navigation bar

San Rafael River, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

San Rafael Campground to IH 70
~ 42 Miles

navigation bar River descriptions categorized by state First Aid and general safety information Southwest Paddler on-line store Southwest Paddler Yellow Pages listings Environmental issues and concerns Photos of rivers and surrounding areas Trip reports with photos How to advertise on Southwest Paddler Advertiser Index Internet links to related information and services Southwest Paddler visitor comments General disclaimer Product Reviews Federal and state navigation laws Credits for contributors Web Campfire

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 out of Joe's Valley Reservoir in the Manti La Sal National Forest of northwest Emery County, 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.

Below San Rafael Campground the river starts as a Class I flatwater stream. Over the first ten miles or so paddlers will encounter occasional Class I to II rapids, evolving into Class III's before the canyon walls contrict, where the river becomes more serious. This reach of about 42 miles includes two spectacular box canyons in the San Rafael Swell known locally as Black Box 1 and Black Box 2, a pair of Class III to IV canyons that have Class V consequences because of very difficult access, remoteness and potential problems that can ensue from mishaps caused by running bad lines, or running where a paddler should be portaging. In fact, the two canyons can each take a day to run because of the number of necessary portages and the time required to do them. A very rough, unimproved road generally parallels the river in this section, but you can probably paddle the river faster than you can travel the road by vehicle, though it does offer an escape route for those wanting to stop after the first box. The current is fairly swift through these two canyons, especially in areas where the walls constrict the river. Runs begin on flatwater, then start picking up smaller rapids before the big drops, which are located just after the canyon walls narrow. When the first canyon widens and Mexican Mountain appears you are at the end of Black Box 1, and have about 5 miles of flat, swift water down to the start of Black Box 2. This "purgatory" area is ideal for overnight camping before exiting the river or heading into Black Box 2, a shorter, but tighter and more technical run than Black Box 1. This run is an ideal place to enjoy near-steep creek boating in the Utah canyonlands above the Green River confluence.


Emery County, flowing from Castle Dale to IH 70 near the Town of Green River. This section of the San Rafael River flows through the Coal Cliffs and the San Rafael Swell in the Utah canyonlands.

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 375 cfs, with optimum conditions at about 450-600 cfs and maximum safe flows of about 900 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.

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.

Hazards to navigation

Most of the reach between San Rafael Campground and IH 70 at Green River is swift flatwater with occasional Class I to II rapids. However, in the areas of the two canyons, Black Box 1 and Black Box 2, the river constricts, drops steepen and become more technical, blind corners hide dangerous pourovers, holes and entrapments and boulder dodging becomes the order of the day. Most of the rapids within the two box canyons are Class III to IV, but the characteristics of the area give them Class V consequences. There are spots where boulders as large as small houses cause the river to blindly drop into sieves than can seriously injure or kill paddlers. Portaging them takes a lot of time, but is absolutely necessary for those who want to continue paddling downriver. It would be impossible to summon or receive outside assistance in the event of an emergency. Rescue by others in the group would be very difficult, and paddlers could become incapacitated to the point of inability to self-rescue. Portages are many, and most are very slow, so do not attempt to paddle both boxes in a single day. Most paddlers stop between the canyons for overnight camping before continuing on downriver. Even after running the boxes there are still many miles of remote wilderness paddling to the take-out at IH 70, a task that would be made more difficult in fewer boats and/or with injured paddlers being ferried by others in the group. Circumstances make running this section with less than expert level whitewater and swiftwater rescue skills unsafe and unwise.

For those paddling this run the first time it is advisable to go with somebody who has been here before, and to go at a time when the flow is less than optimum, but above minimum recommended levels. Runs at 375 to 425 cfs are perfect for first-timers. Remember, discretion is the better part of valor.

River Access Points

San Rafael Campground off the Emery County road from SH 10 at 0.0 miles; Unimproved road running parallel to the river on river left to the end of Black Box 1 at about 19.0 miles; IH 70 at milemarker 145 near the Town of Green River at about 42.0 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 Black Box canyons of the San Rafael River are an interesting and difficult place to paddle a boat. While not anywhere nearly as tough as Crystal Gorge or Lime Creek in Colorado, this river offers some hairy experiences that test the wits, skills and decision-making of those who venture here. Runs start deceptively easy on Class I to II rapids punctuating a lot of flatwater, but then the river gets very technical as canyon walls constrict and bigger drops start to come into play, often around blind corners with peril awaiting on the other side. This is a 42 mile run that is beautiful, thrilling and demanding of your full attention and capabilities. Shuttles for this reach are long and time-consuming, as with most Utah runs, due to the lack of adjacent roadways. The river actually extends several miles below IH 70 to the confluence with the Green River, but there are no access points in that area, so trips to the Green would entail an additional several miles downriver to Canyonlands National Park, making this one very long river experience. The biggest drawback to this run is the very short season of a few weeks in late May and early June in normal years, and no season at all in below normal precipitation years - most of the source water is from snowmelt in the drainage basin of the Green River and its tributaries. If you are not a paddler with at least strong advanced level whitewater skills, then go somewhere else to paddle!

Technical Data
Class Rating I to IV (w/ Class V consequences)
Length 42.0 miles
Minimum Flow 375 cfs
Optimum Flow 450-600 cfs
Maximum Flow 900 cfs
First Put-in San Rafael Campground
Lat. / Long. 39.0808144 / -110.6681824
Last Take-out IH 70, 11 mi. W. of Green River, UT
Lat. / Long. 38.9235649 / -110.4042053
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Fuller Bottom
Web: Green River
Boats Whitewater Canoes, Kayaks
Season Typically, late May through early June
Permits No

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Utah Whitewater Club - Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting

Canoe & Kayak Magazine - The premiere paddlesports industry publication

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

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 ] [ Upper San Rafael River ] [ Uintah River ] [ White River ]

Southwest Paddler
Click to return to the Southwest Paddler Homepage
Home Page
Southwest Paddler

Utah Rivers Index
Canoeman River

Guide Services
Return to the homepage
Home Page

CobraGraphics - Web Designs with a Bite!

Send E-mail This web page designed, created and maintained by
Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics
© March 4, 2003. All rights reserved.
Last updated September 14, 2014

Copyright © 1998-2014, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.