Little Grand Canyon Hike
Carved out by the San Rafael River millions of years ago, the Little Grand Canyon — while not as well known or as big as its namesake in Arizona — provides magnificent views on a more compact scale. The reddish rock walls that line the canyon trace a path through 40 to 60 million years of history. Standing on the rim of the canyon at sunrise or sunset, or beneath a glittering basin of stars, you can feel the timelessness of this place and the canyons cracks, towers and bends each tell a story from long ago.
There are two main trailheads for hiking in the canyon, one at Fuller Bottom and the other at the San Rafael Bridge. Though not far as the crow flies, the two are 15 miles apart by car, so choose your starting point based on your intended travel plans. The San Rafael Bridge has a campground for $6 per night and is usually the best place to start for shorter day trips.
One of these shorter trips not to be missed is a hike to the Wedge Overlook. It makes for a great prelude to a day of hiking in the canyon below. Wedge Road will take you up and down gentle rolling hills decorated in the shrubs and trees of the high desert. When you reach the end of the trail, you’ll find yourself right on the edge of an enormous canyon. Standing hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, the views of the San Rafael River are breathtaking. If you continue east for another half-mile to the Grand Canyon Overlook, you can walk out onto a little peninsula that juts into the canyon, and experience the incredible views to either side.
If you are looking for a great day hike, head back north to connect with Buckhorn Draw Road, which descends to the canyon floor, and on to the San Rafael Bridge and campground — it’s a very scenic 16-mile drive from the Wedge Overlook. Look out for the Buckhorn Pictograph Panel along the way, where you’ll be able to see pictures carved into the rock by people of the Fremont culture about 1000 years ago.
Once at the bridge, continue for another 0.3 miles to a dirt road on the right (west) side. Drive down the road a bit more if you can, or start the hike here. The trail travels more or less along the San Rafael River — sometimes touching it, sometimes winding slightly away—beneath the canyon’s impressive walls. It is about three miles to Cane Wash; look out for more pictographs about 100 yards up the wash. This is a popular turnaround point, or you can continue on for less than a mile to get into the Little Grand Canyon proper. From here, you might start to recognize some of the features you saw from above at the Wedge Overlook.
For a longer hike, continue upstream to Virgin Spring Canyon, about four miles from Cane Wash. This canyon extends for miles, which gives you endless options for exploring, and makes it a great place to camp. After a night in the canyon, continue to Fuller Bottom and exit out of the Little Grand Canyon the next day (don’t forget to shuttle a car here ahead of time). As the Little Grand Canyon is on BLM land, backcountry permits are not required, and you may not encounter another hiker for long stretches.
Floating the San Rafael
But what about that little river that carved this mighty land? Time it right and you can tour the canyon by boat. Floating the stunning stretch of the San Rafael River through the Little Grand Canyon is pretty exclusive. The spring runoff season when the river is high enough — more than 100 to 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) — to accommodate river travel can be as short as a few days, or up to three weeks.
The reward for your attention and good planning? With beautiful cottonwood groves and canyon walls towering some 1,500 feet above to the Wedge Overlook for a portion of the ride, the San Rafael is one of the prettiest rivers you'll ever run. It's a six or seven hour day or a great two-day trip.
GPS Coordinates: 39.09289, -110.75664
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