After a year of planning and anticipation we finally made it to the San Juan River. Yes, it was long ride from Wisconsin (27 Hrs) and crossing the Rockies after a snow storm did not help, but it was well worth it. My teenage boys are getting older now and sadly to say, their interests have shifted. So, we considered this to be the last of our big family canoe outings. All said, we arrived at Bluff (UT) the day before our launch on March 27th , and we stayed at the Recapture Lodge for a well deserved night of sleep.
Day 1: Bluff
We were all up around 6 am and started clearing out our room and after a quick breakfast we headed out to the launch site which was located a few miles out of town. We started unloading our gear and filled all our water jugs (30 gal) on a nearby water spigot. Next to us were two other groups of rafters also preparing to launch. We would encounter the same groups off and on during the next eight days. While we were getting organized my wife Deb returned the van back to town to the shuttler, in the meantime the BLM officer showed up to check us out. She asked for our launch permits, fire box, emergency kit, repair kit, sanitary toilet and spare paddles. She seemed to be satisfied with our level of preparation and before she left I handed her a list of emergency contacts numbers and other vital information just in case we would get in serious trouble. This really impressed her and boosted her confidence in us. She signed our permit and proceeded to check out the other groups. In the mean time Deb came back from town we finished loading the canoes and pushed off at around 10:00 am.
The current was strong and according to the USSG gage the flow was 1700 cfs that day. I had my GPS preprogrammed with mile markers and all the points of interests. The water was silty but I was expecting it to be even darker, like chocolate brown, but it was not - it was like turquoise color, not unpleasant at all. Coming from the Midwest, the scenery went form great to awesome very rapidly. Tall red sand stone bluffs towered over us and all we could say was WOW! It was only the beginning.
At mile 3 we found the steps that were carved in the rock on river right, which was our first point of interest on the trip. The current was pushing us along at great speed and in no time we were looking for the Butler Wash petroglyph panel. Going to shore was not an easy task and the current was strong and in addition the vegetation made an impenetrable barrier along the shore. Eventually we could see the petroglyph panel from our canoes and we were now desperately looking for a place to eddy out. At one location there was a break in the vegetation, but the bank was several feet high and not well suited for a canoe landing. We proceeded a bit further down river hoping to find a better take-out site, but such a place never presented itself and before we realized it we were well beyond the panel. No one wanted to paddle up stream and with great disappointment we decided to push on. We learned form this mistake that the shore situation is what it is, and one cannot always hope for an ideal landing location.
Next item on our list to see was the River House, a Pueblo dwelling dating back to the 9th century. We knew approximately where it was located from the river map, but the vegetation along the river was still impenetrable, so we carefully proceed along the shore, believing that for sure there must be some area where people take out to go see this ruin. Eventually at around mile 6.3 the vegetation growth stopped and there was a good location to dock our canoes. After securing our canoes we proceeded to climb up a small rocky ledge.
As soon as we cleared the ledge, we were right at the Barton trading post, at least what was left of it. We explored, took pictures, and read a historical marker that told what happened here a longtime ago. To our right at trail seamed to lead towards the River House. We walked down the trail admiring the red rocky bluffs; the boys decided to walk above a ledge that followed the trail. Within a small distance we could see the neatly build River House. We walked up the somewhat steep rocky stairs to the house itself. My youngest boy John was so impressed he could not stop himself from taking pictures and videos. With great interest he looked in to every room almost like looking for a hidden treasure. The river house was overlooking a valley where I would assume crops were grown at one time; it was an outstanding view. We stay there for quite a while and eventually we had to convince John that it was time to go.
We returned to our canoes and paddled down river for a few miles admiring the surroundings and looking for a camp site on river right. We did find a great site located just behind a small island and it appeared to be well used. We were hoping it was a bit further down river so we could cross the river and explore the Chinle Creek area. Unfortunately, our older son Christopher was not feeling well and I had be fighting a cold all the way from Wisconsin, so we decided to call it a day and settle in around a camp fire.
The site was very roomy and it had several very large cotton trees and to our surprise there was also a leftover fire pit and the soil smelled like it was permeated with beer. To our back there was a large bluff that I climbed later in the day, which gave me a great view over Comb Wash. We made camp and had our first camp meal on the San Juan. It was only fitting that it would be steaks. The wind had picked up and as the sun came down and so did the temperature. We put some warm clothes on and huddled around the fire and eventually crawled in our tent by 9:00 pm.
I woke in the morning and peeked out of the tent, the temperature had dropped below freezing during the night and everything was covered with a white layer of frost. It was nippy, we made breakfast and before long the sun was out and the temperature climbed very rapidly into the fifties. We loaded our canoes and down river we went. We could notice the bluffs were getting higher and higher and more spectacular. Today we would encounter our first rapids. The current remained strong and swifts were becoming very common.
Our first rapids was Four Foot Rapids; we approached with caution and ran the drop with no problem. It was mostly just waves with a few rocks to dodge. We were definitively in a canyon now. The shore was made up of boulders that had fallen off the canyon walls over the years and whenever nature provided enough soil, bushes were growing. It was not long before we saw mountain sheep, first a couple and later a small herd of fifteen. What a treat this was!
Our next rapids was Eight Foot Rapids; the first of the more significant ones. We stopped on river left on a nice sandy beach where people had camped before. We scouted the drop and decided to run it. It had a nice dry line and we felt it was doable. Christopher and I came around the corner passed a big boulder and then angled the canoe to river left to bypass the big waves on river right. We took on a little water but it was a good run. My wife Deb did not want to do the run so ran her canoe through. We encountered several other small rapids before we came to Ledge Rapid and we did not scout it. This proved to be a mistake because we were off-line a bit (too far to the right) and we ended up hitting a hole and a submerged boulder at the bottom. In the process we took on a significant amount of water. This rapid is not particularly difficult, but we were just off line. It actually had a very nice line, I guess that scouting would have definitely helped! Deb learned from my mistake and ran the proper line. We were now slowly coming out from the Upper Canyon at around mile 21 and we decided to look for a camp site. We found a suitable site near a Sulfur Spring. The site was nothing spectacular but we had paddled a good distance for the day and were tired. We also did not want to camp too close to Mexican Hat. We were all chuckling at the "no trace rule" on the San Juan as we were clearing cow pies with our paddles in order to put up the tents (the cows had obviously not obeyed the no trace rule)!! We had a good night sleep. The overnight temperature stayed well above freezing.
It was definitively less cold this morning, we had breakfast and soon after we loaded and launched our canoes. We were now emerging from the upper canyon. The landscape had more vegetation and the bluffs were a bit further from the shore. We saw a few deer grazing on the shore and after a few miles of paddling we could see the rock formation that gives the area the name Mexican Hat. It was a nice morning, the sun came up and it was the beginning of another great day. We encountered a few minor rapids before arriving at Mexican Hat. We did not know exactly were the take-out was to get water, so we first stopped at the first put-in location. A group of canoeists from the Rocky Mountain Canoe Club (RMCC) were preparing to launch. We had a friendly chat with them, they had run the river several times and recommended to take out at the trading post after Gypsum Rapids. We approached Gypsum Rapids with caution as we had read that this rapid could be difficult. As we approached the rapids the river split into two channels; the right branch was very shallow and not navigable at our water level. The left branch had a good drop in it with most of flow heading an undercut wall with some significantly sized waves. There was a line that could be run, but missing it would mean a swim. No one was in a mood for a swim, so we opted to line it. Once we passed the rapids we paddled for a few yards and the trail leading up to a bridge was clearly visible. We secured our canoes and headed up to the trading post with a couple of empty water jugs. The temperature was in the mid to low eighties; a beautiful warm day. We decided to have lunch and ice cream and some fresh cool drinks. There was a nice little restaurant there and the food was great, and also a small motel. We filled our jugs and were back on the water in a couple hours later.
We were now entering the lower canyon; a five day journey. The river meandered back and forth in the midst of towering canyon walls. Our first stop was at the Mendenhalls Cabin, the home of some gold explorer, as we approached the take out for the cabin we ran into the RMCC group. We found out that Gypsum Rapid was not to kind to them, two of their canoes had flipped. We climbed up the trail leading to the cabin, the cabin was relatively small but in good condition considering how long it had been there. One really wonders why someone wanted to live here, even for a short period of time. There is really nothing here except rocks and more rocks, no vegetation; everything had to be brought in. Only the lure of gold could make one want to live here. After our visit we returned to our canoes and headed down river, we were now looking for a camp site for the night. Much to our surprise the sites marked in the guide were rather poor forcing us to proceed further and further down river. We did eventually find a great site but it was on river left, and we did not have a permit to camp on that side. While we debated, the RMCC group passed us again we asked them for advise on camp sites. They recommended a site located a bit further down river. As they pressed on, we followed. With in a few miles we found a suitable site on the foot of a massive cliff just before mile 37. It was perfect and would do for the night. The scenery was actually breathtaking, and our tents were snuggled in under these cliffs. We cooked some Wisconsin brats, and enjoyed the evening around a small fire. When Deb went out of the tent in the night, she said that the stars and the moon against the steep cliff were truly beautiful!
Morning came quickly, we started breakfast almost in the dark as we wanted to get an early start in order to make it to our next camp before the competition got there. The canyon was deep and narrow at this location and the sun was not visible before eight o'clock. As soon as we made it around the bend we passed the camp site of the RMCC group. They were breaking camp and were a bit surprised to see us coming down so early. We extended greetings; we were getting to know them better and better every time we pass them.
The goal for today was to make it to the Honaker trail; it was only a short paddle with no significant rapids to negotiate. It was a gorgeous day with a small breeze. We leisurely paddled and in a very short time we were at the camp site on the bottom of the Honaker trail. The site was relatively big as compared to the earlier sites and has room to house several groups. We decided to put up camp first and then tackle the climb up to the rim. We gazed up the canyon wall in disbelieve that there is actually a trail going up there. The canyon had a rosy color which made it look almost artificial. We were just about done with setting up camp when we saw the RMCC group floating by us. They stopped a bit further down river from us. My two boys and I decided to attempt the climb up the trail. Temperature was 87 degrees in the shade, so Deb opted for a good book amongst the lizards that crawled around our tent. From the notes we had, the trail head was a bit down river from where we camped. With a small pack loaded with water bottles we headed down a well rooted out trail that was leading to the bottom of the canyon wall. As we proceed we joined up with several paddlers of the RMCC group who were also heading up the trail. The trail was actually fairly nice. It had steep sections, but then leveled out so one could catch his breath. As the trail laced back and forth it gave us a new view of the canyon that was just as breathtaking as the other. About 3/4 up the canyon we were now right above our camp site, and at that location one could walk out on a rock outcropping and jump over a crack. Personally, I am not a fan of heights, so I quickly ushered my two adventurous boys around the bend before they got the idea that jumping over the crack might be interesting. The trail became rockier as we approached Canyon Rim Rock. Finally after a 2:30 hour climb we made it to the top. The view on the top was just as amazing as from below. If was a beautiful clear day, to the south we could see Monument Valley and Grand Gulch. The view down the canyon was just as great, we took a small hike around the rim and after many pictures we headed back down the trail. This hike was definitively spectacular!!
We woke up to another beautiful day, we had a leisurely breakfast, broke camp and headed down river. Todays goal was Johns Canyon. On our way there we would face Ross Rapid. The canyon walls were still towering over us and the scenery was just as outstanding as it had been all along. A CL I rapid announced the beginning of Ross Rapid. Just before the bend we pulled over to river right to scout. The major shoot of Ross is next to the left shore and ends out into a major wave train that would for sure swamp your canoe if you get into it. There is a route right off the major shoot that one can take, but we played it safe and opted to line. Once done with the lining we pulled over and had lunch on a nice sandy beach river right. As we were eating lunch we watched the RMCC group come down. They ran Ross with no problem, avoiding the major shoot. They came over and joined us for lunch. After seeing this group take Ross without difficulty, we were disappointed that we had not tried it!!! We left before the RMCC crew and continued our journey down river.
It was getting quite warm and the temperature was well into the eighties. We were making good time and the current was as strong as it had been all throughout the trip. We ran the small rapid just before John's Canyon and pull over to the camp site river right. The site was relatively large and a group of rafters had put camp next to the rapid. We went a bit further down river, and found a site that suited us. A bit later the RMCC group pulled over and put camp up a bit up river from us. We put camp right next to a bush and used our rain flies to shade us from the sun which was very intense. When camp was up, John and I decided to explore John's Canyon. We teamed up with a couple RMCC canoeists. They had brought a small climbing rope along that came in very handy when we had to climb down to explore a major water hole. The water hole was carved over for centuries by the rain water washing over the canyon wall. It was an interesting site, John decided to take a swim, the water was clear water but it was also every cold as he found out very quickly. We returned to camp again making good use of the rope to get back up and down. The RMCC group made a nice campfire and they invited us to come down and enjoy the fire. After supper we took them up on their offer. It was a fun group, reminded me of the outing club I paddle with in Wisconsin. They were going to layover here the next day before proceeding downriver.
We were again greeted with a beautiful sunny day as we came out of our tents in the morning. We got up and had a relaxing breakfast and started to break camp. We had only seven miles to paddle to our next destination point which was campsite D at Slickhorn Canyon, so we were in no hurry to get going. From this point on, the BLM assigns camp sites, so the there is no competition for the good sites. In addition, a violation is a $500 fine, so one would think twice before attempting an unscheduled camp site. The challenge for the day was Government Rapid. The canyon rock coloring changed from a pinkish to a more sand stone red, with black streaks also coloring the rocks. This was very awesome. We later found out it was oil leaking out from the rock. Soon we could hear the roar of Government. We pulled over river left at a location well used by previous paddlers. We attached the canoes and stepped out to take a look. It did not look like a major drop but it was just full of obstacles to avoid with no clear channel. Lining was not an option for this rapid. The decision was made quickly, it would be a portage. We unloaded the canoes and walked of all our cargo across a sandy field. The portage was not difficult and about a 100 yards or so. We took a few more pictures and paddled away from was our last major rapid on the San Juan. We paddle for a couple more miles and we were at our Slickhorn camp site.
The rapid marked on the river guide was non-existent; it was barely a swift. Our site was site D, it was the smallest of the sites, just perfect and it was nestled near a small cliff in the midst of bushes. The days were progressively getting hotter for us Midwesterners; it must have approach the nineties. We draped the rain fly over the brush to provide some shade and relaxed for a while. The camp sites were well separated and the vegetation provided good privacy. Site B was relatively large with no vegetation and site C is was similar to site D. My son John and I decided to explore Slickhorn canyon. We saw clear water running down from it so we took an empty water jug and the filter along. The hike up into the canyon was a very interesting; the water had carved out the rock in the most interesting shapes. With so many inviting small pools fill with crystal clear water. John felt the need to cool off. With those magnificent water holes everywhere, I could see his point. As soon as he stepped in the water he quickly realized that the water was very cold. He made a quick dive and came out of the water making a big scream. We walked a bit further up the canyon and found a place where water was permeating from the rock. We filled our water jug and slowly made our trip back to camp. We made supper relaxed while waiting for the sun to drop behind the canyon wall.
It was the beginning of another beautiful day, our next assigned camp site was only five miles down river, Trimble Camp. It was our last choice on the list so were not sure how it would look. Also, our teenage boys were having "wilderness fatigue" (ha, ha). We were to stop at Grand Gulch and go for a hike, but when we got there the crew was not in an exploring mood. So we decided to push on, the river had lost most of its current, one had to carefully pick a route so not to get hung up on the numerous sand/sediment bars. At one point my wife Deb even was afraid the sandy beds were like quicksand. We arrived at Trimble camp and the crew did not wanted to stop. Instead they wanted to paddle out. Reluctantly I agreed, we paddled on to Oljeto camp where we had lunch, we walked up the gorge and found it very spectacular. We were all wishing we had gotten this site instead of our third choice (Trimble). After our little stroll up the canyon we proceeded down river to the take out. We were now coming out of the canyon and the bluff became less imposing. The river became shallower and one had to work hard to find a good channel so not get hung up. At times we would be a few inch from shore and on several occasion we had to step out of our canoes. As we proceeded further down, more and more vegetation became apparent. Once the Red House Cliff became visible on the horizon we knew we where getting close to the take out.
Since we were one day early we were not sure our van would be there waiting for us. We did have a cell phone with us, but hoping for a signal out here was flat out dreaming. If the van is not there we would put up camp for the night, a risk the crew accepted when the decision was made to paddle out one day early. The river shores were now completely overgrown and we were wondering where the take-out was, a bit further down was an unmistakable sign warning of the dangerous waterfall down river. Another sign indicated that this was Clays Hills Crossing, meaning that we had arrived at the take out. The take out was in good condition and the water was high enough so we did not have to wade in the silt. We unloaded our canoes and walked up to the parking lot to see if our van was there, it was not. Well, we had lost the gamble.
We portaged all our gear up an area suitable for a overnight camp site, well in the shade. Christopher desperately wanted to talk with his girlfriend and was walking round hoping for a cell phone signal. All of a sudden he screamed in disbelief, he got half of a bar, enough for a call. We decided that we are going to call our shuttle first, in the remote hope we might get our van in today. Deb made the call and it went through. The person on the other end said it was not very likely they could bring out the van in today since it's a 3 hour ride from Bluff, but she would try. They called back 10 minutes later and it was our lucky day, the van was on its way. A few hours later a cloud of dust on the horizon indicated our ride out was coming. Once our van was loaded we headed back to Bluff to take the driver back and get a good shower. So ended our first canoe trip out West!
The San Juan River is a spectacular, the most scenic river I have paddled thus far The current is strong, so paddling is effortless when no wind is blowing. The WW is somewhat challenging and I would not recommend running it (in canoes) with no WW experience. But with intermediate skills and good judgment it is very manageable.
The camp sites range from poor to outstanding, depending on the water level and group size. We would have liked to camp on the Navajo side, but since it required a permit in advance and we could not predict the days in advance, it forced us to stay on the BLM land. If a Navajo open river camp permit was available, we would have gladly purchased it. The river has many personalities, depending on water level. When we ran it the water level was 1700 CFS, but it can range from 600 or less to several thousands CFS.
Permits in peak season (May-June) can be hard if not impossible to get, so early planning is essential. We opted to do it early over the kids spring break, late march and early April. We had no problem getting permits. We were also incredibly lucky with the weather. We had sunshine every day and warm to hot temperatures. We did not experience strong winds or sand storms that are common at that time of the year. Doing an early spring trip, can be risky since the weather can change from freezing to temps in the 90s in a very short time. We encountered four groups on the river, three of those launched with us in Bluff. We kept running into them ever so often as we progressed down river, but we never felt crowded. I am sure it would be a different story at peak season.
One also needs to keep in mind that this is a "no trace" river, meaning everything needs to be packed out (everything) and has strict camp rules. We did the river in seven days and covered the highlights. There are numerous great side hikes one can do and seven days is just not enough time to fully explore the area. So I will definitely come back without the teenagers, and plan more time to more fully explore and appreciate this river and the canyon's great majestic beauty.
No outfitter was used. Shuttle was provided by Recapture Lodge (motel in Bluff).
Wenonah Cascade and Spirit II both in Rx
Permits from the BLM is required to run this river
Drive to the city of Bluff in the four corner area of Utah.
Launch site is located a few miles out of town on Hwy 163.
San Juan River Guide (Spiral-bound) - Lisa Kearsley