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Packrafting the Black Boxes of the San Rafael: A wilderness multi-day in Southern Utah.

Updated: Aug 22, 2020


A typical drop in the 2nd Black Box.

Why Black Boxes?:

The Black Boxes of the San Rafael River are a stunning multi-day trip through a remote and dramatic section of the San Rafael Swell. This is one of the best wilderness runs in Utah and combines consistent, fun whitewater with high-caliber canyon scenery. 


Standout scenery in the 1st Box.

Why Packraft?:  

Given there are roads to the put-in and take-out, the Black Boxes are an excellent kayak run when levels permit. That being said, the San Rafael infrequently runs at kayakable levels and packrafts extend the runnable season by facilitating lower water descents.


Just below Weeping Wall Rapid in the 1st Box.

Difficulty:  At low levels, this run is III-IV in nature but in a class V environment. Egress from the river is not possible in many places and a few of the drops must be run blind. Comfort boat scouting class IV, scrambling, and getting in and out of your boat in creative ways are prerequisites for this run (especially as levels go up). This run is known for its sieves, and you will either be paddling over them or portaging around them depending on levels.

1st Box: The first canyon starts with 10 miles of meandering class I-II. The walls rise up and the river starts dropping through class III-IV boulder gardens with a few scoutable ledges. There is one unrunnable sieve pile that requires a portage on river right. While the first canyon has two of the marquee rapids of this run, overall it offers opportunities to scout and portage everything. Weeping Wall Rapid is easily identified by an overhanging cliff on the left. Scout or portage over debris on river right. Not too far downstream lies Rockfall Rapid where the majority of the river pours into a sieve against the right wall. Portage over massive blocks on the left at all but high flows. The portage requires a very marginal re-entry which can be done with a twisting seal-launch in a kayak or an awkward down climb with packrafts.  I clipped my boat to my cow-tail so I could utilize a fixed hand line and lower myself directly into my seat before ferrying across the pool below to portage around another sieve.  


Portaging Rockfall Rapid.

2nd Box: The second canyon is harder than the first and requires running a couple of blind drops, most notably a 4-5 foot ledge against the left wall shortly after the canyon begins. There are a number of class III-IV ledges and boulder gardens all of which have the potetial for sieves and wood before the canyon subsides to a flatwater paddle out to I-70.


Whitewater in the 2nd Black Box.

Water LevelThe trip begins at the bridge adjacent to the San Rafael campground. This dirt road is in excellent shape and should be drivable by just about any shuttle vehicle. While there a number of takeout options, including between the two boxes, they require a longer shuttle and 4WD. The easy option is to take out just upstream of the I-70 bridge. Less than 1/2 a mile westbound of this bridge there is a pullout for the trailhead to Black Dragon Canyon. We parked just outside of an unlocked gate. From the take-out to this parking area it is a 10-minute walk from the river along the two-track road (easily visible from satellite in the map below). This trip could potentially be done in a very long day but at lower flows it was worthwhile to enjoy some of the excellent camping between the two boxes.


Great camping on slick rock just above the entry to the 2nd Black Box. (See map for location detail)

Logistics: The trip begins at the bridge adjacent to the San Rafael campground. This dirt road is in excellent shape and should be drivable by just about any shuttle vehicle. While there a number of takeout options, including between the two boxes, they require a longer shuttle and 4WD. The easy option is to take out just upstream of the I-70 bridge. Less than 1/2 a mile westbound of this bridge is a pullout for the trailhead to Black Dragon Canyon. We parked just outside of an unlocked gate. It is a 10-minute walk along a two-track road from the take-out to this parking area (easily visible from satellite in the map below). This trip could potentially be done in a very long day, but at lower flows, it was worthwhile to enjoy some of the excellent camping between the two boxes.




The paddle out to I-70.

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