THE SAN JUAN RIVER
~The Archeological Gem of the Southwest~
This lovely river slowly makes its way out of the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado, and crosses the Four Corners region before flowing into Lake Powell. She was the focus of settlement for the Anasazi Indians for hundreds of years. They farmed along her banks and left abundant remains of their civilization in the form of chips of stone & pottery, ancient homes and ceremonial rooms, and pictures carved into the walls of the canyons or painted on the roofs of overhanging rock shelters. Some of the finest rock art in the southwest can be seen just steps from the river’s edge, on sheer rock faces covered with ancient stories in stone.
Near the put-in at the town of Bluff, Utah, the river meanders lazily past groves of cottonwood trees and braids across sandbars in a wide valley bounded by low sandstone cliffs. Within a few short miles, the river begins to cut directly into the heart of a great bulge in the layers of the earth’s crust known as the Monument Upwarp. As she carves into layers of rock deeply buried elsewhere, she forms a limestone canyon whose walls climb 1,300 feet above the river. The water still meanders in an immense looping pattern through these canyon walls, forming the “Goosenecks of the San Juan”, where the river flows approximately 12 miles only to achieve about 3 miles of distance overland.
The San Juan is a living classroom for the region’s history, geology, and archeology – here, the learning is easy and fun! Hikers, can climb to the tops of the canyon walls for a spectacular view, retrace the old Mormon wagon route up “San Juan Hill”, splash in clear plunge pools on a hot summer day, walk to the remains of a gold prospector’s stone cabin, and run their fingers over fossils millions of years old or observe pieces of ancient pottery that still bear the potter’s fingerprints. The river itself flows swiftly, but does not form huge rapids. Although the river has a steeper average gradient than the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, her Class I and II rapids are fun and bouncy and offer plenty of challenges for the intermediate canoeist. The San Juan River is the favorite of many river runners in the southwest, one that inspires love and loyalty and to which they eagerly return.
River runners need to allow at least 3 days running the 27-mile stretch between Sand Island and Mexican Hat, and more still to take advantage of the variety of hiking. The 57-mile section of river between Mexican Hat and Clay Hills Crossing requires at least 5 days, and when combining both sections, it is best to allow for at least 7 days. We have found that running from Sand Island to Clay Hills is best as a 9-day trip.
Sand Island to Mexican Hat
This 27-mile stretch of the San Juan River is rich in petroglyphs, pictographs, ruins, and artifacts, as well as remnants of early pioneer settlers. One could spend days exploring the first 8 miles of this trip. This section also contains the bulk of the Class II rapids on the San Juan. The Sand Island put-in is a few miles south of the town of Bluff, Utah, on Highway 191. Allow a minimum of 3 days to reach the take-out at Mexican Hat, which is also on Highway 191.
Mexican Hat to Clay Hills
The lower section of the San Juan Mexican Hat the river meanders through spectacular canyons, has several Class II+ rapids, and provides access to Grand Gulch, Slickhorn Gulch, the Goosenecks, and many other great hiking areas. The take-out at Clay Hills is located 21miles off Highway 263. This is a very long dirt road. When on the Highway: 2+ hours back to Bluff, 4+ hours back to Moab.
Guided Trip – This still requires planning, experience, and equipment that is often expensive trips for travelers. But, we will bring just about all you will need; a crew that knows the river well, directs the route, times, information, places, and so much more.
Self-Guided Trip – A self-governing expedition where one navigates the paperwork, planning, foot-work, and knowledge of equipment and the area and a route oneself. The BLM can be a great place to start with provided suggestions, maps, instructions, directions, and items to see or do during self-guided trips. We can help with you knowing the river, directs the route, times, information, and places.