Black Dragon Wash is located on the eastern cusp of the San
Rafael Swell. This ride has two highlights: a doubletrack ride through the
narrows, and a broad slickrock ramp that climbs to a view into the
narrows, from 800 feet above the wash. The area sees only occasional
riders, as it's remote -- and Moab is not too far away.
View in the narrows of Black Dragon
Wash, looking east downhill. The cliffs are Navajo sandstone. Original photos
November 4, 2002 by Bruce, with update in 2017
The narrows can be done as an
out-and-back from the bottom (10 to 28 miles depending on the turnaround spot),
or as a shuttle ride of 14.7 all-downhill miles. Because of loose rock
and some tricky wash-crossings, the ride would be intermediate technical
Bruce cruises under domes of Navajo sandstone in
The one-way ride starts high in the mesa area of the San
Rafael Swell. After a couple of flat miles, it descends another 12 miles.
The last 3 miles are in the depths of Black Dragon Wash, where sandstone
cliffs tower 800 feet high over the 30-50 foot wide canyon. Riding surface
is doubletrack, with occasional ledges, rocky areas, and tricky spots.
The upper 2/3 of this ride features
bluffs and mesas of orange and yellow, with doubletrack rolling down
towards Black Dragon.
The ride's highlight is Black Dragon Wash. The rock layers
here on the eastern side of the San Rafael Swell are tilted upward towards
the west. As you ride down Black Dragon, you're going UP in geographic layers
(and closer to the present in time), even though you're riding downhill.
Approaching Black Dragon from the
west. Navajo sandstone is seen as white rock in the canyon, near the
horizon. Capping the vertical Wingate cliffs is Kayenta. The first
"skirt" layer is Chinle, then the fluted brown and yellow
Moenkopi. These strata are from the Triassic Period.
Before entering the wash from above, you're riding on limestone and
shale from the Permian Period. The skirts of the cliffs, and some of the
shale and mudstone cliffs, are layers of the Moenkopi Formation, from the
early Triassic Period. The Chinle Formation here is a bit different than near Moab.
It consists of two layers of dense sandstone, rather than just loose clay. The
first set of sheer skyline cliffs you encounter going downhill are Wingate sandstone,
capped by the layered Kayenta
Here in Wingate and Kayenta
sandstone, the tiny speck in the lower middle is me, riding my Rocky
Mountain Element in 2017.
Rock paintings are seen on the canyon walls about 0.6 miles
from the lower trailhead. A log fence marks the spot.
The Navajo sandstone forms the last set of cliffs within the
narrows, and the sharktooth eastern ridge of the Swell. Towards the end of
the narrows, the canyon is only about 20 feet in width, with cliffs
towering hundreds of feet above the trail.
Bruce rolls down the last section of the narrows, in
a narrow passage through the Navajo sandstone.
Slickrock above Black Dragon:
At the lower trailhead, a fairly smooth ramp of Navajo
sandstone climbs up the eastern sharktooth edge of the Swell. The slope is
a fairly stiff 20%, but the rock is broad and smooth enough that you can
ride it easily by zigzagging up. The rideable area is almost a square mile
overall. This side trip up the slickrock is NOT to be missed!
View upward, about 1/2 mile up the
slickrock area. Lots of rock to explore.
About 3/4 of a mile up the slickrock ramp, head to the left side for a jaw-dropping
view down into the narrows. You're 800 feet above the bottom of the wash.
Pick your way higher up for additional viewpoints into the canyon.
There's about a square mile of open rock here, bounded on the north by
cliffs above the San Rafael River, on the south by Black Dragon Wash, and
on the west by breaking edges of Wingate sandstone cliffs.
View from a perch on Navajo sandstone
high over the the narrows of Black Dragon Wash. The late afternoon sun is
yielding to a crisp November chill.
If the above video does not appear on your
browser/device, you can watch it on YouTube by clicking
One-way from Upper Trailhead:
1.8 Fork L, N 38° 54.991' W
2.7 Straight (L), N 38° 55.425' W
4.5 Straight (R), N 38° 56.479' W
6.2 Fork L (north), N 38° 56.468' W
6.7 Fork R (east), approx N 38° 56.8' W
11 Entering canyon
14.7 At lower trailhead
Riding notes, Out-and-back:
Just head up the canyon narrows. Steepest section is between mile 3 and 4,
after the canyon opens up. Keep on main trail (R) at fork around mile 2.7.
Good turnarounds are mile 5 (across from freeway view area), mile 10
(Jackass Benches road), or mile 12 (gate where the climbing stops).
Slickrock ramp: At the lower trailhead, drop off the road into the
wash. Go west 100 yards, then fork R. Aim for right edge of slickrock to
get on ramp, then keep generally L to viewpoint 0.7 miles up. Climb
further, or stay and play.
Getting there: Eastbound on US-191, turn west
(right) onto I-70. Nine miles later, cross the San Rafael River. Slow down
and get ready! 0.3 miles later, watch carefully for a gravel turnaround
between freeway lanes, with a dirt road leaving the freeway on the right.
(The dirt road is hard to see until you're passing it. N 38° 55.531' W
110° 25.023') Go through the gate, turn L through the wash. At 0.6, keep
straight (R). At 0.9, turn left and park 100 feet later. N 38° 56.239' W
View down the slickrock area, looking east. The
snow-capped La Sal Mountains can barely be made out in the distance.
Start the ride here for out-and-back, or go back to the
freeway for a shuttle ride. Back at the freeway, turn right (west) and
drive uphill 15 miles. Get off at Ranch Exit 131 (also listed as Exit 129
-- the I-70 exits have been renumbered in recent years), and turn right
back east parallel to the freeway on the
road to the San Rafael River Bridge. At mile 2.6, keep straight (left).
After passing The Sinkhole, turn right at the next fork and park to begin
the ride (N 38° 55.742' W 110° 36.027').
If you need more miles, the Three
Fingers Canyon ride is just across the freeway (through the wash under
I-70), and can give you 16.6 easy miles and a chance to see a different
type of rock art.