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San Rafael River, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

Fuller Bottom to San Rafael Campground
~ 20 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Green River is a very long stream forming in the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains in Bridger Teton National Forest of Sublette County, Wyoming, then winding its way south into Utah, turning east into Colorado and finally back south down into Utah where it terminates at the confluence of the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park in San Juan County. The featured section is the approximately 20 mile run on the San Rafael River tributary of the Green River from Fuller Bottom near Joe's Valley Reservoir to San Rafael Campground below SH 10 near Castle Dale.

The San Rafael River flows about 90 miles out of Joe's Valley Reservoir in the Manti La Sal National Forest of northwest Emery County through the Colorado Plateau, crossing SH 10 and IH 70 on its way to the confluence with the Green River between the Town of Green River and Canyonlands National Park. The upper 20 miles is a Class I to II run that nearly any competent boater can appreciate, but starting a few miles below SH 10, and continuing to the Green River, the San Rafael develops a more serious Class III to V nature.

From its headwaters to just below Castle Dale the river is more verdant as it flows from the forest toward the canyons. This very scenic run is well-suited for canoes and kayaks paddled by those with limited whitewater experience. Rapids are small boulder gardens where boaters can develop or hone whitewater skills for more challenging runs elsewhere. This reach begins at Fuller Bottom and ends at San Rafael Campground, flowing through an area known locally as "The Little Grand Canyon". The San Rafael is a low-flow stream, and anything above about 500 cfs quickly becomes dangerous for boaters with less than strong intermediate level whitewater paddling and swiftwater rescue skills. The campground is an excellent place to stay after running the upper 20 miles and/or before heading out on the lower runs. Several nearby towns can provide food, supplies, gasoline and motel rooms, if needed.


Emery County, below Joe's Valley Reservoir off SH 29 to San Rafael Campground near Castle Dale and SH 10. Provo is about 2 hours northwest of the headwaters.

Distance from major cities

Salt Lake City 150 miles; Grand Junction 210 miles; Durango 380 miles; Denver 456 miles; Albuquerque 640 miles; Phoenix 793 miles; Oklahoma City 1,029 miles; Dallas 1,185 miles; Austin 1,295 miles; San Antonio 1,303 miles; Houston 1,479 miles; Little Rock 1,356 miles; Kansas City 1,066 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality in the San Rafael River is very good to excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold, but not drinkable without purification. Navigable flows are generally limited to late-spring through early summer, and are normally low, at best. Minimum flows should be at least 150 cfs, with optimum conditions at about 200-400 cfs and maximum safe flows of about 500 cfs. High flows occur only when the river is in or near flood stage, at which times it is a dangerous stream that should not be boated by those with less than strong intermediate level whitewater skills.

Best times to go

Late May through early June is the prime season for running this section of the San Rafael River. Snowmelt is the primary source for flow in this very seasonal stream that may not be navigable at all in years with a below normal snowpack in and around the Manti La Sal National Forest. The river may be navigable at other times depending upon recent local rainfall within the drainage basin.

Hazards to navigation

The 20 miles of river from Fuller Bottom to San Rafael Campground has no major hazards of real significance for competent boaters. Rapids are Class I to II boulder gardens with easy lines and no particular technical maneuvers required at flows between about 150-500 cfs. Whenever flows start to exceed about 500 cfs the river becomes more challenging, and easy rapids become more difficult due to swift currents, cold water and less time to make decisions and execute maneuvers necessary to avoid problems. The real hazard is the remoteness of the area and the extreme difficulty of getting outside assistance in an emergency. Narrow canyon walls limit the space between boulders where boats can pin and wrap in cold water. Wearing a wetsuit or drysuit with a thermal base layer is strongly recommended to protect against hypothermia, which may be the biggest threat to safety.

River Access Points

Fuller Bottom near Joe's Valley Reservoir, off SH 29 northwest of SH 10 at Castle Dale, at 0.0 miles; SH 29 at Orangeville at about 12.0 miles; SH 10 at Castle Dale at about 11.5 miles; Swinging Bridge access at about 15.0 miles; San Rafael Campground off the Emery County road from SH 10 at about 20.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the San Rafael River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Joe's Valley Campground (BLM) on the northwest side of Joe's Valley Reservoir offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and other amenities; San Rafael Campground below SH 10 at the take-out for this section offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and other amenities. There are no other campgrounds immediately adjacent to this section of the San Rafael River. Millsite State Park, south of Castle Dale and west of SH 10, offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and other amenities; Huntington State Park, north of Castle Dale and east of SH 10, offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and other amenities; Twelve Mile Flat Campground (BLM) west of Millsite State Park offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and other amenities.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no outfitters located along the San Rafael River in Utah. Plan on bringing everything you need and running your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The Upper San Rafael River is one beautiful run for paddlers in canoes or kayaks wanting a Class I to II ride on a river that flows from a forested area into the high desert plateaus of the canyonlands of eastern Utah. Unfortunately, this stream has a very short season of about 2-4 weeks in late May through early June in normal years, and perhaps no season at all in dry years. When it flows, the San Rafael is a gorgeous place to paddle with convenient access, good camping opportunities both on and near the river, several small towns nearby for resupplying and a hairboat run just below the take-out for the upper reach for those wanting a little more excitement. To be sure, this river is in the middle of nowhere, and getting there is a roundabout process that takes a lot of time, but for those lucky souls who catch this river when it is flowing a wonderful paddling experience awaits. Bring your camera to this gorgeous place barely touched by civilization, and leave it cleaner than you found it.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 20.0 miles
Minimum Flow 150 cfs
Optimum Flow 200-400 cfs
Maximum Flow 500 cfs
First Put-in Fuller Bottom
Lat. / Long. 39.1184998 / -110.856575
Last Take-out San Rafael Campground
Lat. / Long. 39.0808144 / -110.6681824
Elevation 5,250 - 5,090 feet msl
Gradient 10 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Fuller Bottom
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Season Typically, April through June
Permits No

San Rafael Valley
San Rafael Valley

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Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Green River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

Green River
[ Green River Homepage ] [ Flaming Gorge Dam to Brown's Park NWR ] [ Gates of Lodore Canyon to Split Mountain Campground ]
[ Split Mountain Campground to Ouray ] [ Ouray to IH 70 ] [ IH 70 to Colorado River ]

[ Duchesne River ] [ Nine Mile River ] [ Upper Price River ] [ Middle Price River ]
[ Lower Price River ] [ Lower San Rafael River ] [ Uintah River ] [ White River ]

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