FLOATING THE SAN RAFAEL RIVER IN UTAH
The San Rafael River is a ~15-mile stretch that flows through Utah’s Little Grand Canyon and the famous San Rafael Swell. It can only be floated for a short period of time in late Spring / early Summer during peak snow melt. The trip is beginner-friendly for packrafting and kayaking and can be done over 1-2 days, with optional camping in the canyon.
We floated the San Rafael River in packrafts in May 2019 when flows were 550 cfs, following a heavy snow year in Utah. The entire float took us about 6 hours.
In this blog post, I share all of the details about my trip and how to plan your own packrafting or kayaking trip on the San Rafael River.
San Rafael River Basics
- Location: Between Price and Green River
- Dog-Friendly: Yes
- Permits: Not required
- Put-in Location: Fuller Bottom
- Take-out Location: Bridge at Buckhorn Draw
- Flow requirement: 100 – 150 cfs is the absolute minimum (anything lower and you’ll be dragging your boat quite a bit)
- Best time to float the San Rafael River: Typically Late April – Early June (outside of these months, flows are typically too low to float the San Rafael)
Please remember to Leave No Trace!
This means packing out all of your garbage, including used toilet paper! Check out these blog posts for more information:
Checking Current San Rafael River Flows
The first thing you’ll need to do is check the current San Rafael River flow status.The figure you need to pay attention to is the flow rate in cubic feet per second. As I mention above, the absolute minimum is 100-150 cfs. Lower and you’ll be better off hiking it. Here is a graph from when I floated it on May 19th and it was running at 550 cfs.
At 550 cfs, there were very few obstacles and a few very small ripple rapids.
Car shuttle for the San Rafael River
You will need two cars so you can run a shuttle to float the San Rafael River. It takes a little over an hour to drive between the Fuller Bottom, where you launch, to Buckhorn Draw, where you take out. The entire road is dirt and was in good shape, although can be impassable after heavy rain. There are no bathrooms or established camping at the launch point. The take-out at Buckhorn Draw has a ton of campsites with a bathroom.
We camped about halfway in between at the Wedge Overlook. It required a little bit of extra driving, but it was worth it for the views.
What type of boat is best for floating the San Rafael River?
The San Rafael River is mellow with a few class 1 ripples. It’s a great beginner-friendly float that doesn’t require any experience. However, the river is constantly winding and twisting through the canyon, so you want a boat that is easy to control and maneuver. We floated it in Kokopelli Rogue packrafts, which really were the perfect boat for the San Rafael. Small, nimble, and responsive, they handled all the sharp turns and the few minor obstacles with ease. Our friends floated in inflatable kayaks (also known as duckies), which is another great option.
I don’t recommend floating the San Rafael River in a canoe or on a stand up paddle board (unless you don’t mind going for a swim).
One Day vs an Overnight Trip
At 550 cfs, it took us about 6 hours to float the entire stretch. There was also rain in the forecast, so we decided to do it in a single day, rather than camping.
The first half took us about two hours, while the last half had a lot more bends in the river and moved slightly slower, taking us about 4 hours. The most scenic part of the river is the middle section where the canyon is the deepest.
With lower flows, it could mean a very long day on the river. In this case or if the weather is stellar, you might consider camping on the river. There are sandy campsites all throughout the canyon, and Road Trip Ryan has great recommendations on his blog of the best places to set up camp and to stop along the way.
Gear for Floating the San Rafael River
What gear you need is weather dependent. The San Rafael River is very cold, and when we floated the air temps were in the 60s, so it was very chilly, and we saw a lot of people who were very unprepared. In these types of conditions, I highly recommend wearing:
I even brought a rain shell, which I was very happy about. You can always take these extra layers off if it ends up being warm, but if you end up falling in, you’ll be stoked that you have the right gear. Otherwise, on a hot sunny day, a rashguard for sun protection and some board shorts should suffice.
Other things you’ll want:
- Bug spray
- Sunglasses with croakies
- Water – I brought a three-liter hydration reservoir and stuck it behind my backrest in my boat so I could easily grab the hose and drink.
- Dry bag for anything you need to keep dry
Make sure you strap any gear down in your boat so it doesn’t fall out if you accidentally tip your boat. You’ll also want a dry pair of clothes waiting for you at the takeout.
Hope this blog post helps you plan an awesome float trip on the San Rafael River.