride, a bit further than half way through, we realized that the canyon was on our left when it should have been on our right. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. So we turned around and realized we were on the same trail we rode out on. We never did figure out where we took a wrong turn, but this did add a few miles to our ride. We took our time, rode leisurely, and stopped frequently to take photos.

Taking a photo break.
Taking a photo break.
Morning light over Good Water Canyon.
Morning light over Good Water Canyon.
Spectacular views the whole way.
Spectacular views the whole way.
Finn is riding is 90's steel frame Bianchi mountain bike.
Finn is riding his 90’s steel frame Bianchi mountain bike.
Checking out the view.
Checking out the view.
A nice, well defined trail.
A nice, well defined trail.

Besides being quite rocky, the trail also had countless twists and turns. As such, you could never get going too fast. It was deliberate, thoughtful riding that I really enjoyed. At times there were rocky steps, sometimes as high as 7-8 inches, but nothing very technical. But all the twists and turns and rocks did wear us out. But the outstanding scenery far outweighed any negatives. The Surly Pugsley performed well. Though my legs were tired, I didn’t suffer much from the rocky trail. Finn on the other hand, was really feeling it in his seat and hands. He was pretty saddle sore, and he felt like his hands were bruised from all the rocks and bumps. It didn’t help that he has very narrow bars that required him to put a lot of weight on his hands. He wants a new handlebar now, and he needs it. This was great terrain for a fat bike and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Those fat tires really softened out the bumps and made the riding smooth and enjoyable. At one point I let Finn ride the Pugsley, and he exclaimed, laughing, “It’s like riding a beach cruiser.”

Looking down into Good Water Canyon. The new bars are On One Mary's.
Looking down into Good Water Canyon. The new bars are On One Mary’s.
The San Rafael River far below.
The San Rafael River far below.
Taking a snack break along the way.
Taking a snack break along the way.

By the time we got to the end of the singletrack on the western side of Good Water Canyon, my Strava reading said we had gone 18.3 miles. So our wrong turn had added about 3 miles to the regular route. We also clocked 1,391′ of elevation gain. That all came in small dips and rises. There were no substantial climbs, and really no climbs to speak of, just lots of small ups and downs. We then rode 5.8 miles on nice smooth dirt roads all the way back to our camp. The first part was nice downhill and the last part we climbed back up to the rim. Our riding time was 3:09, but we were out for about 5 hours with photo breaks, snack breaks, and just enjoying the views. I also really enjoyed spending one on one time with my son. Adventures like this are so much more meaningful to me what I can share them with my kids. During our ride I told Finn, “Don’t ever get so busy that you have no time to enjoy the outdoors.”

I highly recommend this ride. It’s worth it even to drive out for the day if you are within a few hours. We even met one guy on the trail who had driven down from Logan, about a 4 hour drive. We will certainly be back. I want to ride it again with my two brothers. This truly is a classic ride in Utah and the scenery really is epic.

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