Rafting or floating the San Rafael River in Utah seems like it’s a right of passage for all Utahns. Courtney and I heard about it from her coworker in 2019 and it had been on our bucket list ever since, but we had no idea what it really was. Then, over Memorial Day Weekend, a group of us were camping down in the San Rafael Swell, or The Swell for short, and saw a group of friends floating down the slow moving San Rafael River, all in inflatable kayaks, with dogs in tow. Right away, Court and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s do that next weekend!”
The San Rafael River is one of the few rivers that flows through the desert of southern Utah, specifically through a section of The Swell known as, “The Little Grand Canyon.” The raftable section of the river is about 18 miles long, starting at Fuller Bottom and ends at the San Rafael Bridge. Overall, the river is very mellow, nothing more than Class 1 rapids, which are just fun little, fast moving sections of water.
Throughout the entire trip, you’ll be treated with some of the most incredible views as the water winds its way in and around stunning red rock canyon walls. Just remember, there is a very short window to run this river due to the dry climate of the southern Utah desert. The window lasts from the last two weekends in May until the first few weekends in June. But this is all dependent on the snowpack on the given year.
Duration & Flow
Rivers are measured in flow, which is a measurement of the speed and volume of the water moving at any given time. High flow is fast, low flow is slow. The unit of measurement is CFS, or Cubic Feet Per Second. Luckily, since this is a quick trip, either done in a day at High CFS (+500 CFS), or as an overnight when the CFS is lower (100-250 CFS), logistics are much easier to plan for. To get the most up-to-date flow information: CLICK HERE
Expect to be on the water for 4-6hrs a day if it is low flow. In contrast, I’ve heard stories that people have completed this whole thing in a few hours when the river is running high. But at really high flow, 1000CFS, the river becomes really dangerous.
None, no permits are required. No guides are required. Please pack-in, pack-out everything you bring with you on the river.
Drive 5.5 miles down the well maintained dirt road named Fuller Bottom Road. The start of your float begins at the end of that dirt road at a place called Fuller Bottom. There is a parking area there where you can leave your car for the weekend. As a heads up, there isn’t an easy beach to launch your boat from. The two options are dropping it down the embankment, or bushwhacking through the tall grass to reach the water. Both are manageable, but just remember how quickly the boat gets heavy with all the gear, so plan accordingly.
For the take-out, there are a few more options. To do the full, runnable section of the San Rafael River, you can take-out at at the San Rafael Swinging Bridge. Park your cars on either side of the river next to the bridge. There are no parking restrictions for overnight parking there. The last mile or two can be a bit of a slog and add unnecessary time to some party’s trips, so you can also take-out at the wash located here. If you go with the second option, park your car here.
It was recommended to us to float/raft this river in an inflatable kayak, packraft, or raft, and I couldn’t agree more. The river can be very rocky at low flow, and is generally pretty narrow. We regularly found ourselves bumping into the sides of the river and had the kayak bottoms drag on the bottom. If we were in a hard kayak or canoe, I think more of us would have ended up flipping their boats.
We rented our inflatable kayaks (also known as duckies) from the University of Utah Campus Recreation. This is a great, cheap option and you do NOT need to be a student to rent from here. Our other friends rented from UTAH Whitewater Gear and also had a great experience. Here are more resources to rent from. Green River Adventure and Utah Valley University Outdoor Adventure Center.
At a minimum, you will need a boat (of some sort), PFD, and paddle. For two days (1 night) on the river, our crew all brought coolers filled with food, beer, and snacks. We put our clothes into 15-30L dry bags (which can also be rented), and also their camping gear. We chose to toss our snacks and camera gear in other dry bags as well to keep them safe. I reccomend at least 2L of water per day on the river. During the summer months, it gets very hot and easy to get dehydrated even though you’re surrounded by water. If you plan to filter the river water, just remember to collect it, let it settle (the river is very muddy), before trying to filter; otherwise, it’ll clog your filter.
Some folks used a drag-bag to drag all their drinks in behind their kayaks in the river to keep them nice and cool without having to take up any space in their boat.
This river is located in the San Rafael Swell which is almost entirely BLM land, which means you can pretty much camp anywhere with a few exceptions. One, do not camp within 200ft of the water. Two, do not create any new campsites or fire rings. Other than that, you’re good to camp anywhere. We chose to camp a half mile up the road from Fuller Bottom. There are few campsites near Fuller Bottom, and much more near the takeout. I like to check out campsite options ahead of time on Google Satellite view.
As for camping on the river, your best options are on a beach at about 9 miles in this this tight bend in the river. This is where we camped, and had plenty of space for all 6 tents, and there were even a few fire rings in place. A few other options, based on what people have mentioned and what is on google maps are here, here, and here. These three are all shown below in the on the map relative to the Wedge Overlook.
This is by far the trickiest part of your trip. Shuttling is the act of planning transportation to get everyone to the put in, as well as having a vehicles there for you at the take-out. If you have two cars, it’s pretty simple, but the issue arrises with how much of the gear & boats will actually fit in the cars or trucks you brought.
Both cars go to the takeout, leave one, and drive both drivers back to the put in with all the gear. If all of the gear won’t fit, start by having both vehicles drive to the put in, unload all the gear, then drive to the take-out, leave a vehicle, then drive back to the put-in. This can be sketchy if you don’t have someone to stay with the gear at the put-in. But remember, you’ll run into the same issue at the takeout if all the gear won’t fit in 1 of the vehicles you brought. 4 people and 4 boats (plus gear) is hard to fit into a regular sized sedan FYI. So you’ll have to leave all the gear at the take-out, shuttle back up to the put-in, get the other car, then return to the take-out to load up all your stuff.
3 or More Vehicles
This is slightly easier. Follow the same idea as the 2 vehicle approach. The idea here would be to make people do as little driving as possible before and after their trip on the river, so meet at the put-in, leave gear, everyone drive to the take-out together, leave two vehicles (or as many as possible), then all drive back in one car to the put-in. This way, after you float the river, only one car has to drive back to the put-in to fetch the car that was left there.
If two or more cars are left at the put-in, just remember to plan and make sure the vehicles that are coming back to get them can fit both vehicles worth of gear. By that, I mean, if each vehicle came down with 2 people in, and each person had their own gear and inflatable kayak, that vehicle that was left at the take-out and needs to drive back to the put-in will have to fit 4 inflatable kayaks with all their gear.
We ran into this issue realizing that everyone’s cars just barely fit their own gear and boats, let alone someone else’s. So what happened was 6 boats and gear needed to be thrown into my truck and we had to shuttle more cars up to the put-in just for the people to get back to their car.
The Route on River
I won’t try to wow you with my words as to what you’ll experience on the river. The river’s surrounding landscape starts out underwhelming, and quickly turns into a cathedral of desert canyons. You can’t get lost on the river because there are no forks, and you can only go in one direction. We chose to record the activity on our watches so that we knew how far we’d gone and how far we need to go each day. You can’t miss the takeout because it’s the only bridge that crosses the river.
So load up your boats, hop on in, and enjoy some of the most scenic bits of Utah that isn’t heavily over-visted, or need a permit to do.
Last Bits of Info
For great resources, check out RoadTripRyan’s post on Floating Little GrandCanyon.
During the spring months, if there isn’t wind, you’ll be attached viciously by bugs, so don’t forget the bug spray. Also, don’t forget you’re in the desert, so pack loads of sunscreen to protect yourself from the high altitude sun.
Feel free to reach out to me for any more information or beta.
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.