Paddling the San Rafael

“What are you looking at?” My wife, Louise asked. 

“CFS,” I replied.

“Ahhhh. What’s CFS?” She inquired.

 â€œCubic feet per second of course” I stated with a smirk.  

“Oh, okay but….What?”  

Our conversation wasn’t going well.  Louise had no idea what I was doing and/or referencing as she watched me stare at a line and plot graph on my computer screen.  It was May, and I was analyzing the spring runoff. The winter snows were melting. I tracked the water levels on the southern Utah rivers, waiting and hoping for them to spike.  

The 2018/19 winter in Utah was stellar.  Every water drainage in the state was above 100% of normal snowpack and some approached 200% of normal.  With those kinds of numbers, this is the year to monitor the flow rates, plan, and make an escape to float one of the many southern Utah rivers.  These rivers rarely flow at a level that one can comfortably float. But, this is the year! 

The San Rafael River located in central Utah is a river that meanders its way through a high desert known as San Rafael Swell, before emptying into the mighty Green River.  Normally, the river is ankle deep and easy to cross. But, depending on the snow year and trip timing, the runoff can result in an enjoyable to challenging float through canyon country.  

Louise and I drove the dirt road just outside Cleveland, Utah.  It was a Friday night; we encountered no traffic as we headed to the San Rafael River Bridge.  We passed the beautiful Buckhorn Wash rock art panel. It’s a worthy stop, but we decided to save that for the return trip in a few days.  In our Land Cruiser, we weaved through the towering canyons of the San Rafael Swell. Louise peeked through the moonroof and saw the red rock walls hundreds of feet overhead. It was good to be in canyon country again. 

We drove over the bridge at a slow speed and glanced at the river below.  Yep, it was swollen. Normally, this river is four to six feet wide and ankle deep.  We spotted a segment that was 25-35 feet wide, milk chocolate in color, and flowing at a pretty good pace.   We turned away from the water to focus on finding a camping spot. Soon enough, we found a nice site on the banks of the river.  Quickly, we setup our tent, so we could relax in our chairs, sip cold beer, and watch the waters flow eastward along the canyon walls. 

“This reminds of being streamside in the mountains,”  I said.

“Yeah, it’s crazy to see this much water flowing,”  Louise added. 

We turned in for the night and listened to the echo of the water off the canyon wall.  Water sounds actually lulled us to sleep in the middle of the desert. A surreal desert experience.   

The San Rafael River originates near the town of Castle Dale, Utah; and flows southeast toward the Green River.  It’s the last major tributary of the Green River before it joins the Colorado River. Much of the water is used for irrigation in the surrounding high desert farmland.  During the early 19th Century, a northern route of the Old Spanish Trail was established as a somewhat viable route to California. For centuries, Native Americans called “The Swell” home. Their ancient rock art is found on boulders and canyon walls. Pictographs, painted figures, and petroglyphs, etched figures, appear all over the rock and boulders of the Swell. 

The following morning, we made our way to the put-in at Fuller Bottom.  We weren’t alone. A dozen or so vehicles covered the tamarisk and cottonwood trees river bottom.  I grabbed the boats while Louise packed the dry bags. Our plan was simple: float the roughly 18 miles back to our camp, close to the San Rafael River bridge.  With the gear packed and boats inflated, we ferried them down to the river. 

Our attention fixated on the amount of water flowing.  Previously, we had driven across this river one fall when the water depth was only 10-12 inches.  On this day, it was deep and moving! I got Louise prepped and ready in the inflatable kayak, pointed the nose of her kayak into the current, and sent her off.  I quickly followed. Louise was 100 yards in front within a matter of seconds. With a few deep paddle strokes, I reconnected with her at one of the oxbows in the river. The river was moving; in return, so were we.  We paddled occasionally to steer the kayak in the right direction. Otherwise, we sat back and admired the views of canyon country—in a unique experience.

“Did you hear the Canyon Wren?”  Louise asked. 

“Not sure, but I heard all kinds of birds,” I responded. The river was alive with birds.  Spring had sprung. The trees were leafing and green grasses already lined the bank.  Flowers such as the state flower, the Sego Lily, were vibrant and made the air fragrant rich.  Our senses heightened. The current moved us downriver at a fast pace. The river weaved its way out of the flatlands and into the deep redrock canyon that makes up the San Rafael River Gorge.  We strained our necks to look up hundreds of feet to the canyon rim. Instinctively, we refocused on the river and the next bend. 

Louise and I paddled when needed.  Otherwise, the current took us, and we simply enjoyed the ride.  I scanned the canyon walls for rock art. “There!” I shouted. I pointed to indicate to Louise to paddle over to the bank.  I followed. With our two rafts beached, we strapped into our sandals for a hike up the canyon wall. Within 15 minutes, we stared at a 15-foot yellow snake pictograph.  Stunning! This 600-700 year old snake had been painted on the wall with natural paint made from the surrounding plants; it remained beautiful and appeared to be the guardian of the river.  We wondered aloud about the artist, the reasoning of the pictograph, and if the artist admired the view as much as we did. We returned to the rafts to continue downstream. 

Look at a Utah map. The many southern Utah rivers are so inviting to float if the water fills its banks.  That’s a big IF. Imagine floating the Escalante River through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to Lake Powell.  Think of finding solitude while floating the Dirty Devil River as it carves its way through Robber’s Roost country. Or, ponder floating the Muddy Creek through the southern part of the San Rafael Swell.  Timing is everything. Louise and I made the right decision. 

Louise and I floated in the deepest part of the San Rafael River Gorge.  The canyon rim rose roughly 1,000 feet above us. We wondered if people were looking down on us from the Wedge Overlook.  This area of the river is known as the “Little Grand Canyon” and rightly so. The late afternoon light danced on the redrock walls, Mother Nature put on a show, and we were the audience. 

The river continued to twist and turn but eventually straighten, signifying our final stretch of paddling before San Rafael River Bridge.  â€œThere’s our spot,” Louise shouted. She ferociously paddled her raft to the eddy before the current would take her downstream. She beached her raft and quickly jumped out to grab the line on mine.  With our boats safely on shore, we walked to our encampment. We prepared dinner and watched the spectacular sunset! 

The following morning, we awoke to sore shoulders and oblique muscles.  We brewed coffee, and our spirits rose as the caffeine hit our bodies.   We quickly ate breakfast and prepped our bikes for the ride to our put-in spot—Fuller Bottom.  The ride through the canyon was glorious and peaceful. We stopped at the beautiful Buckhorn Wash Rock Art Panel and walked along the 150-foot wall of ancient images.  Painted by the archaic culture, these enormous pictographs date back 2,000 years.  Amazingly the images remain today. 

Six miles or so further down the road, we arrived at our Land Cruiser.  We loaded the bikes and returned to our camp. The sun rose high in the sky and its rays hit the western slopes of Bottleneck Peak.  The landscape was bright, warm, and inviting. We packed up camp and headed north. As we drove toward home across the San Rafael River Bridge, we looked at the river once more. It would be our last time seeing the water this high this year. 

A week or so later, I returned to my computer looking at CFSs again.  Sure enough, the river dropped to 95 CFS. It had passed. The high, floatable water would return next spring.   And, so would we.  It was good while it lasted! 

Trip Insights:

-Fuller Bottom to the San Rafael River Bridge is roughly 18 miles.  We floated it in a day.  However, don’t be afraid to spend the night out on the river.  There are many places to camp along the way. 

-Watch the Flow.  The ideal CFS for the San Rafael River is anything over 300CFS.  Check out this website for the latest flow rate:

-Rafts and canoes work well. 

-Bring a water filter. Cleaner water can be found in natural springs by walking up side canyons along the river.  Only filter the San Rafael River water in an emergency. Sediments and sand will clog your filter immediately.

-Wear shoes or sandals that can get wet and allow you to hike.  There are numerous places to explore on foot.  

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