Hiking the Black Boxes of the San Rafael
The San Rafael River runs through two deep, dark, narrow canyons, called the "Black Boxes," which provide challenging hikes for people who enjoy scrambling over rocks and wading rivers.
The boxes are located northwest of Green River, in an area which is beautiful, rugged and desolate. Several guidebooks describe the hikes and make them sound quite appealing.
Three of us hiked the boxes on August 5 & 6, and found conditions far more challenging than we expected. We had an enjoyable time and I recommend the hikes — with serious cautions. It was one of those experiences where I'm glad I did it — now that it's over — but I wouldn't want to do it again anytime soon. I'll be able to talk about this one for years and it will top just about any campfire story.
Terrible roads which tear up tires, difficult hiking, scrambling over rocks and ledges, then having to wade (and swim at times) through stagnant pools which have a smelly scum on the surface, and dead fish floating around. Yeah, it was a blast!
If you want an intense hike through a beautiful, narrow slot canyon, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE. There are dozens of beautiful slot canyons in Utah, and a good number of them provide FUN hikes. The Black Boxes aren't fun. They're work. Do the boxes only if you have a compelling drive to do all of Utah's best canyons, if you are in prime shape and if you don't like your truck.
Conditions have changed enough that the guidebooks are a bit misleading about the boxes. We did the lower box first, and found the roads much worse than the books led us to expect. You need four-wheel drive to even get close. The road to the bottom takes you over sharp rock which tears up tires. The rocks peeled the tread right off one of my tires and blew out another with a rock bruise. We had two vehicles, and my partner's spare happened to fit my truck, or I would have been in trouble. That despite the fact that I was driving as slowly and gently as possible. That road is bad!
The boxes are located in a wilderness study area, and motor vehicle travel is restricted. We expected to be able to drive to the tops and bottoms of the boxes, but the roads have been closed. You now have to walk about a mile down the closed road before you start into the lower box. (Signs marking the road closure are posted regularly by the BLM, and destroyed regularly by people who don't like the closure. The area is patrolled, and you may be ticketed if you drive into the closed area, even if the sign is gone. Basically, the closed area begins just above a steep, rough hill, with a trashed car at the bottom. The hill is tough enough that even experienced four-wheel drive owners will look twice before descending. Park there and walk the rest of the way. (ATV's and mountain bikes are prohibited in the restricted area.)
The hike through the box is enjoyable. Normally, a small stream flows through, creating deep pools. You have to wade the stream many times as you hike, and wade or swim through the deeper pools. Normally that's part of the fun — the air is hot and the water feels good.
But when we were there the stream was basically dry. Not a trickle flowed between many of the deep, stagnant pools. We still had to wade the pools, pushing past the floating suckers. A few of the pools were so deep we had to swim.
Several springs give life to the stream at the lower end of the box. But they carry a lot of mineral — the water and mud are red from iron and yellow from sulphur. Strange-looking "sulphur flowers" form in the springs and river. In some areas gas bubbles come up through the water. A few springs resemble Yellowstone Park mud pots. It's a neat area — it was worth the hike just to see it.
Another fascinating spot is the old Hanson sheep bridge, at Swazy's Leap, near the top of the box.
After reaching the bottom, we had to walk a half mile up a closed road to get to our shuttle vehicle.
On the upper box, you can drive to the start of the hike, but not the bottom. You have to leave your shuttle vehicle over a mile from the river, where there road is closed by an impassable gate.
It was more difficult than we expected getting into the upper Box. One of the guidebooks says you follow an old stock trail into the canyon. A stock trail? Maybe for goats — mountain goats. There is a trail, but it's faint and difficult to find. You have to scramble over the canyon rim. It's easier to get in at Lockhart Box, but that adds to the length of the hike.
Toward the lower end of the upper box you are in the water a good part of the time. You have to swim several long stretches near the bottom.
The "log jam" which is an important landmark in the guidebooks is completely gone.
We were in the sun more than expected, and it was hot. I underestimated the amount of water we needed to carry. One of my companions, Ferrin Flanders, Centerville, carried plenty, and saved us.
This is thunderstorm season and conditions can change quickly in the boxes. One storm and there may be a good flow of water through the canyon. The US Geological Survey in SLC and the BLM office in Price both track the river flows. Generally, you must tube most the way if flows are between 100-400 cfs, and hike if flows are under 100 cfs.
However, conditions can change so quickly that the cfs readings may be wrong. The BLM recommends you measure the water depth under the swinging bridge by the San Rafael Campground, and stay out of the canyons if the depth is greater than 2.5 feet. Never enter the canyons if there is severe thunderstorm or flood danger.
I had a hard time keeping my camera dry, even with no water flowing through the canyon. You need a pack tied to a tube or some other device to keep things out of the water. You should also have a tube or life jacket for each hiker.
These hikes are not for kids. People have to be rescued from the canyons on a regular basis — because they aren't prepared or they don't have the physical stamina. Keep the Boy Scouts out.
One of the reasons the BLM has closed roads a considerable distance from these canyons is that they want people to think twice before making the hikes. That's unfortunate. They have made difficult hikes considerably more difficult. They have made public land unaccessible to much of the public. The BLM is under pressure from environmental groups to protect sensitive areas, and the public seems to be losing. We need to show interest in these areas, and participate in the decision-making process.
Talk to the BLM in Price, 637-4584, before making the hikes. The BLM has a good handout on the boxes, and can give current information. The handout includes a map of the area.
Locating the roads to the top and bottom of the lower box can be tricky. Use your vehicle's odometer to track the miles from one landmark to the next, or you will likely get confused and head off on the wrong road.
On the lower box, the BLM recommends you park at the bottom, then cross over the river and follow an old stock trail parallel to the box up to the top. From there, hike down the box and back to your vehicle.
The road to the bottom is so rough that I recommend you drive to the top, hike the box, then hike the old stock trail back to the top and then to your vehicle. Follow the BLM map to the turnoff toward Sulphur Springs, but continue on around Jackass Benches to the very next road, which goes to the top of the box.
It's about 5 miles through the lower box, and 8.5 through the upper. September is a good times to hike.