Upper and Lower Black Box Canyons

Time for another Flashback Report.

This time we’re going waaaaaay back to 2004 and a trip to the Black Box Canyons. It was back in an era when I was working way too much and thus tried to pack as much fun as possible into short trips. It was also when I used to pack way too much into my old frame pack! Some things change… some don’t. 🙂 Good times.

Day 0

Headed out from LA for Memorial Day Weekend with my buddy Hanzel — a co-worker that was almost always up for an adventure. After attending a Prince concert in Vegas (not the adventure Hanzel signed up for), we continued up I-15 to Mesquite to grab a cheap motel a bit closer to our ultimate destination of the San Rafael Swell in central Utah.

Day 1

After a leisurely start we were back on the highway and flew through the corner of Arizona and continued north into Utah. Within a few hours we transitioned to Interstate 70 and headed east. By early afternoon we gassed up for the last time and headed out into the remote area often just called The Swell.

the remote stretch of I-70

After about another hour of driving we left the highway and got onto a small dirt road headed toward the red cliffs and canyons. Hanzel and I had actually attempted this same trip a few years prior with a third friend, but had to abort after my Jeep mysteriously broke down in this same remote location. I’ll save that story for another day! All seemed fine this time around though and the Jeep cruised along toward our trailhead.

Before long we were at the end of the road and got ready to set out on foot. We filled our packs beyond their capacity and began huffing it around the southern side of Mexican Mountain and toward the San Rafael River a few miles in the distance.

carrying way too much for a short trip

nearing the river

Once we arrived at the river we walked upstream a short distance and found a good place to set up base camp for the next two nights. After everything was set up, we headed down canyon along the rim to check out a place called Swayze’s Leap — an extremely narrow gap in the canyon where legend has it a man jumped over the canyon on his horse a long time ago (unless that horse was Pegasus, this likely did not really happen! EDIT: see comment section below as *maybe* it did happen!)

at Swayze’s Leap

After a bit more exploring we made our way back to camp to settle in for sundown and get ready for our adventure the next day.

Day 2

Our itinerary for day 2 was to follow the river down through the Lower Black Box and then follow the rim back to camp.

Both of the Black Boxes are somewhat notorious for being difficult and potentially dangerous. Several people have died in the Lower Black Box including a guy from California just a few years before our trip. The “boxes” are what would be best classified as narrows. Such canyons are not as tight as a slot canyons, but are still quite constricted and often deeper/longer. Because the San Rafael drains a large catch basin above this area these canyons are very susceptible to flash floods. Much of the canyon is frequently shaded by the high narrow canyon walls and thus the water says very cold until late spring or summer. We were hoping that our trip would be early enough in the year to not be a high flood risk, but also late enough so as to not be too chilly. We had a good forecast so we were optimistic on both accounts.

Headed down the river from our camp the canyon walls closed in quickly and almost immediately there was no choice other than to walk directly down the river. It was knee deep and not that chilly. Soon we passed under Swayze’s Leap — it was awesome to see it from below after just being on the rim the night before.

underneath Swayze’s Leap

looking up at the leap

Continuing down canyon the route got rougher and rougher. The canyon remained narrow with occasional boulders to work around and soon there were deeper and deeper pools of  milky-jade green colored water.

The huge boulders that littered the floor of the canyon become more frequent and so we continuously had to find our way around them. The boulders along with occasional logjams often temporarily dammed sections of the canyon. At one spot we had to pass underneath a boulder with water nearly shoulder deep. Yeah… this is not place to be when there is a high flow rate!

After we were through this “obstacle course” of sorts the canyon relented some. We continued down canyon at a quicker pace — though it was still far from being an easy/fast walk. We saw a bunch of frogs along the way.

After about 4 miles total down the canyon (seemed MUCH longer) we arrived at Sulphur Spring where the walls lowered for the first time since entering the canyon. Just below this landmark is where one needs to exit the canyon on the eastern bank to follow an unmarked trail near the rim back to the top of the canyon.

Sulfur Spring

The walk back to the north seemed incredibly fast compared to trudging down through the water and canyon. The route doesn’t get too close to the rim for the most part, but there are still some pretty good views down into the canyon at a few spots.

along the eastern rim

Before long we could see our camp area ahead. Soon after that we were back lounging at camp enjoying a hot meal and another sundown.

Day 3

Our itinerary for Day 3 was fairly ambitious. The plan was to hike up to the Upper Black Box and explore as much as we could from the bottom — and then return the same way, pack up camp, and then hike back out and hit the road for home.

The first part of the hike was fairly brushy and the deer flies were relentless. They actually served as good motivators as they tended to NOT bite as long as you were walking, but as soon as you stopped they’d CHOMP! Long pants/shirt probably would have been a better choice of attire than the shorts/t-shirt that I had on.

As we rounded Mexican Mountain we saw some small planes landing on the remote landing strip nearby. Actually “landing” is a bit of a misnomer as they’d merely touch down and then immediately take off again. The pilots did this several times as we approached. I later learned that this is a common practice to “use” these remote airstrips so that they are considered “active”. It’s evidently some type of bureaucracy work-around to make sure the strips don’t get decommissioned. Or… maybe they were just practicing or having fun. In any case, even though it was from afar, this was the only other human interaction we’d have on this entire trip.

Looking up at the northern side of Mexican Mountain I tried to spot a known-route that goes to the top. I had a few ideas, but couldn’t really pinpoint it. Guidebook author Kelsey details it and thus it’s likely to be a fairly challenging route — and definitely not something we had time to explore on this day.

rounding Mexican Mountain

After making it all the way around the bend and a short break for lunch, it was time to enter the water again and head up into the Upper Black Box. This part of the canyon also has an ominous history. I’m not sure if anyone has died in this section, but there have been several injuries/rescues. The full route from the top is considered semi-technical as a few spots require scrambling down huge boulders where a rope assist may be necessary. The canyon is also known for wildly changing conditions with varying depths of water and logjams. Evidently on occasion the water here becomes overoxidized and thus kills all the fish. When this happens all the rotting fish carcasses make for a really ugly/smelly place to be!

Almost immediately after getting back in the river the walls closed in and the water filled the canyon from side to side.

As we went along the walls rose higher and the water got deeper. At one point the bottom gave way and it was no longer possible to touch the bottom. It was a mandatory swim from this point to get up river. Inside our daypacks we had waterproof containers for gear and some empty water bottles to make the floating/swimming easier. It was a fairly warm day so it felt good.

The canyon continued to get deeper, but soon the water actually got shallow again and we were back to walking and sloshing our way upstream.

Before too long there was a rockfall and some some boulders that required a little work to get up and around.

climbing up boulders

Then just a bit farther we came to the major rockfall. This was our unofficial goal for the day and I was happy we made it this far.

the big rockfall (that’s me in the crack!)

This is one of bigger known obstacles for hikers coming down the canyon. I made what seemed at first like a futile attempt to climb UP the obstacle. With persistence and nearing the top I began to lose my foothold and somewhat recklessly lunged to a safe platform. Such a bad idea — but I made it! I enjoyed the view (sorry no pics as I left the camera below) and then quickly realized what is fairly well known to be true — climbing down is often harder than climbing up! But, I managed to climb far enough down to then do a controlled slide into the pool below (also not a good idea, but it worked.)

Once down it was time to double-time back down the canyon. But first… the long swim again…

Once out of the bottom of Upper Black Box it was about 5 miles back to camp. We got there fairly quickly and packed up and headed out. It was no fun to have the big packs on again — but at least they were lighter than on the way in.

The sun was already getting low in the sky by the time we made our way up around the southern side of Mexican Mountain again.

Mexican Mountain

By the time we got back to the Jeep and then out to the main highway it was nearly dark and a full moon was on the rise.

sunset and moonrise on the Swell

Once at the highway is was only nine hours give-or-take of freeway driving to get back to LA! It all made for a loooooong day and an extremely tiring drive home. BUT… we had to be back at work the next day and so that was the price to pay for some good fun in Utah!

All-in-all it was a SWELL trip! 😀👍


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  1. Pingback: Ty Mellor: Taking the Leap – School of Biological Sciences

  2. I love exploring the San Rafael Swell although I’ve never done the Black Box. This will make a great chapter in your book! Swell pics!! You deserve a beer : )

    • Thanks, Don! I haven’t spent that much time exploring in the Swell — just this hike and driving through a few other times. Hope to get back and do more at some point. Appreciate the “beer”.

  3. More info about Swasey’s Leap, taken from Peter Massey book Utah Trails Central Region. “One day, while working near Black Box with his brother, Sid Swasey came upon a 14-foot-wide canyon that fell nearly 60-feet to the river below. His brother wagered him 75 head of cattle he couldn’t jump across the chasm on his saddlehorse. As the story goes, Sid made the jump and won the bet. Soon after, a bridge of cottonwood logs was constructed across the canyon to enable herds of grazing sheep to cross.” Maybe the bridge was gone in 2004 but some pictures on the Internet seems to suggest it might still exist. Here a digitized picture of it: https://contentdm.li.suu.edu/digital/collection/Emery/id/378/

    • Thanks for sharing, Jean! I completely forgot about the bridge that had been there. I seem to recall that most of it fell long ago and only 2-3 logs remained by the late ’90s, but then they too finally gave way. Interesting that that account seems to indicate the jump really happened — that I did not know and still seems really hard to believe. Guess I will update my post!