San Juan River Canyons
ADA Accessibility Notes
Backcountry river trips require special considerations for those with ADA concerns; commercial trips may be best equipped to assist in such cases. Several special-needs charitable groups do run river trips on the San Juan for those with disabilities to enjoy this experience.
The San Juan River in far southeastern Utah is floatable for rafts, canoes and kayaks for roughly 100 miles. The runnable sections of the river begin in the open San Juan valley east of Bluff, leading through stretches of sandstone bluffs, and then into spectacular, deep canyons, finally ending in Lake Powell. The river is divided into three segments, and it is open to private boaters with a BLM permit-lottery system. Commercial outfitters also offer trips on the San Juan.
Along the way, boaters will experience mild to moderate rapids, stretches of riffles or flat water, and high cliffs of desert-varnished sandstone. Further on, the river cuts deep "gooseneck" bends through layer after layer of sedimentary rock before the walls drop lower as boaters approach the San Juan Arm of Lake Powell.
Along the river can be found a number of scattered ancient Anasazi/Puebloan rock art sites. Primarily these are petroglyph panels, but a few pictographs may be found. There are also a few ruin sites - granaries or dwellings. All cultural sites and artifacts are protected by law. Sites on the south bank of the San Juan are on Navajo lands, requiring a separate hiking permit.
Boaters can find campsites widely scattered along the valley riverbanks, and further downriver, at side canyons or rapids. Some stretches of this river can be done as day trips, but the lower run down to the lake is a multi-day float.
The San Juan River runs just north of Monument Valley and cuts its deepest canyon below Utah's Cedar Mesa where it flows 6.5 miles through the Goosenecks of the San Juan while advancing only 1.5 miles toward Lake Powell. This river is unique for its remote nature, deeply-incised Goosenecks in the lower stretches of sedimentary rock, prehistoric cultural artifacts, and remnants of historic settlement. Below the Goosenecks are Johns, Slickhorn, and Grand Gulch canyons all of which offer interesting day hikes from the river.
The river is runnable year-round, although winter weather can be a challenge. Spring and fall are the best seasons, depending on snowmelt, with high water in late May. Monsoon season rains, generally in July and August, can also raise water levels, sometimes in a hurry. On the plus side, summer rains produce many small waterfalls off the cliffs and from the side canyons.
The river alternates from upper sections of flat water and riffles to Class II and III rapids in the canyon segments. Several named rapids at major side canyons have created the larger rapids, which are rated depending on the water level at the time. These include Eight-Foot and Ledge Rapids in the upper section, and Government and Slickhorn Rapids in the lower stretch. Note that sandbars can develop in the last few miles down to Lake Powell, as the current slows noticeably, depending on lake level, as the river leaves the canyon.
While one generally cannot get lost on a river, the first-time boater here should have and extensively study a San Juan river guidebook. The BLM website (blm.gov/ut) also covers the basics of the experience in detail. The rapids are not extreme, but knowing what lies ahead, and possible campsites or attractions, also suggests having some in the group who have run the San Juan before.
There are only four access points on the 100 runnable miles of the San Juan River:
1. Montezuma Creek, 20 river miles above Bluff, is the first put-in for day trips. It is a slow, flat-water section with open valley scenery, and 100-foot sandstone bluffs a short distance back from the river. It sees very light use compared to the other 84 river miles below Bluff.
2. The village of Bluff, and Sand Island Campground, is the primary put-in point for single or multi-day floats of the canyon segments. The Upper San Juan from Bluff to Mexican Hat is a 27-mile sampler of the entire river, with open valleys, including some ruin sites, leading into a deep canyon with several rapids. The canyon gives way to another shallow valley, passing unusual redrock formations leading to....
3. The village of Mexican Hat - the third access, with its iconic bridge and the San Juan Inn, hanging on a cliff above the river. This is the put-in for the 58-mile Lower San Juan, the Goosenecks segment, and major side canyons with archaeological and historic sites in the deep reaches of the canyon. Ths segment, finally, runs into the lake at....
4. Clay Hills Crossing, the final access point on this long river run. This is the take-out for all boats; if the lake is very low there may be rapids / waterfalls beyond, where the river cuts down into soft muds and silt of the lakebed.
*Backstory - Tony Hillerman's Thief of Time mystery novel takes place mostly in the San Juan's canyons below Bluff, Utah.
Best Seasons for Experiencing
Spring runoff generally offers the best boating on the San Juan, rising from a low-flow 500 CFS to 2000-3000 CFS for two to three weeks. April and May can be cool with low or rising flows; Memorial Day is the approximate peak in normal years. Floating through the summer offers the hottest weather and only moderate water levels; the fall months are similar - but cooling off. Peak traffic months are May-June and to a lesser extent, September.
Pet Friendly Notes
No pets allowed, per the BLM's permit rules.
Typical Class of Water
Class II to III rapids, may increase with higher water levels. Seek advice from river rangers on water conditions, especially at the lower end at the lake, where sandbars can slow progress.