Crack Canyon, with its narrows and soaring sandstone walls is a non-technical, scenic joy to hike. It's one of the over 30 remote and hidden canyons transecting the San Rafael Reef. Bonus: you might have it all to yourself.
Entrance into Crack Canyon, San Rafael Reef.
Location: Central Utah, Bureau of Land Management - Price Field Office - Southeast San Rafael Swell - Crack Canyon Wilderness Study Area.
Overview: Penetrate the San Rafael Reef through one of its spectacular slot canyons as waters have for millions of years, with new discoveries around every corner, including a few narrows. This delightful "hands-on" hike navigates boulders, walls and slick rock. A cool cave awaits at the mouth of Crack Canyon, if you go far enough.
Distance/Elevation gain: We began 0.4 miles from trailhead. Our hike = 8.0 miles round-trip. Elevation goes from 5,600' at top to ~ 5,000' at mouth.
Difficulty: Easy/moderate with a few Class 3 moves and one Class 3-4 on short walls and boulders (one has a bypass).
Coordinates: Trailhead on Behind the Reef Road: 38.64315 -110.74504
Maps/Books: Trails Illustrated #712 - San Rafael Swell - BLM - Price Field Office/Hiking and Exploring Utah's San Rafael Swell, 4th Ed., by Michael R. Kelsey. Caltopo map of our GPS tracks at end of post.
Directions to Trailhead: From Green River, Utah on I-70 head west and take Hwy 24 exit toward Hanksville. At milepost 135 on Hwy 24, follow signed road toward Goblin Valley State Park (west). Follow this road to junction (5.1 miles); continue straight. At 7.2 miles from Hwy 24, turn left on a good graded road (Behind the Reef Road). Reset your odometer and travel 4.1 miles to Crack Canyon TH, passing the TH to Wild Horse Creek at 1.6 miles. We drove the old sandy road 0.4 miles down canyon in our 4x4 truck. High clearance 2WD ok on Behind the Reef Road.
Date Hiked: May 11, 2023.
Our tracks down-canyon and back, beginning in the north just off of Behind the Reef Road.
The northwest Colorado plateau's San Rafael Swell and its huge, tilted reef of sandstone has much to offer the intrepid explorer who will boldly go where not a lot of people go. It's an extraordinary place of sublime topography and deep, dark canyons, some that contain pools to swim through. I've heard of this area for years, especially with reference to Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. Fred and I stayed at Goblin Valley State Park years ago to hike Canyonland National Park's remote Horseshoe Canyon to witness the amazing Great Gallery/Holy Ghost pictograph panel and dinosaur print. Relatively unknown compared to Utah's well-visited parks like Capitol Reef, there's a lot to do and see as evidenced in Michael Kelsey's book Hiking and Exploring Utah's San Rafael Swell.
Mexican Mountain, Sids Mountain, Devils Canyon, and Muddy Creek are among the seven wilderness study areas in the San Rafael Swell. The reef on the eastern side of San Rafael is bisected by around 30 slot canyons, many of them requiring technical climbing and navigating skills. A few days before Crack, we went to see the amazing pictographs in Black Dragon Canyon and walked up-canyon from there past an old uranium mine.
I'm not exactly sure how Crack Canyon got its name but I can guess two reasons. At the beginning, as the canyon begins to narrow, there is a "crack" in a tunnel ceiling, only a few feet wide. Further down, the honeycombed walls are so tall on each side at portions there is a "crack" of sky, especially in the narrows. What sets this canyon apart from other slots is the amount of extensive weathering in the form of honeycombs and caverns.
Features of Crack Canyon Hike
Although there's parking at the trailhead to Crack Canyon on Behind the Reef Road, we drove our 4x4 truck ~ 0.4 miles and parked when the canyon narrowed. It was a stellar day - azure skies with tall glowing, cavernous-weathered sandstone walls on both sides. We encountered only eight people on this Thursday. We ran into two older San Rafael-experienced gentlemen who recommended the Little Wildhorse Canyon/Bell Canyon loop, a bit further to the southwest. We've got lots of plans for when we return to this unique, contorted and high-cliffed desert less-traveled.
“Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, posess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally...”
- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Never Stop Exploring!
The graded Behind the Reef Road on the west side of the San Rafael Reef that takes you to Crack Canyon Trailhead. Looking northeast toward Temple Mountain.
Start of hike after we drove ~0.4 miles down canyon from trailhead on Behind the Reef Road.
Crack Canyon's immense wall entrance.
Crack Canyon starting to narrow.
Cavernous weathering (tafoni) in sandstone caused by salt crystallization ("salt weathering") and physical processes such as wind and water weathering. Dissolution of the calcite cement between sand grains may take place, weakening the bonds between sand grains. The factors influencing cavernous weathering are seasonal wetting and drying, aeolian (wind-blown) salt, and water vapor.
Entering "tunnel" with crack in its ceiling.
Log to ascend/descend sheer boulder wall (top of image in the sunlight).
Fun things in the canyon: a log helps to descend a sudden drop-off.
Fred going down, Sue going up.
After descending a short wall above in this photo, you skirt around this pool of water walking on sandstone.
Looking at both ends of this boulder-navigating obstacle.
Climbing down short wall.
Really cool rock formations in a wide part of the canyon.
Walk by this huge alcove.
Cairned-marked up-canyon bypass around the most exposed Class 3-4 section. The bypass is short and well-marked.
Looking down at the most difficult obstacle with tree branch to help ascend/descend and webbing around boulder (left) and view looking up-canyon of same obstacle (right). There's a bypass around this obstacle a few hundred feet up-canyon on the east wall. Look for cairns that lead up through a crack to a ledge.
Canyon opens further down.
Carved slickrock at bottom of canyon.
Sign at intersection of lower Crack Canyon with overland trail to lower Chute Canyon (2 miles from Crack to Chute).
Rock arrow pointing toward steep trail (above) that leads to a great lookout.
Lookout over the San Rafael Desert toward the southeast.
Looking down into Crack Canyon.
Heading back up-canyon.
Some cool stuff on the trail.
The purple flower is actually from the Red Mountain Primitive Trail near St. George, Utah.
North points straight up - beginning of hike at top just south of Behind the Reef Road (CR 1016): hike down canyon SSE direction.
We hiked to the mouth of Crack, just beyond the intersection with trail leading to Chute Canyon (next canyon on the left), so a loop could be done.
Sue and Fred
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west.
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