Upper Black Box


Still right here.
Jan 17, 2012
"Black Box on Monday?" said Chris' text on Thursday. It started simply enough, and though we didn't do much planning together after that, everything came together nicely on Monday morning when Chris, Karin, and Katie met at my house and we got a late start driving into the San Rafael Swell. Karin and I parked our Jeeps at the end of the Mexican Mountain Road, where we all geared up and started hiking at about 12:30. After a short walk down the road and then down a small drainage, we arrived at the rim of the Upper Black Box. I could hear the San Rafael River below but couldn't see the water due to it flowing under a huge rockfall that choked the canyon.

Gearing up at the trailhead

Road-walking to the canyon rim

Side canyon leading to the Upper Black Box

Side canyon leading to the Upper Black Box

First view of the Black Box

We spent some time searching for existing rappel anchors and found two sets: one high and easily accessible and one down low requiring a sketchy downclimb. We set up a 200' rope on the upper anchor but couldn't see whether it reached the bottom, so Chris came up with another plan. He tried and succeeded at climbing down to and back up from the lower anchor, so we set up a short rappel (double-strand rope anchored to a sling around a tree) to get everyone down to the lower anchor, then pulled the rope and fixed it single-strand at the lower anchor. Chris and I returned after the hike to retrieve the rope and tree-sling. It was Katie's first time rappelling and she did well with amazingly no hesitation. For both raps, Chris went first, then Karin, Katie, and finally me. It had taken two hours since leaving the vehicles to reach the bottom of the canyon.

Chris downclimbing to check out the rappel anchors

Karin on the first stage of the rappel

The appropriately-named Black Box

Katie on rappel

Setting up the second rappel

Spire on Mexican Mountain

Chris on rappel

Karin on rappel with Chris belaying

Katie near the bottom of the rappel

Once at the bottom of the second rappel, everyone switched from rappel mode to swim mode. Each of us had a PFD, but I'd accidentally brought my son's instead of my own--they look very similar--so I hiked the canyon with it strapped to my pack. We made one last downclimb from the rockfall using a handline, but from that point on there were no real obstacles except for the occasional submerged, knee-banging boulder. We had to swim almost immediately after entering the water. After a short swim, though, we could walk while trying to avoid rocks and boulders hidden by the murky water.

Karin, Chris, and Katie overlooking the San Rafael River

View up the rappel

View upstream along the San Rafael

Switching from rappel mode to swim mode

One final awkward downclimb using a handline to get into the river

We immediately encountered a deep swim

Floating down the river

Draining Chris' pack


Katie and Karin


Mud layers on the shore

Walking through the canyon was challenging at first. It took me a little while to learn to walk while leading with my toes instead of my knees. On average the water was knee- to waist-deep, but it also ranged from a few inches to probably a dozen or more feet deep. I carried my camera through about 95% of the canyon and put it in a dry box for the swimmers. Among the few items we found in the canyon were a broken canoe paddle and, of all things, a bolwing ball perched 12 feet above the current water level! :D

Chris and the bowling ball that he packed out of the canyon







A swimmer


Just before the end of the Upper Black Box was a lengthy swimming section several hundred feet long. Wedged between the narrow canyon walls was a large tree perhaps 20 feet above the water. The mud was pretty bad just before and after this section and I nearly got stuck a couple of times. We exited the river and I was sad to see it go--we'd only been in the water for just over two hours. Luckily it was a short hike back to the vehicles. Chris and I detoured slightly to find a geocache while Karin and Katie went ahead. Shortly after we got back to the Jeeps the girls left, then Chris and I retrieved the rope before starting our drive home. Along the way were some nice, hazy views of the cliffs north of the San Rafael River. A couple of buck deer surprised us, heading away from the road and toward the river.

A long swim ahead

Tree lodged between the canyon walls

At the end of the Upper Black Box

Exiting up a wash

View down the exit toward Mexican Mountain

Almost to the old road

Jeeps at the trailhead

Cliffs above the San Rafael River

Two bucks heading toward the river at sunset

The San Rafael had been flowing at between 12-14 CFS during our trip and the air temperature was about 85 degrees. The water temperature was perfect and none of us ever felt cold beyond the first immersion. Conditions were nearly perfect and I wouldn't hesitate to do this trip again under the same conditions.

Photo Gallery: Upper Black Box
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awesome TR. I've looked down into black box before wishing I had ropes at the time. I'd love to do this route soon.
Awesome! An easy enough trip. Well done to the first time rappeller. That sounds like a really fun canyon.
Two great trips in two days!!

I was wondering where you've been :)

Both Blackboxes look fun, Cool TR.
I've been shopping for just the right Grand Cherokee. Finally found it on Friday.
We want details! I have to admit, the Grand Cherokee is the most tolerant/capable and smoothest off road vehicle I've ever driven. Until we got our new Trail Edition 4Runner.

And, on another note. Can you believe the UBB has been kayaked - in flood flow!
We want details! I have to admit, the Grand Cherokee is the most tolerant/capable and smoothest off road vehicle I've ever driven. Until we got our new Trail Edition 4Runner.
There's not much to tell now. I just found another '04 to replace my wrecked one, but the new one is in much better condition and with only 94K miles (the old one had 138K). I'll be starting a mild build on it this weekend.

And, on another note. Can you believe the UBB has been kayaked - in flood flow!
I've seen the video so I believe it. Wouldn't want to try it myself, though. :D I've also heard that some have downclimbed the spot where we rappelled into the canyon, which seems not quite impossible, but almost so.
Beautiful report and pics.
We did this about 5 years ago but we dropped in further up, and had a long hike before we got to the "goods". No ropes required, just a little down climb. I remember floating on my back for about an hour in the section below the boulder drop, where it is wall to wall water, a sublime moment for me that I will never forget.