One of the great river adventures of Utah, this rare gem only has enough water for kayaks after winters with heavy snowfall in the southern Wasatch Mountains. The late springs of 2017, 2011, and 2008 saw the San Rafael River swell to a level that makes heading through the Little Grand Canyon on kayaks not only possible but downright enjoyable. The scenery along the San Rafael is absolutely breathtaking and infrequently seen from the water. This foreboding landscape keeps most people from doing this 20-mile stretch on foot, so watching the scenery roll by from the water is pretty special. Timing is key here, and your window is short even on good years, so doing a little research on the current river conditions is advised.
Start by dropping your shuttle car at the San Rafael Bridge along Buckhorn Draw Road and then make your way to Fuller's Bottom Road, where you will be launching into a small tributary of the San Rafael. The water at the launch is barely high enough to keep you afloat, but before long you make your way into the actual river. The scenery at the start of the journey is not spectacular, but the cliffs grow in size and beauty as the miles pass. Along with the sights, the sounds are beautiful and soothing: The chirping birds and rushing water make for the ultimate soundtrack for a day on the water.
An hour or two after setting off, the Little Grand Canyon starts to live up to its lofty title. Giant cottonwood trees hug the life-giving water between vertical slabs of Wingate sandstone. Pass by huge spires, towers, peek-a-boo windows, mesas, buttes, and even a massive dome made of white Navajo stone. Thousand-foot cliffs are commonplace and soar high above, while various meadows make for endless camping options.
Ten miles in is a nice large open spot to set up camp under the Wedge Overlook. Hiking trails nearby offer forays into the hills. The remaining 10 miles, the middle stretch of the river, are the highlights of the trip. There is a new wonderful landscape around every bend in the early miles of day two.
Exit the river at the San Rafael Bridge over Buckhorn Draw Road, the one and only bridge you will come across. Head back to Fuller's Bottom to grab the first car and your trip is complete. A two-day, one-night journey works really well for this trip. Keep in mind the water is loaded with silt, so bring enough fresh water for the trip rather than filtering. By no means can you forget your various forms of sun protection, such as sunscreen, long sleeves, and a hat.
There are side tributaries that lead to various potential camping sites, native pictographs, and even a freshwater spring. They all seem to be on the right side of the river, and they are very easy to pass.
The river has a few spots with some rocks, slight rapids, and trees, but it does not exceed a Class 1. Most of the trip is a lazy river sightseeing tour. You want the river to be running between 1,000 to 1,200 cfs for premium conditions with winds preferable west to east.
Do not attempt this in a canoe or other solid-hull vessel. Use soft-hull, low-profile kayaks (ducky's). Solid-hull vessels and sailors will crash into the sandstone walls and suffer damage or injury or both. The many hard sandstone walls are undermined and jagged, and you want your vessel to absorb rather than deflect the impact. This adventure is only meant for people with the proper gear and experience.
Here's a list of our go-to essentials to get you started: