San Rafael River, Sorrel Mule Mine

Crossing the San Rafael River at Fuller BottomChris and I hiked yesterday along the San Rafael River to the Sorrel Mule Mine. The big draw for us was a geocache near the mine that had never been found, though any one of the challenging hike, nice views, and awesome old mine would be enough to make it worthwhile. I’d imagine that this hike is normally done in the spring/summer/fall whenever the water levels are fairly low (due to having to cross the river several times), but it was a blast doing it in winter. We drove down in my truck and stopped at Fuller Bottom to check out the river ford there. I’d been hoping that the San Rafael would be frozen solid, but with the recent snow and the warm daytime weather, it was flowing pretty well. I was nervous about driving the truck across, but I didn’t want to look like a pussy so I went for it. It made it across just fine, and from there it was only another 1.2 miles to the trailhead.
Cougar tracks in the snowWe started the hike a little before 11:00AM. The trail was easily discernible under the snow at first, but we lost it a couple of times while hiking down to the river bottom. Shortly after getting to the river bottom, the river bank narrowed up and the trail ran between the river and a cliff. I noticed a set of mountain lion tracks in the snow on the trail, and they couldn’t have been more than a day old since they were in the fresh snow that had fallen the day before. We ended up following the tracks for most of the remainder of the hike.
Crossing the frozen San Rafael RiverThe trail came to the first river crossing, but the water was running swift and deep. Chris and I had each brought an extra pair of shoes and socks for the water crossings, but we wanted to avoid getting wet if at all possible. We left the trail and followed the river bank downstream until we got to a place below a cliff where the sun never shines this time of year. The river there flowed beneath a layer of snow-covered ice, though we were still worried about breaking through and falling into the water. Chris volunteered to go first since he weighed more than I do. He slowly shuffled out onto the ice and made it to the other side of the river slowly but easily. After we were both across we had to bushwhack until we got to the trail again.
PetroglyphsA third of a mile farther there was a petroglyph panel that turned out to be much more expansive than I expected. I’d seen a single photo of a small part of it, but I took many photos of the several groups of petroglyphs that were spread out along 400-500 feet of cliffs. The trail then climbed above the river over a jumble of rockfall, then dropped down again toward the next river crossing. Although we found some ice stretching across the width of the river, the sun had been shining on it and it didn’t look as sturdy as our first crossing. Again, Chris went first, slowly testing the ice as he shuffled across. He got to the other side without breaking through, and I followed and we headed toward the mine. We first found the geocache and hiked to the end of the short box canyon, then after a bit of searching found the mine entrance.
Inside the Sorrel Mule MineWe donned our headlamps and entered the mine. After the first 50 feet it was obvious to me that the miners had been following a fault in the Navajo Sandstone, as the walls were unusually straight and smooth where the fault had been slipping. It was warm and humid inside the mine, and the ceiling was low enough that Chris and I both had to stoop to avoid hitting our heads. There were a few short side tunnels, some as long as 40 or so feet, though there was no fear of getting lost inside. The main tunnel went into the hillside about 2,000 feet. When I’d originally heard that it was that deep, for some reason I had doubts. As we continued deeper into the mine I realized that it was easily true. We finally reached the end and had nothing to do but take a few photos, then turn around and head back. On the way I noticed some plants growing somewhere near the center of the mine tunnel. I can’t imagine how any seeds got so far into the mine, let alone how they were able to germinate and grow with absolutely no sunlight. As we neared the entrance it grew colder. I’d gotten so used to the heat inside the mine that the cold outside was uncomfortable for a short while.
San Rafael RiverThe hike back back upstream toward the truck went quickly since we’d seen just about everything there was to see on the hike to the mine. I took a short detour up a side canyon that had looked interesting while Chris kept hiking upstream ’cause he wasn’t feeling well. I reached a dryfall in the side canyon and turned back to catch up to Chris. My legs were getting a little tired even before we got to the steep part that climbs out of the river bottom, and by the time we got near the truck Chris and I were dragging ass. We ate a quick lunch before starting back down the road toward home. The roads had been snow-covered on the drive down earlier. On the way back to the river crossing at Fuller Bottom the road was slushy with mud below the slush. The San Rafael River had risen about six inches in the time we had been hiking. If I’d been nervous about crossing it in the morning, I was really nervous about going back through. I said “Screw it!” and just went, and it was as easy a crossing as it had been earlier.

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