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The Lower Black Box is a deep,
narrow canyon of the San Rafael River located on the eastern
edge of the San Rafael Swell. This hike involves floating 3.7
miles down the river through the Lower Black Box, and then walking
back 2.6 miles along the eastern side of the gorge to the starting
point. The trip is an exciting one with a lot to see, but it
requires careful planning and it isnt suitable for everyone.
First, the trip through the Lower
Black Box shouldnt be attempted by anyone who doesnt
know how to swim. It is also important that everyone in the group
have an inflated inner tube to float through the long, deep pools.
I have done this trip with a small rubber raft, but I dont
recommend it. There are a number of places in the canyon where
scrambling is necessary to get around rock falls, and getting
a rubber raft across these obstacles is difficult.
Second, dont try to carry
anything more than your inner tube, a small floatable day pack,
and a walking stick when you go through the Black Box. Both of
your hands must be free when you are scrambling over the rock
falls and fighting your way through the canyon narrows. You should
include a 30-foot length of rope in your pack for emergency use
and for lowering down backpacks. As for clothing, shorts, a shirt,
and wettable boots are best. You will be walking over submerged
rocks much of the time, so be sure you have good footwear. Also,
forget about trying to keep your things dry. Everything you take
with you will be soaking wet when you finish with this trip.
Third, timing is important. Once
you enter the Black Box it is difficult to turn around. It isnt
the sort of place you want to get caught in after dark, so be
sure to allow plenty of time for the trip. The season is also
important. You dont want to do this trip unless the weather
is good, the temperature is warm, and there isnt too much
water in the canyon.
From the car parking area to the
San Rafael River and the Lower Black Box is only a 2.5 hour walk,
but since it is best to get an early start when you go through
the Box you should plan on going only as far as the river on
the first day. There are several good campsites on the river
just above the entrance to the Lower Black Box.
From the 2WD parking area just
continue walking east along the jeep road towards Swaseys Leap.
The road ends after 5.0 miles at a view point above the river
overlooking Swaseys Leap. If you have a 4WD vehicle you can shorten
the walk by driving another 2.5 miles down the road. In the past
it was possible to drive a 4WD vehicle all the way to the river,
but the area is now part of the Mexican Mountain Wilderness Study
Area and the last 2.5 miles of the road have been closed by the
From the view point at the end
of the road it is an easy fifteen-minute scramble down the last
280 feet to the river. The best route is down a small rock-filled
drainage on the north side of the view point. Once you reach
the river you will find a good campsite about a hundred yards
upstream near the tamarisk trees.
Swaseys Leap is the name given
to the narrowest part of the canyon just below the overlook point.
According to local legend a cowboy named Sid Swasey once won
a bet from his brother, Joe, by jumping the ten-foot gap on his
horse. A few years later, probably just after the turn of the
century, two sheep ranchers named Paul Hanson and Hyrum Seeley
built a log bridge across Swaseys Leap for the purpose of getting
their sheep across the flooded river. Amazingly, a few logs of
that bridge are still in place today.
Getting through the Lower Black
Box and back is the goal of the second day. Going through the
Box can be an exciting and interesting experience, but, once
again, make sure you are prepared and that the weather is good
before you start out. Although the Lower Black Box is only 3.7
miles long, you should allow 7 hours for the round trip, including
2 hours for the walk back from the bottom of the Box.
The first point of interest is
Swaseys Leap. You will float under it just a few minutes after
leaving your campsite. Looking up at the last remaining logs
of Hansens bridge, fifty feet above the river, you will
probably wonder how many sheep he lost trying to get them across.
The first few hundred yards of
the journey through the Box is a very pleasant float, but soon
after passing under Swaseys Leap you will begin to encounter
a series of obstacles. There are about six or eight places in
the upper half of the canyon where large rock falls will force
you to climb out of the stream to scramble over the sandstone
boulders. Although the conditions change from year to year, the
rock falls are generally not difficult to get around-just tiring
and time consuming. But be sure you have a rope in case you encounter
something unexpected. Usually you will be back in the water again
floating comfortably on your inner tube after ten minutes of
In many areas it is possible to
walk on a sandy bank near the canyon wall, but if the ground
is too wet you will soon discover that quicksand is a problem.
It is usually easier to stay in the water.
After the first two miles the canyon
starts getting easier to negotiate, and soon you will pass the
last serious rock fall. The last rock fall is located in the
middle of a long straight section of river that runs almost due
southeast for a full mile. As you near the end of this straight
section of river you will begin to see water seeping out of the
porous sandstone of the canyon walls. The seeps become more and
more prodigious as you progress downstream. Also, you will notice
that the height of the canyon walls is decreasing.
Eventually the river makes a sharp
bend to the southwest, and then bends lazily around again to
the northeasterly course. Pay attention to where the sun is.
If it is shining in your face when you look downstream and if
it is about the middle of the day, then the river has turned
south and you are near the end of your float. When the rivers
course swings to the northeast start looking for a large spring
that flows down the right bank. This is Sulphur Spring, and it
isnt hard to see why it is called that. You can smell the
sulphur and see the twigs and branches on the south side of the
river encased in a yellowish crust. Needless to say, this water
is not drinkable.
When you reach Sulphur Spring it
is time to climb back out of the water and begin your trek back
to camp along the east side of the San Rafael. Soon you should
see a hiker-made trail that follows the bench above the river.
The walk is an easy one with only a little up and down, the scenery
is excellent, and the warm desert sun is welcome. There are also
a number of impressive views down into the Lower Black Box on
the way back. Stopping occasionally to enjoy the scenery, you
should get back to your camp near Swaseys Leap after about two
All that remains of the hike now
is the 5.0 mile walk back to your car. It will take about 3 hours
if you parked at the 2WD area, or less if drove a 4WD vehicle
down to the wilderness study area boundary.