Home > Online Content > Feature Articles


AS Mag
AR Search
Feature Articles

Canyoneering in The San Rafael Swell
Green River, Utah

By Kevin Frederick


The San Rafael SwellThe warning sign at the trailhead to the Upper Black Box of the San Rafael River is unambiguous — and for good reason. In 1999, two preventable deaths (separate incidents) occurred in the Lower Black Box. Yet, like many in the rapidly growing sport of canyoneering, my fiancée Julie and I regarded the sign as a formality. Technical rock climbers, we had confidence in our abilities — and our gear. The Upper Black Box — a relatively moderate 2C III — would be a fait accomplit.

Canyoneering is a unique combination of scrambling, swimming and rock climbing that requires excellent navigational skills, technical rope savvy and a sixth sense. Adventure athletes serious about climbing, paddle sports and hard-core hiking are particularly susceptible to falling for the sport. In theory, the advent of an established rating system means interested parties can start out easy, gain proficiency over time and slowly advance through the grades. As for the Upper Black Box — a shade easier than the Lower Black Box, which gets an “R” suffix for “risky” — the 2C III rating translates to scrambling (2), swimming with current (C) and taking most of a day (III).

Rich Carlson, senior instructor and president of the recently established American Canyoneering Association, thinks people take canyoneering way too lightly. “Canyoneering has a reputation for being simple rappelling. It’s not,” he says. In collaboration with land managers across the nation, Carlson strongly recommends that people interested in canyoneering should sign up for professional instruction before they get over their heads. For athletes with sound backcountry skills, however, sometimes the ACA “line” has as much impact as the flotation device instructions before plane takeoff, and that can be dangerous.

Utah in general, and the San Rafael Swell in particular, are blessed with great canyons; the soft sandstone of the Colorado Plateau easily erodes into fantastic chasms of all shapes and sizes. But the same forces that carve the canyons present a risk. Rain quickly rolls off this barren country to accumulate with destructive force in the narrow slots — which is why Julie and I picked a weekend with a favorably dry weather forecast.

The Upper Black Box trailhead is a long way from nowhere. Quick turns on dirt roads north of I-70 and several miles west of Green River, Utah, are a good argument for arriving before sundown. Plus, with some daylight left, you can take a short walk, inch up on your belly to the canyon rim, and peer into the chasm of the Upper Black Box. As Julie and I stared down, it was easy to imagine the water trap that this steep canyon could become. The San Rafael River drains an immense watershed, so the flash flood danger is real. Indeed, one of the previous deaths in the Lower Black Box was the result of a hiker attempting to escape faster-than-expected waters. But the night sky on our trip was without a trace of clouds, providing ample room for our nervousness to evaporate. We went to sleep feeling ready for the challenge ahead.

Our chosen day dawned gray and hazy, hinting at rain and inviting laziness and hesitation. As late as 9 a.m. we had written off the canyon as too risky, but two hours later the sky was a clean slate, wiped clear of threatening mist. We quickly cinched our packs — carrying our new neoprene vests for the cold water — and decided to go for it.

A five-mile approach hike ensured a sizable chunk of walking before we’d even get to the heart of the canyon. We hustled because we wanted time to spare in the lower half of the canyon, where the walls close in and you’re wading, swimming and slithering through the cold, mud-brown pools. During our walk in, a substantial part of the canyon wall spontaneously eroded, sending deadly projectiles ricocheting off the walls a quarter-mile downstream, illustrating that sometimes luck is a part of the game, too. By lunch, we tasted the meat of the canyon. The Upper Black Box is one of the most popular beginning canyoneering adventures, and it’s easy to see why. Pleasantly brisk, silty water glides through painted walls, but this is more than sightseeing — it’s a nature-made water park. Side-stroking down the deeper sections, squeezing between boulders to be disgorged into pools below, we sometimes forgot about the tremendous force of water that continues to slowly deepen the canyon — until chockstones impede the river’s flow and the tranquil slip of water roars into chaos, revealing its true potential. The crux moves of the canyon take some faith but I won’t spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that the Upper Black Box, like any classic outing, offers enough challenges to keep it interesting, but never too worrying.

Despite our initial fears about the weather, our plans went well — even better than expected. We didn’t get clobbered by the ever-present geologic activity, and on the long slog back to the car late in the day in 100-degree heat, Julie and I were fortunate enough to hitch a ride. Like many adventures, with a bit of respect, planning and caution, a potential epic can be a whole lot of fun. Or maybe Carlson is right; we were just lucky that day.

Kevin Frederick is feverishly restoring a 1977 4WD Blazer camper with Julie in preparation for an extended misadventure after their July wedding.

Back to Top

Adventure Sports Magazine Home Subscribe Today!