The Perfect 3-Day Road Trip Through the San Rafael Swell & Central Utah (Helper, Goblin Valley, Price, & More!)

The Perfect 3-Day Road Trip Through Utah's Best-Kept Secrets

If you’re like me, you’ve heard about the San Rafael Swell but had no idea what it was or how to visit it.

The San Rafael Swell is tucked away in central Utah and is a hidden geological marvel. Spanning over 1,500 square miles, this amazing landscape is known for its deep canyons, jutting rock formations, and ancient rock art.

But visiting The Swell can be a little confusing! That’s why in this article, I’m providing a simple game plan for seeing some incredible sites in the San Rafael Swell, as well as nearby towns, canyons, petroglyphs, and nature that you should check out while you’re close by.

If you’re looking for a great weekend road trip through a gorgeous but lesser-visited area of Utah, then keep on reading!

What is the San Rafael Swell?

Map of San Rafael Swell Utah

The San Rafael Swell is an area of beauty and ruggedness located in central Utah, in the “empty triangle” between Highway 6, Highway 10, and I-70. It actually overlaps I-70, extending south towards Goblin Valley State Park.

The land once swole up like a bubble, then collapsed, leaving behind some incredible formations to see, such as the Little Grand Canyon, Buckhorn Wash, the San Rafael Reef, and Goblin Valley.

Most of The Swell is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is freely accessed for recreational opportunities and camping.

A Few Tips for Visiting the San Rafael Swell

I found it a little confusing to research the San Rafael Swell before I visited. It’s actually not that complicated, but I did order this National Geographic Map of the Swell, and studied it. It gave me a much better understanding of the landscape and roads.

But the most helpful thing I did was stop at the Museum of the San Rafael, where the worker gave me maps and tips for driving through the Swell. Though there are many side dirt roads for ATVs, there are basically two main graded roads leading through the Swell: The Buckhorn Route and the Moore Cutoff. These are easily done as day trips through the Swell.

You can also download the Activity Guide and other resources.

Don’t forget to pack a picnic and fill up on gas before driving through the Swell, as there are no services!

Things to Do in the San Rafael Swell

San Rafael Swell Utah

Here are some of the most common activities to do in The Swell:

  • Hiking. Explore the numerous hiking trails that wind through the canyons and mesas of the Swell. The best-known hike is Little Wild Horse Canyon, a family-friendly slot canyon.
  • Goblin Valley State Park. Explore the whimsical landscape of Goblin Valley, where bizarre rock formations, known as hoodoos or “goblins,” dominate the scenery.
  • Petroglyphs. Discover the ancient rock art left by Native Americans throughout the Swell. Visit sites such as Buckhorn Wash and Rochester Panel to witness these fascinating petroglyphs.
  • Mountain Biking. Grab your bike and hit the rugged trails that traverse the Swell.
  • ATVing. Hop on an ATV and traverse the vast network of trails that crisscross the Swell.
  • Camping. Pitch your tent or set up your RV at one of the designated campgrounds or dispersed camping areas.
  • Photography. Capture the beauty of the Swell and the changing colors of the landscape through your lens.
  • Scenic Drives. Take a scenic drive through the Swell, marveling at the expansive vistas and unique geological formations along the way. The Buckhorn Draw Road and the Moore Cutoff offer scenic routes to explore.
  • Stargazing. As the sun sets and darkness envelops the Swell, the night sky comes alive with countless stars.

Things to do NEAR San Rafael Swell

It would be a shame to visit The Swell and miss out on some really cool things that surround it. Here are a few that are covered in this itinerary:

  • The charming little town of Helper, Utah.
  • Jurassic National Monument: the largest collection of dinosaur bones in the world.
  • Nine Mile Canyon: a beautiful canyon containing the most petroglyphs of any canyon in the world.
  • The Museum of the San Rafael in Castle Dale, Utah.
  • Horseshoe Canyon: a beautiful and remote canyon in Canyonlands National Park.
  • Arches and Canyonlands National Parks: both within an hour of Green River, Utah.
  • Check out the Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah.

3-Day Itinerary: The BEST of the San Rafael Swell & Central Utah

In only 2-3 days, you can experience some amazing hidden gems in Central Utah!

This is almost the exact itinerary I used, and I’m passing it on to you in hopes it will help you easily explore this incredible area!

Starting Point

You can start your road trip in Salt Lake City or Green River, Utah, but I’ll cover this as if you’re coming from Salt Lake.

It might be nice to arrive in Helper the night before, especially on a Helper Vibes Night. Helper has a few retro-gas-station Airbnbs to stay in. You can also stay nearby in the larger city of Price, which has many very affordable hotels.

Day 1: Helper & the San Rafael Swell

Map showing directions from Helper, Green River, San Rafael Swinging Bridge, The Wedge, Castle Dale and Rochester Panel.

Highway 6

Highway 6 is the road that connects Spanish Fork to Green River, Utah. It is a varied drive that goes over high mountain passes and alongside the well-known book cliff formations of Central Utah.

From Salt Lake City, the drive to Helper is about 2 hours. Some people like to stop at the ghost town of Thistle, Utah, on the way.

Castle Gate, Utah

Castle Gate mine road side stop plaque

This is a roadside stop that is worth it if you’re driving to Helper from the north (not worth the detour if you’re coming from the south). The large roadside pullout is located just north of the Highway 191 turnoff, just 4 miles north of Helper.

Castle Gate was once a mine. The mine was robbed by Butch Cassidy, and it was also the site of the 10th deadliest mining accident in US history.

There isn’t much to see here other than the railroad tracks, but the roadside displays commemorate the mining accident and the robbery and are worth reading for a few minutes on your way into Helper.

Helper, Utah

helper, utah

Helper is a cute little historic town! It was once a mining and railroad town but is today trying to lure tourists through the arts. Here are a few things to do in Helper:

  • Walk along Main Street and browse the art shops, restaurants, retro-themed gas stations, and museums.
  • The Helper Museum is a donation-only museum and although it’s “small-town,” it has over 40 rooms of exhibits, including a brothel room and a wonderful art gallery. Make sure to go into the basement to check out the steps that Butch Cassidy walked on during the Castle Gate robbery.
  • Enjoy the River Walk and check out the outdoor mining exhibits.

For more about Helper, see my Helper Walking Tour.

Jurassic National Monument (Optional Side Trip)

Jurassic National Monument

This is the world’s largest Jurassic-aged dinosaur quarry, and due to its significance, it was made a national monument in 2019.

This is about an hour away from Helper, and the last 10 miles or so are on a graded dirt road, suitable for cars.

Most of the dinosaurs here were Allosaurus, which was the T-Rex before T-Rex lived. It’s interesting to read why this site has so many bones. They have three theories: 1) it was a natural swamp predator trap, 2) the bones were washed here by a river, or 3) it was a poisoned watering hole.

Although this site is significant and educational, there isn’t a lot for a tourist to see and do. If you’re short on time, I would skip this.

If you go, here are a few things to do:

  • Check out the small visitor center with informative displays and dinosaur skeletons.
  • Walk to the small quarry building and see where they are still digging for dinosaur bones.
  • Do the Rock Walk, a 1.5-mile loop. (The ranger told me it wasn’t worth it, so I didn’t do it).
  • Have a picnic among the rocks.

As you arrive, the road forks and you’ll see signs for the Humbolt Overlook. It takes about 15 minutes to drive to the overlook, and the road gets more difficult and you need a high-clearance vehicle. The overlook is nice, but not worth the drive. It’s kind of annoying the signs don’t indicate how far it is to get to the overlook or how rough the road is, so that’s why I’m including it here.

Museum of the San Rafael

Museum of the San Rafael Utah

This museum is located in Castle Dale, and I highly recommend stopping here to prepare yourself to enter the San Rafael Swell.

The museum has an interesting collection of local history, Native American artifacts, dinosaur bones, and even a woolly mammoth! Also, notice the Old Spanish Trail display; you’ll see cutouts as you drive through the Swell that indicates you’re on the Old Spanish Trail.

Make sure to ask them about Matt Warner, Butch Cassidy’s sidekick who helped him pull off the Castle Gate robbery. Matt later reformed and became a sheriff in the area. He’s kind of a local legend. The chaps he wore are on display here.

While there, ask them about the San Rafael Swell, and they’ll give you some maps and booklets and answer any questions you have.

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Donuts at the Food Ranch

If you want a little treat for your travels, stop at the Food Ranch in nearby Orangeville (about a 5-minute detour). These donuts are famous around here, and they are delicious.

Other Optional Side Trips

Here are a couple of optional stops, if they sound interesting to you.

UFO Landing Site

UFO landing site roadside attraction Utah

The UFO Landing Site is a roadside attraction in Clawson, Utah. It was created by a local farmer named Vaughn Reid. It’s located on his property, next to his house. He did it with the sole intent to meet people, so he wants you to stop and check it out, and even to say hi to him. It’s all free.

He’s made a variety of strange creations, such as a UFO ship, giant windmills, and a Keebler house. Feel free to knock on his house and say hi, but be prepared for a tour of his living room and workshop!

Rochester Panel

Rochester Panel rock art Utah

The Rochester Panel is one of the coolest rock art sites I’ve seen. It requires a detour to get there, as well as a short but pretty hike (1-mile roundtrip). If you’re hunting for rock art, try to fit this in. If you don’t care about it much, you should skip this.

This is located in the San Rafael Swell, on the Moore Cutoff Scenic Route (one of only two roads leading through The Swell). This road leads all the way to I-70. It’s paved and it has some scenic spots, but not nearly as nice as the Buckhorn Route.

Optional Loop

Map showing directions for loop from Helper, Utah to Rochester Panel and back around to Huntington Utah

If you’re not interested in the Green River day of this itinerary (Day 2), you can drive the Moore Cutoff Scenic Route, then enter the Buckhorn Scenic Route from the south, and loop back to Helper/Price today.

The San Rafael Swell

Picture of map from pamphlet on Buckhorn scenic route and Moor Cutoff Scenic Route. San Rafael Swell, Utah

Now it’s time to drive through the main road leading through The San Rafael Swell, the Buckhorn Scenic Route.

The turnoff is just north of Castle Dale, and you’ll see a sign saying “San Rafael Recreation Area.”

Unfortunately, this is a dirt road the entire way. The road is graded and is suitable for cars. But it’s always possible you might encounter a few rough spots.

You’ll drive to the Wedge Overlook, then Buckhorn Wash Pictographs, then the San Rafael River Swinging Bridge.

Map showing directions through San Rafael Swell via Buckhorn Scenic Route Utah

The Wedge Overlook

This is an amazing overlook of the Little Grand Canyon. This overlook was really memorable. It really is like a Little Grand Canyon.

To get here, you’ll need to turn right at the intersection where you’ll see a small building and a large dirt parking lot. Signs will point the way, but again, make sure you get maps from the Museum of the San Rafael before going. After viewing the Wedge, you’ll need to return to the intersection to continue to Buckhorn Wash.

View of The Wedge in the San Rafael Swell utah

The San Rafael River runs through the canyon, providing some greenery at the bottom, and the walls seemed to change colors as the clouds rolled by. This is really a fantastic spot and it’s hard to believe it is so virtually unknown.

I sat here for 20-30 minutes, entirely alone. I had this gorgeous spot all to myself. It was incredible!

Dinosaur Track

Dinosaur Track Buckhorn Scenic Route San Rafael Swell Utah

After returning to the intersection, turn right and the road then descends into Buckhorn Wash (notice the Old Spanish Trail cutouts near the turnoff).

It’s a scenic drive with a few roadside stops along the way. The first is the dinosaur track, which is marked by a sign.

But once you stop at the sign, there is no indication of where the track is. You have to park in the small pullout area and walk across the road. Follow the small trail that leads to the top of the ledge. Once on top, you’ll see a circle of rocks and a rock cairn marking the dinosaur track.

Buckhorn Wash Pictographs

Buckhorn Wash Pictograph area San Rafael Swell Utah

These pictographs are a must-see! These are located in a gorgeous area, along a towering canyon wall, right next to the parking lot. The pictographs are much older than the Rochester Panel; these date back to around the time of Christ.

Signs will let you know you’re arriving, and a marked parking lot is located next to the wall.

Buckhorn Wash Pictographs San Rafael Swell Utah

The highlight is the winged angel-like figure, but there are multiple figures that are all, narrow, and a little haunting.

Check out the pamphlet at the parking lot to learn about the efforts that were taken to restore this panel. Never touch rock art.

San Rafael Swinging Bridge

San Rafael Swinging Bridge Utah

This is the most scenic spot of the drive. It’s where the San Rafael River runs through it, and there are two bridges crossing the river.

The Swinging Bridge was constructed in the 1930s by the CCC. A newer bridge was built later for modern cars, but the Swinging Bridge was left for us to walk over.

Here you can listen to the river and admire the views. There are many campsites in this area as well.

View of San Rafael River, Utah

Wild Burros

The road continues to I-70, getting less scenic as you get closer to the freeway. You can’t get lost; just follow it all the way to the freeway.

I happened upon some wild burros on my drive, which was a fun find. But I don’t know how common that might be.

Spotted Wolf Viewpoint

Spotted Wolf Viewpoint  San Rafael Swell, Utah

This viewpoint is located along I-70 as you travel toward Green River, Utah. It’s definitely worth pulling off to see.

It provides a view of I-70 traveling through the San Rafael Reef, a spine-like formation that highway crews had to blast through to complete the road in the 1950s.

If you happen to drive on I-70 in the westbound direction, the best viewpoints are the San Rafael Reef and the Ghost Rock View Area. Black Dragon Canyon viewpoint is just ok.

Day 2: Green River & Nearby Options

Map of Green River and surrounding areas

I recommend staying a night in Green River and spending Day 2 exploring some things nearby Green River.

As a town, Green River is run-down and struggling. It’s a shame because there are a lot of things to do in and around Green River that make it as worthy of a destination as the much more popular Kanab, Utah.

Lodging in Green River

Green River is located right on I-70, so it has many hotel chains in town to choose from.

We’ve stayed at the River Terrace Inn, which has a classic feel, is located right on the river, and is extremely well maintained (highly recommend).

For a cheap family-friendly option, try the Super 8 Motel, which has a pool and a cheap continental breakfast. We’ve stayed here multiple times.

  • If you’re struggling to know where to stay, a great tool to use is We use them as a great resource to compare prices and ratings all in one place.

Food in Green River

There are three popular places to eat in Green River.

  • Ray’s Tavern is probably the most well-known spot and serves burgers and bar food.
  • The Tamarisk is my favorite spot and serves a variety of dishes, including my favorite, the Navajo Taco Salad.
  • Finally, I’ve heard a few people tell me I must get some tacos from the taco truck located on Main Street, but I haven’t tried them yet.

Things to do in Green River

There are a few things to see and do right in the town of Green River.

  • The John Wesley Powell and River Runners Hall of Fame Museum is a nice little spot to learn about the fascinating history of this area. Like the Museum of the San Rafael, it discusses the Old Spanish Trail. But its main focus is on John Wesley Powell’s harrowing journeys through Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon. Check out the massive map inside of things to do nearby (no entrance fee is required to check out the map).
  • Swasey’s Beach is a beautiful spot to swim and enjoy the Green River, located about 10 miles north of town.
  • River Rafting is one of the main draws to Green River. Most tour companies do multi-day rafting trips along the Green River, but locals like to put in 18 miles north of town and end at Swasey’s Beach.
  • Melon Days are held every September. Green River is known for its watermelons!
  • Visit the town park to see the huge Watermelon Float (sometimes found next to the Powell Museum as well). While there, notice the large rocket. Green River was once a launching pad for the military.
  • Check out our article 14 Very Best Things To Do in Green River, UT for more!

Things to do near Green River

Green River is centrally located for a number of incredible attractions. Most are about an hour away. Here are some amazing things to do in this area.

Arches and Canyonlands (Island in the Sky District)

double arch in arches national park

Both of these national parks are located about 45 minutes away from Green River. We often stay in Green River when visiting them because it’s much cheaper than Moab. To learn more about these, see our Arches and Canyonlands pages.

Horseshoe Canyon (Canyonlands)

Horseshoe canyon Canyonlands National Park

Horseshoe Canyon is a separate section of Canyonlands that is not connected to the Island in the Sky. It is protected due to its world-famous pictographs.

Green River is the best jumping-off point to hike this gorgeous canyon, but it’s about 90 minutes away and requires driving on a dirt road the whole way. Learn more in my guide to Horseshoe Canyon.

Black Dragon Pictograph Panel

This is another famous rock art panel located in San Rafael Swell. It’s about an hour away from Green River and also requires driving on a dirt road. I haven’t done this one yet, so I can’t provide tips or recommendations.

Little Wild Horse Canyon

People hiking Little Wild Horse Canyon Utah

This is probably the most popular hike in the San Rafael Swell. It’s a family-friendly hike through a winding slot canyon. It’s often done in a loop with Bell Canyon, making it an 11-mile hike.

But it’s also possible to go into the slot canyon for a while and turn around. Bell Canyon is also a gorgeous canyon to do on its own; it’s shorter and doesn’t require scrambling.

This is located near Goblin Valley State Park, so it makes for a nice tag team and a wonderful day of exploring the Swell.

Goblin Valley State Park

Hoodoos in Goblin Valley State Park utah

Goblin Valley is one of the more amazing and fun places you’ll ever explore! Thousands of little hoodoos are located in a basin that you can explore on your own without any trails.

It probably only takes an hour or so to wander around the goblins. If you want to visit the Goblin’s Lair, it requires a 2.3-mile roundtrip hike, so plan for more time. Take the detour through Carmel Canyon on your way back for a fun adventure.

Sego Canyon

pictographs in sego canyon

Sego Canyon has a wonderful pictograph panel as well as a ghost town. It’s super easy to get to, and worth the visit if you’re into rock art (the ghost town isn’t that great). See my guide to Sego Canyon.

Day 3: Nine Mile Canyon & Price

From Green River, it’s about an hour to Wellington, the jumping-off point for Nine Mile Canyon. Spend half a day exploring the canyon and stop at the museum in Price before driving back to Salt Lake City!

Nine Mile Canyon: The World’s Longest Art Gallery

Map showing directions from Wellington, Utah to Nine-mile canyon

Whether you’ve spent a day in Green River or skipped Day 2 to go back to Helper or Price, the last day of the itinerary will be spent exploring Nine Mile Canyon, which is actually 46 miles long.

Nine Mile Canyon is well-known for having the densest concentration of rock art in the world. There are over 1,000 panels and 10,000 images in this canyon.

Visiting Nine Mile Canyon is like doing a big scavenger hunt to find the best rock art images. It’s also a beautiful scenic drive!

Plan on 4-6 hours of exploring the canyon. Please see our complete guide to visiting Nine Mile Canyon to prepare for your visit.

Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah

After visiting Nine Mile Canyon, stop in at the Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah to end your trip.

It is part of the College of Eastern Utah and has a focus on dinosaurs and Native Americans of Central Utah.

The museum showcases an impressive collection of fossils, including complete dinosaur skeletons, and one of the largest collections of tracks in North America, with over 1,500 individual footprints on display.

You can also learn more about the Fremont Indians, whose drawings you just saw in Nine Mile Canyon.

Want to find more places in Utah?

See our Utah Page to learn more about this amazing state!



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