The Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael is one of the most spectacular areas in Utah, and considering what the state has to offer, that is really saying something. The northern end of the San Rafael Swell, located in Emery County is a remote wonderland of deep canyons, cliffs, and panoramic views, but unlike the famous scenes of Utah's five national parks, this area has no designation or protected status. This means that anyone visiting this area will get all the spectacular scenery of the more popular national parks, but minus the crowds.
The main feature of this area is the massive 1,000-foot-deep canyon carved by the muddy San Rafael river through the sandstone of the swell. While it is called the Little Grand Canyon, there is nothing little about it. Most people, when they view it for the first time, are taken completely by surprise having not been aware that such a place exists in Utah outside the parks. The campground located at the edge of the canyon at the Wedge Overlook is one of Utah's most scenic. The area is shaded by plentiful juniper and pinyon pines. Some of the campsites are developed, and others are more primitive. Additionally, there is currently no fee. There is one restroom available as well as signs with information about the area. The main attraction is the incredible view. From the Wedge you are able to see to the bottom of the Little Grand Canyon as well as the mesas and spires of the northern San Rafael Swell. On a clear day the La Sal Mountains near Moab can be seen in the distance to the east of the canyon.
The area is rich in human history. One of the most fantastic rock art sites in Utah is located only a few miles from the Wedge in Buckhorn Draw. This site contains art in two distinct styles. The older, Barrier Canyon style, is over 2,000 years old, while the newer, Fremont style, is around 1,000 years old. The panel is easily accessible and is located adjacent to the well-traveled and well-maintained Buckhorn Draw Road. There are restrooms and interpretive signs at the panel. There is also plentiful primitive camping in in the beautiful and deep sandstone canyon of Buckhorn Draw. Near the upper end of the canyon, a Jurassic Era dinosaur footprint has been preserved in the rock. The location of the print is unmarked and can be difficult to find. However, the nearby Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry has information about it as well as many of the other ancient creatures that inhabited the area.
At the bottom of Buckhorn Draw where the road crosses the San Rafael River there is another campground at the historic CCC bridge. The old bridge has been preserved, but it is no longer in use as a newer one has been built for vehicle traffic. This campground is larger than the one at the Wedge, but it requires a small fee to use.
This area of Utah is truly an overlooked gem and is worth an excursion based on its own merits. Hiking is plentiful along the rim as well as on the canyon bottom. A multi-day backpacking excursion is possible through the Little Grand Canyon, where there is a rare perennial stream as well as shade from the plentiful cottonwoods. Many people also enjoy kayaking down the river; however, it is generally too small and shallow to accommodate large rafts. The put-in and trailhead for floating and backpacking trips is at Fuller Bottom on the western end of the Little Grand Canyon. Takeout and exit is at the San Rafael Bridge Campground on the eastern end.The possibilities for adventure in this area are truly endless!