The San Rafael Swell is a kidney-shaped upthrust of about 900 square miles of desert, domes, steep hogback ridges, and canyons--almost entirely within Emery County. So much of this uninhabited country is scenic and natural that the Swell has been proposed repeatedly as a national park, although local residents generally oppose the idea.
The striking pictographs found on cliff faces in Barrier Canyon and throughout the San Rafael Swell and in the nearby Horseshoe Canyon section of Canyonlands National Park are almost certainly 2,000 years old, and may be much older. Archaeologists date a sandal from Walters Cave in Horseshoe Canyon as about 8,875 years old.
Later cultures, notably the Basketmakers and Fremont Indians, also left pictographs in the Swell. During the nineteenth century, Ute Indians camped along the Green River within view of the San Rafael Reef.
From 1813 through the 1850s, traders and travelers used the old Spanish Trail, a dusty and difficult track that eventually stretched 1,200 miles from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. It looped north at the San Rafael Reef, then ascended the Wasatch Plateau before swinging toward southwestern Utah, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.