Best Time and Water Levels to Float/Hike/Ride the River
All visitors must be aware of flash flood potential. Do not enter the canyon if there is a possibility of flash flooding. Remember: The skies can be clear where you are, but a cloud burst upstream can send a wall of turbulent water down the canyon. The San Rafael River is fed by streams originating in the Manti-Lasal National Forest. Check the weather report carefully before venturing into these desert canyons. Flash flood potential is greatest July through September.
Canyoneers exploring the Black Boxes should travel at the lowest water levels possible. The Black Boxes should not be attempted at flows greater than 50 cfs. If you stand under the San Rafael Bridge and the water reaches no higher than your ankle, the Black Boxes will be easier to negotiate. To minimize risk, the maximum depth should not exceed 25 inches under the bridge at its deepest point. Boating the Black Boxes is extremely dangerous and is not recommended.
See the graph
: It shows the monthly maximum, average and minimum flows in cfs at the San Rafael near the BLM Recreation Site, for a typical 10-year period.
How Long and Difficult is the Trip and What Should I Bring?
Hiking the Black Boxes is a very different experience than hiking the Little Grand Canyon
. The Boxes should only be entered on foot, after the spring runoff, at cfs readings below 55. The Upper Box, from Lockhart Box to Mexican Bend is 13 miles; allow 12-hours for this trip. Starting up the alternative trail head will shorten your trip approximately four hours, while still providing access to the narrowest section of the Upper Black Box. The Lower Box from Swasey's Leap to Sulpher Spring (5 miles), including the required land hiking (7 miles) requires a full day.
Canyoneering the Boxes requires hiking, floating, wading, scrambling and rapelling. Visitors entering the Black Boxes should be aware that immersion hypothermia is a real danger
, even during the hottest summer days. The sun does not reach the river due to the high canyon walls, and the topography dictates that canyoneers spend the majority of their trip immersed in water. We recommend that canyoneers wear wetsuits or drysuits in the Boxes. Click here for more information about dangers.
How to Access the River
Upper Black Box
The Upper Black Box has two trail heads: Lockhart Box and an unnamed wash. From the north side of the bridge, travel east on the "River Road" for 8.2 miles. The alternative trail head is an additional two miles down this road. Travel another four miles from the lower trail head to the end of the road and park (do not block the barricade). After leaving the Upper Black Box, before Mexican Bend (at the first side drainage to the west), a half-hour hike will return you to your take-out vehicle.
If you continue from the end of the Upper Black Box to the start of the Lower Black Box, you can hike on rough trails approximately two hours around Mexican Bend, to just above Swasey's Leap.
The Lower Black Box
High-clearance vehicles are recommended to access the trail head for the Lower Black Box. From the San Rafael Recreation Site, drive 13 miles south to Sinkhole Flats. Alternatively, you can access Sinkhole Flats from 1-70 by exiting at Ranch Exit 129 and proceeding north 5.5 miles. Head southeast (left) for 1.8 miles; turn northeast (left). Continue 2.7 miles to the intersection and turn right. Drive 3.6 miles (pass the Black Dragon turn-off at 2.2 miles) to another intersection; turn east (right) and drive toward Sulphur Spring. At the road closure, hike east for about 2 miles. Cross the river near the small, dry wash at the end of the cliffs lining the southern side of the river; then hike in a northwesterly direction following the faint trail paralleling the canyon. Descend to the river at the cottonwood trees, just upstream from Swasey's Leap.
Which Maps Are Needed?
The San Rafael River is located on the "Huntington" and "San Rafael Desert" BLM Surface Status maps (1:100,000 scale). These are sold for $4 each at most BLM offices in Utah.
The more detailed USGS 7.5 minute quads
should also be carried.
USGS maps are available directly from the Utah Geological Survey, some visitor centers, private outlets, and some government offices. The Price Field Office does not sell USGS maps. The Canyonlands Natural History Association sells relevant maps and other publications. Utah Geological Survey
Department of Natural Resources Library
1594 West North Temple
P.O. Box 146100
Salt Lake City, UT 84114-6100
Fax: 801-537-3400, Canyonlands Natural History Association
3031 South Highway 181
Moab, Utah 84532