Bikepacking & Packrafting San Rafael Swell

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Drift through the heart of the San Rafael Swell on two of Utah’s most elusive rivers in this new bikerafting video and trip report by Graham Abrams and Jason Bryce…

The desert river is a remarkable thing; it might only flow for a few days or hopefully a few weeks, and the levels can change drastically overnight. We were lucky enough to have a substantial winter here in the Western United States, so we made a plan to bikeraft two elusive desert rivers in the heart of the San Rafael Swell in Utah.

Words, video, and photos by Graham Abrams and Jason Bryce

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” -Edward Abbey

  • Bikerafting San Rafael Swell, Bikepacking Utah
  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah

Day 1: A long Float Through a Large Canyon- 24 Miles of a pristine canyon landscaped by the San Rafael River

The Little Grand Canyon is a deep, serpentine canyon with beautiful cottonwood groves, ancient rock art, and stunning vertical rock formations. This was a perfect place to start the trip. After meticulously rigging the fatbikes and gear onto the packrafts, we set out. It is important to center everything really well on your packraft when you have extra weight. We have found that it works well to take both of the wheels off your bike, put the bike frame on the bow, stack the wheels on top of the frame, and tie your backpack to the stern of the packraft. The bike breakdown system keeps everything compact and well balanced on your craft. The first day went as planned. We were able to experience some great hikes, see petroglyphs/pictographs, endure a lot of paddling, and relax with a some beverages of our choice, which happens to be beer. We found a beautiful camp in a cottonwood cluster on a big bend in the river about six miles after the regular takeout at Swinging Bridge.

Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah

  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah
  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah

Day 2: 4 Miles on the River / 7 on the bike

The next morning we only had four river miles before we would reach our takeout at Lockhart Wash, where an old jeeping trail meets up with the river. Hitting this check point with some trail space allowed for a smooth transition to the next phase of our trip. It took a total of 45 minutes to go from paddling to pushing pedals. One of my favorite things about bikerafting is how welcoming the transitions feel physically and mentally. After the day of paddling and observing the terrain from river level, I looked forward to working my body in other ways, and in this case, seeing this vast expanse of wilderness beyond the river corridor. A couple of hours into the ride, the weather had changed from a nice clear day to dark clouds rolling overhead. Jason and I made the decision to set up his Hyperlite Ultamid shelter just in time as it started to pour, turning the red dust to mud. We were only a few miles away from our next camp that had four gallons of water we had previously cached to get us through the next day, so as soon as the rain stopped, we jumped on our bikes and continued riding through the mud.

  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah
  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah

Day 3: 37 Miles on the Bike

The roads drastically improved after we got off of the Lockhart Wash road and we were able to cruise. The bikes rode suprisingly well for having just been taken down a river and then stuffed with boating and camping gear. The miles and time rolled by as watched the canyons morph in the distance. The highlight of th day was the 7 mile, 1500 ft descent down to Tomich Butte. It felt good just to sit back and let the bike do all the work as the canyon walls got bigger the deeper down into the gorge we rode. When we arrived to the put-in for Muddy Creek, we were the only people there. Was it because the water was too low? Or because it was a Monday? We said “fuck it” and decided to put in anyway. Our mindset was, “We will get through the canyon even if we have to drag our packrafts the whole 16 miles.”

  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah
  • Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah

Day 4: A blissful and rocky ride through Muddy Creek-16 miles on the River

Muddy Creek is a dramatic abyss cutting through a deep sandstone gorge in the heart of the Southern Swell. It was low that day, so we scraped our way through rapid after rapid until we finally reached the The Chute. This part of the run is where the walls tightened up and we were able to float without worrying about bottoming out. The Chute of Muddy Creek, snakes its way through seven miles of breathtaking 300ft deep narrows where the walls sometimes become 7 feet wide at river level. At times it almost feels cave-like floating through this deep, dark chasm. After many ridiculously amazing hours floating through The Chute, the canyon walls began to open up and the rapids increased. Again and again we had to scrape and drag through rapids that were too low to run. It was the most grueling part of the day. The sun was moving quickly and we were worried we would run out of light before we found the take-out. Needless to say, we were stoked when we finally floated up on the takeout at the old Hidden Splendor Mine just as the sun was going down. This was the last day of our planned trip and unfortunately we were out of clean water, so finding the take-out when we did was welcoming. The only thing left to do was de-rig everything, roll up the wet packrafts, push the creaky bikes up the hill in the dark, and find the car.

Was it worth it? Hell yes. Would Jason or I do Muddy Creek again at 130cfs, probably not. Either way, it was a wonderful trip. We had a great time, and most importantly, we’ll carry memorable experiences of the time we bikerafted two of Utah’s most elusive desert rivers in the heart of the San Rafael Swell.

Bikepacking and Packrafting San Rafael Swell, Utah

About Graham Abrams and Jason Bryce

Graham and Jason are adventurers based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. They are fascinated with the slot canyons, desert rivers, and mountains of the Colorado River Plateau, and are always looking to create new and exciting multi-sport routes throughout Utah and beyond. Follow them on Instagram @fatpacks_and_paddles and their Youtube Channel.

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1 Comments
  • Eric Cornell

    So great to see the Swell getting some air time. Backcountry jeep’d and camped back in 2007 all over the swell. Got a couple big downpours that were just stunning. The petroglyphs an -graphs all over the canyons are amazing. It’s a truly beautiful empty place.