Backpacking The Little Grand Canyon – San Rafael Swell, Utah

The Little Grand Canyon is an amazing overnight backpacking trip that is perfect for people looking for a fairly easy trip that wanders through one of Utah’s best scenes. The San Rafael River starting from Fuller Bottom is a popular spot for boaters to put in and typically do a single day float of the river, but we’re going to talk about backpacking the canyon in this post.

Below you’ll find some quick info on the best season to hike this, distance, and other important sources. Then you’ll read further to see a Day 1 and Day 2 explanation of the hike and what you can expect during your hike.

Season: Best done in early to late spring, and early fall. Avoid going June through August as temps are extreme and the river may be flowing at a rate that would be unsafe to ford.
Mileage/Time: Total miles to hike from the Fuller Bottom trailhead to the trailhead near the Swinging Bridge is 15.25 miles. You will split this in two, with day one being 7 miles or so, and day two being about 8 miles.
Where To Camp: Your best option for camping is at the mouth of Virgin Spring Canyon, located 7 miles from the Fuller Bottom trailhead. You’ll have to ford the river to get into Virgin Canyon, but there are two or three great, flat, established camp spots, big enough for groups of 6-8 people.
Waste Disposal: The Little Grand Canyon is located on BLM Land and does not have restrictions on human waste disposal. But please practice Leave No Trace principles and dig cat holes, carry out your toilet paper, and do your business 200 feet from any water source.
Water Availability: You can always filter water from the San Rafael as needed. It is typically murky water and will quickly plug up any filter. Your best water source is located at the end of Virgin Spring Canyon, where you’ll find a large pool and fresh water. Be sure as always to use a filter or chemical drops to treat the water. Cattle typically graze in these canyons or Utah.
Shuttle: Most people do this hike from point A to point B. Point A being Fuller Bottom, and then finishing at the trailhead below Swinging Bridge at the mouth of Buckhorn Wash. You will need to plan to leave a car at the Swinging Bridge Trailhead, then shuttle up to Fuller Bottom.

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Route Description:

Day 1: Plan to hike 7 miles this day to make it to Virgin Spring Canyon, so an early start is good to make sure you get the shuttle taken care of before you begin your hike. The Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map is not totally correct as far as where it shows the Fuller Bottom Trailhead. See rest of description for info.

Begin your hike at the small parking lot on your left where the Fuller Bottom road approaches the San Rafael River. There is a trail register box there tat is used by hikers and boaters. Reset your GPS and start walking down the jeep road. You will cross the river after about a 1/4 mile, make sure you stay on the Jeep road as it will allow you to avoid bushwhacking through tamarisk and following cow trails.

Follow the Jeep road for about one mile, it will begin to climb uphill and seem as though you are walking away from the river and canyon. In the distance as you are walking south, you’ll see a red sign with some torn up maps on it. This is where you will turn east (left) where you will begin walking towards the canyon. The trail is easy to follow at this point as it begins to drop into the canyon.

Be sure to look for a small pictograph panel that is easy to miss on your left about 3 miles into your hike from the trailhead. About half a mile past that on your right is an old mine. To the left of a small side canyon you’ll see a trail going up to a hole in some light yellow colored rock with a bunch or yellow tailings. There is also remains of a log cabin with tin cans around this area, but we were unable to find it. As you continue walking down the canyon you will ford the river several times. Make sure to check the current flow rate via USGS. If the river is running higher than 60 CFS, then crossing the river will be difficult, and possibly dangerous.

As you approach Virgin Spring Canyon you will be on the wrong side of the river and will need to cross the river to get into Virgin Spring Canyon. About 5 minutes up Virgin Spring on your right is a very nice pictograph panel about 15 feet above you. If you walk in the wash it’s easy to miss, but follow the trail on the west side of the canyon as you walk up will lead you to a sign that says to not deface the rock. Another 5-10 minutes up Virgin Canyon you’ll come to a dry fall where a large pool of water is located. This is your best source for water and should be your refill for the remainder of the trip, unless you choose to filter water from the river.

Virgin Spring Canyon has seen a bit of graffiti and people being careless about their trash. Please pick up any trash you see, and be a steward by practicing Leave No Trace principles. Virgin Spring Canyon has two or three nice spots to camp and this is your best option since it’s so close to a good water source.

Day 2: Make sure you are all stocked up on water and begin making your way down the canyon. There is supposed to be another pictograph panel just before you make the hard right turn on the river and start walking south toward Cane Wash. Cane Wash is also supposed to have decent camping and another pictograph panel located up the wash. We did not look for it on this most recent trip. You will cover about 8 miles this day to the car. The last 3.5 miles are dry and you no longer have to ford the river. Be prepared for a couple steep climbs, but nothing too aggressive.

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