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Canyons of the San Rafael Reef

Black Dragon Wash to Ernie Canyon
Friday – Sunday, January 29-31, 2021

Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a weekend in January exploring the canyons of the San Rafael Reef at the edge of the San Rafael Swell just west of Green River. I guess I’ve continued to do this each year because it’s an easy drive from home and it doesn’t really matter if there is snow on the ground or not. Plus, it’s just a great place to explore anytime! With this weekend being the last one in January and the weather looking good, I thought that it would be nice to keep up the tradition and headed back to the San Rafael Reef! As usual, I left right from work on Friday afternoon and drove west on I-70 until I reached the San Rafael Reef. Just before driving through Spotted Wolf Canyon on the interstate, I took a side road to the north and found a place to camp near the mouth of Black Dragon Canyon. For a brief time there was a little light snow that fell, but it didn’t stick and stopped just as quickly as it had started. As soon as the clouds dissipated the light from the Wolf Moon filled the canyon.

I woke up on Saturday morning and started hiking up the San Rafael Reef about thirty minutes before sunrise. I have been in Black Dragon Canyon numerous times before, but today I planned to do a little wandering on the sandstone of The Reef above the canyon. There were absolutely no clouds in the sky when I started hiking at dawn, but seemingly out of nowhere some clouds showed up just as the sun came up over the horizon!

First Light over Black Dragon Canyon

First Light over Black Dragon Canyon

San Rafael Reef Sunrise

San Rafael Reef Sunrise

The golden light was looking great on the sandstone this morning.

Golden Light on The Reef

Black Dragon Canyon and the Wolf Moon at sunrise. I was standing just above the popular pictographs in the canyon when I took this photo.

Black Dragon Canyon Sunrise

There was a bit of fog and haze settled into the valleys to the east, including the Gunnison Valley at the base of the Book Cliffs.

Patchy Fog

Wandering further up the sandstone…

Sandstone Sunlight

Sandstone Saturday

There was a great view along the face of the San Rafael Reef with the Henry Mountains just barely visible in the distance.

Walking Up The Reef

Lots of sandstone domes to the north.

Northern View

An overlook of a smaller canyon in The Reef. I decided to skip crossing this canyon today and turned around near here since I had plenty of other plans for the rest of the day.

Reef Canyon View

Yellow Pocket

Yellow Pocket

Just a point on The Reef that I hiked under on my way back down.

Reef Point

Since I was already nearby, I drove into the canyon for a quick visit with the pictographs.

Black Dragon Road

There are some interesting designs painted here…

Right Side Designs

Left Side Designs

The Praying Dog

Praying Dog

Black Dragon Pictographs

Black Dragon Pictographs

After my short visit with the pictographs I headed back out of the canyon, crossed underneath I-70 and then drove south through The Squeeze along the face of The Reef as I made my way to the trailhead for Arsons Wash. Next I planned to hike up Arsons Wash through The Reef and then cross over a low pass into Greasewood Draw to make a short loop.

This is a new sign. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there last February when I drove by…

San Rafael Reef Wilderness Sign

Entering the narrows of Arsons Wash Canyon.

Arsons Wash Entrance

Tafoni Stripe

Tafoni Stripe

Canyon Twist

Canyon Twist

Twisted Stone of the San Rafael Reef

Twisted Stone

Like most of the other short canyons that cut through the San Rafael Reef in this area, it was very nice.

Arsons Wash

Canyon Temple

The depths of the San Rafael Reef.

Depths of The Reef

Once I was on the backside of The Reef I started climbing up a rocky wash to the pass. There was no trail, but it was a pretty easy and straightforward route.

Back of The Reef

This waterfall was the only obstacle on the way up to the pass, and it was easy enough to climb around on the left side.

Arsons Wash Waterfall

After climbing a couple hundred feet I was on top of the pass looking down into Arsons Wash. The route down into Greasewood Canyon was less steep and even easier.

Greasewood Pass

Following the rocky wash into Greasewood Draw.

Into Greasewood Draw

This was a nice-looking canyon, too, as it cut through The Reef.

Greasewood Draw

Canyon Clouds

There were two downclimbs in the canyon that were a little tricky for me. This was one of them and the other was right at the mouth of the canyon. Although they were not very difficult, I was a little concerned that I would not be able to climb back up them if I was stopped by something impassible below. Luckily, I never ran into that situation!

Greasewood Draw Canyon

Leaving the mouth of Greasewood Draw Canyon. From here I hiked back to my Jeep along the front of The Reef. It turned out to be a very nice little loop!

Leaving Greasewood Draw

Next I went on one more short hike to find a large petroglyph panel that I have known about for a long time, but never gone to yet. It was much better than I was expecting!

Petroglyph Wall

These petroglyphs were high up on the wall.

High Panel

Fremont Petroglyphs

Fremont Petroglyphs

On my way to find a campsite for the night I stopped by this old oil derrick.

Oil Derrick

For my final stop of the day I headed over to the mouth of Ernie Canyon and found a place to spend the night. Almost two years ago I had hiked partway up Ernie Canyon when I visited Hurst Bridge and I’ve been interested in hiking further up Ernie Canyon ever since. That was my plan for Sunday morning before heading home.

There were no clouds in the sky on Sunday morning when the first light struck the San Rafael Reef.

Morning Reef

Golden morning light on the sandstone at the Ernie Canyon trailhead.

Ernie Canyon Trailhead

I spotted two of these very faded red Fremont pictographs on the canyon wall along with a few other smaller pictographs nearby.

Faded Fremont Pictograph

The Wolf Moon over the top of The Reef.

Wolf Moon

I climbed up for a closer look at Ernie Arch.

Ernie Arch

Looking down into Ernie Canyon from near the arch.

Above Ernie Canyon

The hike through Ernie Canyon was pretty easy the entire way, but it was a little tiring crunching through the snow in the shade. I stopped to check out some old uranium mines near the backside of The Reef and then turned around to hike back out.

Upper Ernie Canyon

Winter Canyon Scene

Winter Canyon Scene

A cool wall of tafoni along the way.

Tafoni Wall

One last sunstar as I hiked back out of the canyon. I had another great January weekend along the San Rafael Reef and look forward to returning again next year!

Ernie Canyon Sunstar

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  1. Phawnda Moore
    Phawnda Moore February 1, 2021

    Hi Randy ~ always enjoy your adventures. Beautiful photography!

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