The San Rafael Reef
Approximately one-hundred miles west of Grand Junction, Colorado, travelers driving west on I-70 will enter a land that many refer to as the moonscape–a thirty-mile long wall of sandstone uplifts known as the San Rafael Reef. The reef is part of the much larger San Rafael Swell, which President Clinton declared a national monument in the nineties.
Avoided by early Spanish explorers, the area was almost impenetrable until the interstate was opened to traffic in 1970 and finally completed in 1990. There is an informational pull-off at the base of the reef and by the time visitors reach the Black Dragon Canyon view point at the top, they will have gained about 1,000 feet of elevation and lost about 50 million years of geologic time. Continuing up, there is often still snow at higher elevations on north-facing slopes and on distant mountains well into spring. A popular area for recreational enthusiasts, by summer this land becomes a sweltering inferno by day, not to be entered into without plenty of water, a hat and sunscreen.
At the next view point the land levels out to a rolling plateau of scrub brush bordering canyons and unusual red-rock formations that runs for about thirty miles. Next, the Ghost Rock pull-off provides a beautiful canyon view. The Hunter Power Plant in the background generates power for use in both Utah and California from local low-sulphur coal deposits. Just beyond the Eagle Canyon overlook, the highway descends into a magnificent valley of vermillion cliffs.
The last major viewing area before leaving the San Rafael Swell provides a panorama of mountain peaks and multi-hued cliffs known as Castle Valley before I-70 continues another one-hundred colorful miles to its junction with I-15 between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Whether artist, photographer, four-wheeler or hiker, the outdoor opportunities throughout the Swell are endless, not to mention a dinosaur quarry.
For more information on regional activities, visit http://www.sanrafaelcastlecountry.com.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.