San Rafael River Gorge Trail is a 13.8 mile out and back trail located near Huntington, Utah and is rated as moderate. The trail is primarily used for hiking and is accessible from June until November.
The San Rafael River Gorge is a desert river that winds through the northern section of the San Rafael Swell in southern Utah. The river runs through the gorge from west to east, and so most people follow the current by entering from Fuller Bottom in the west, and exiting at Buckhorn Wash in the east. This requires bringing an extra car and leaving it at one end or the other.
We decided to drive together and do an out-and-back, with the Virgin Spring as our destination. This is right about half way through the gorge and is arguably the most scenic area of the canyon.
At the beginning of the hike, from Fuller Bottom, theres no clear trail - just a series of cow paths. As long as youre generally following the river, youre going the right direction. Its not until a couple of miles in that the cow trails start to converge into a single clear trail.
It starts in a wide valley floor covered in Tamarisk trees. This was a really slow painstaking part of the trek, as most of the way you have to just kind of bulldoze through the low branches. Theres an alternative way to get past this, which we took on the way back. More on this later.
After a while, the trail becomes more obvious, and leads through the canyon in a pleasant meandering path. There are several places where crossing the river becomes necessary. In fact, at my count, we had to cross the river fourteen times. The first two times, we took off our boots and socks, walked across slowly and carefully, then sat at the other end and got boots back on. Eventually, we realized this wasnt going to be tenable, and resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to be wet the whole time. After making this decision, the river crossings went a lot faster, and enjoyable. Albeit at the risk of blisters, if youre not wearing a good pair of socks in your boot.
The trail is very flat, with a hardly noticeable decline downstream. Make sure to not just stare at your boots the whole time, as the canyon walls are rife with interesting geology. We had more than one break where we sat and tried to puzzle how in the world some of these anomalous formations came to be.
Your experience in the canyon may be drastically different, depending on the level of the water in the river. When we went, the water was moving at a mere 21 CFS (cubic feet per second). Even at this low flow, there were some fords which came waist high. When the river is over 150 CFS (not an uncommon occurrence), you may consider floating the river in a raft, as walking through it will require holding your pack over your head.
There is some danger of flash flooding if there is any rain nearby. There are many waters that feed into this canyon - dark skies in any surrounding area can have a major effect on the state of the canyon. Before you go, make sure to call the local BLM office at (435) 636-3600 and check on the CFS of the river, and plan accordingly. Because its BLM land, you can camp pretty much anywhere you want, and fires are allowed in the canyon (please disperse your fire ring when you leave).
After 7 or 8 miles, youll reach the confluence with the Virgin Spring Canyon. There are a handful of decent campgrounds in that area. I would highly recommend taking a side trip up this canyon. About a hundred yards up this canyon, on the right side wall - about 15 feet up - is a stunningly preserved panel of Indian pictographs depicting deer hunting. Another quarter mile or so will bring you to the Virgin Spring. Its a small pool of fresh water that is a perfect place to pull out your filter and fill up your water bladder/bottle. There are a number of good campsites in this small canyon, one of which we stayed in. There are incredibly picturesque panoramas here.
We took a slightly different route back thats worth mentioning. Having braved the Tamarisk trees covering the valley floor near the beginning of the hike, we decided we had had enough of them scratching and poking our arms and packs. About 3/4 of the way back (see our track for the exact location), we opted to take a trail straight west, away from the river, and followed Dutch Flat Road for the remainder of the trip, which meets up with Fuller Bottom road, and took us right back to the car at the trailhead. This route was much less interesting, and consisted of following an exposed dusty dirt road, but spared us the frustration of boring a trail through the Tamarisk trees.
Other than the treacherous beginning of the hike, this was a fantastic trek that I would love to do again someday. Most people are drawn to the various nearby national parks and dont give San Rafael Swell a chance. This is a blessing in a way, as you can go long stretches without seeing another person. Next time Im in the area, Id leave a shuttle car at the east end, and go through the entire canyon.
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