Black Box of the
San Rafael River
16.3 miles (round trip)
day 1: 2 1/2 hours
day 2: 7 hours
day 3: 3 hours
1,250 ft. loss/gain
2WD car park (start): 5,550 ft.
beginning of Lower Black Box: 4,400 ft.
Sulphur Spring: 4,300 ft.
There is no trail through the Lower Black Box. In many
places the canyon floor is filled with water and swimming
or floating is necessary. In other places it is necessary
to scramble over rock falls. Do not attempt this hike
without adequate preparation.
Midsummer to late fall. The success of this hike requires
good weather, warm temperatures, and low river flow rates;
consequently there are only a few weeks during the year
when it should be attempted. The best all around time
is usually between early July and mid-August. Some important
points to consider:
(1) Always make sure you
have a good weather forecast before entering into the
Black Box, but be especially careful during the rainy
season in late summer and early fall.
(2) Water temperatures in
the Black Box are too cold for travel in the winter or
(3) There is generally too
much water flowing in the San Rafael River to attempt
the Black Box in late spring or early summer. Whatever
date you chose, be sure to call the San Rafael Resource
Area, Bureau of Land Management, in Price at (801) 636-3600,
and ask them about the rivers flow rate. If it is
higher that about 30 cfs (cubic feet per second) dont
Near Green River
Lower Black Box is a deep, narrow canyon of the San Rafael
River located on the eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell.
This hike involves floating 3.7 miles down the river through
the Lower Black Box, and then walking back 2.6 miles along
the eastern side of the gorge to the starting point. The
trip is an exciting one with a lot to see, but it requires
careful planning and it isnt suitable for everyone.
First, the trip through
the Lower Black Box shouldnt be attempted by anyone
who doesnt know how to swim. It is also important
that everyone in the group have an inflated inner tube
to float through the long, deep pools. I have done this
trip with a small rubber raft, but I dont recommend
it. There are a number of places in the canyon where scrambling
is necessary to get around rock falls, and getting a rubber
raft across these obstacles is difficult.
Second, dont try to
carry anything more than your inner tube, a small floatable
day pack, and a walking stick when you go through the
Black Box. Both of your hands must be free when you are
scrambling over the rock falls and fighting your way through
the canyon narrows. You should include a 30-foot length
of rope in your pack for emergency use and for lowering
down backpacks. As for clothing, shorts, a shirt, and
wettable boots are best. You will be walking over submerged
rocks much of the time, so be sure you have good footwear.
Also, forget about trying to keep your things dry. Everything
you take with you will be soaking wet when you finish
with this trip.
Third, timing is important.
Once you enter the Black Box it is difficult to turn around.
It isnt the sort of place you want to get caught
in after dark, so be sure to allow plenty of time for
the trip. The season is also important. You dont
want to do this trip unless the weather is good, the temperature
is warm, and there isnt too much water in the canyon.
From the car parking area
to the San Rafael River and the Lower Black Box is only
a 2.5 hour walk, but since it is best to get an early
start when you go through the Box you should plan on going
only as far as the river on the first day. There are several
good campsites on the river just above the entrance to
the Lower Black Box.
From the 2WD parking area
just continue walking east along the jeep road towards
Swaseys Leap. The road ends after 5.0 miles at a view
point above the river overlooking Swaseys Leap. If you
have a 4WD vehicle you can shorten the walk by driving
another 2.5 miles down the road. In the past it was possible
to drive a 4WD vehicle all the way to the river, but the
area is now part of the Mexican Mountain Wilderness Study
Area and the last 2.5 miles of the road have been closed
by the BLM.
From the view point at the
end of the road it is an easy fifteen-minute scramble
down the last 280 feet to the river. The best route is
down a small rock-filled drainage on the north side of
the view point. Once you reach the river you will find
a good campsite about a hundred yards upstream near the
Swaseys Leap is the name
given to the narrowest part of the canyon just below the
overlook point. According to local legend a cowboy named
Sid Swasey once won a bet from his brother, Joe, by jumping
the ten-foot gap on his horse. A few years later, probably
just after the turn of the century, two sheep ranchers
named Paul Hanson and Hyrum Seeley built a log bridge
across Swaseys Leap for the purpose of getting their sheep
across the flooded river. Amazingly, a few logs of that
bridge are still in place today.
Getting through the Lower
Black Box and back is the goal of the second day. Going
through the Box can be an exciting and interesting experience,
but, once again, make sure you are prepared and that the
weather is good before you start out. Although the Lower
Black Box is only 3.7 miles long, you should allow 7 hours
for the round trip, including 2 hours for the walk back
from the bottom of the Box.
The first point of interest
is Swaseys Leap. You will float under it just a few minutes
after leaving your campsite. Looking up at the last remaining
logs of Hansens bridge, fifty feet above the river,
you will probably wonder how many sheep he lost trying
to get them across.
The first few hundred yards
of the journey through the Box is a very pleasant float,
but soon after passing under Swaseys Leap you will begin
to encounter a series of obstacles. There are about six
or eight places in the upper half of the canyon where
large rock falls will force you to climb out of the stream
to scramble over the sandstone boulders. Although the
conditions change from year to year, the rock falls are
generally not difficult to get around-just tiring and
time consuming. But be sure you have a rope in case you
encounter something unexpected. Usually you will be back
in the water again floating comfortably on your inner
tube after ten minutes of scrambling.
In many areas it is possible
to walk on a sandy bank near the canyon wall, but if the
ground is too wet you will soon discover that quicksand
is a problem. It is usually easier to stay in the water.
After the first two miles
the canyon starts getting easier to negotiate, and soon
you will pass the last serious rock fall. The last rock
fall is located in the middle of a long straight section
of river that runs almost due southeast for a full mile.
As you near the end of this straight section of river
you will begin to see water seeping out of the porous
sandstone of the canyon walls. The seeps become more and
more prodigious as you progress downstream. Also, you
will notice that the height of the canyon walls is decreasing.
Eventually the river makes
a sharp bend to the southwest, and then bends lazily around
again to the northeasterly course. Pay attention to where
the sun is. If it is shining in your face when you look
downstream and if it is about the middle of the day, then
the river has turned south and you are near the end of
your float. When the rivers course swings to the
northeast start looking for a large spring that flows
down the right bank. This is Sulphur Spring, and it isnt
hard to see why it is called that. You can smell the sulphur
and see the twigs and branches on the south side of the
river encased in a yellowish crust. Needless to say, this
water is not drinkable.
When you reach Sulphur Spring
it is time to climb back out of the water and begin your
trek back to camp along the east side of the San Rafael.
Soon you should see a hiker-made trail that follows the
bench above the river. The walk is an easy one with only
a little up and down, the scenery is excellent, and the
warm desert sun is welcome. There are also a number of
impressive views down into the Lower Black Box on the
way back. Stopping occasionally to enjoy the scenery,
you should get back to your camp near Swaseys Leap after
about two hours.
All that remains of the
hike now is the 5.0 mile walk back to your car. It will
take about 3 hours if you parked at the 2WD area, or less
if drove a 4WD vehicle down to the wilderness study area
provided by David
Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book
Favorite Hiking Trails.