San Juan, Utah, US
01. Sand Island to Mexican Hat (Upper San Juan)
||II (for normal flows)
San Juan Canyon
San Juan CanyonPhoto by Thomas O'Keefe © taken 04/13/14 @ 800 cfs
The San Juan River is a great multi-day river trip and this section features one of the finest
collections of petroglyphs in the southwest. This section is often run as a three day trip but
can also be the start of a longer trip that continues on downstream past Mexican Hat to Clay
The put-in is at Sand Hills Crossing near Bluff, Utah approximately half a mile upstream of the
Highway 191 Bridge. Sand Island has a ranger station, several campsites including group sites,
drinking water, toilets, trash collection, and a wide boat ramp that provides enough space for a
few trips to stage simultaneously.
The run begins in open desert country. The first six miles have several petroglyphs and moki
steps carved in the sandstone as toeholds for Native Americans who traveled through these canyons
in centuries past. Particularly impressive panels with an incredible density of petroglyphs are
visible just upstream and downstream of Butler Wash. A short hike up the wash takes you to some
smaller ruins and petroglyphs.
Six miles into the trip you reach the pullout for Riverhouse. It is about a 1/4 mile hike from
the river to the base of the cliff. This ancestral puebloan ruin from the thirteenth century is
built in a sandstone alcove overlooking the river. With 14 rooms this is the largest ruin along
the river. It is visited by river runners and those on jeep tours. Given the heavy visitation, it
is important to stay off the walls and out of the rooms so the structure remains undamaged for
the benefit of future visitors. Less than a mile downstream of the Riverhouse is Barton's
Trading Post. An interpretive sign marks the site which was established in the 1880s. The old
trading post is at the base of San Juan Hill which was one of the last natural barriers
encountered by Mormon pioneers who were searching for a route from Escalante to Bluff. Over the
winter of 1879-1880, the pioneers sought to establish a settlement in the region to the east of
the Colorado River and the journey that was expected to take only six weeks instead took six
months. This last geologic barrier is a north to south-trending monocline known as Comb
Ridge that extends approximately 80 miles and is bisected by the San Juan River. A short hike up
San Juan Hill offers an impressive panorama of the landscape. All of these geologic and historic
sites can be easily visited from one of the river camps on river right between River House and
As you continue downstream, the river cuts through Comb Ridge as you approach the entrance to the
canyon. On river left you will pass the trail to the Mule's Ear Diatreme. This feature is a
volcanic pipe that formed when magma, originating in the upper mantle, rose up through a crack in
the earth's crust. It takes a couple hours to hike up and back but it is easy walking on the
sandstone ridge to reach the diatreme.
The next approximately 10 miles of river are through a deep canyon. A couple easier rapids get
you ready for Four Foot Rapid, the first of the class II drops which can be scouted from the
right. Below this rapid you pass the Perched Meander and Midway Canyon on river right. Both of
these are great hikes accsessible from Midway Camp. The Perched Meander is a relatively easy hike
where you can hike the ancient river channel before erosion sliced through the neck of the
meander. Midway Canyon is a more technical hike with a series of puzzles that must be solved to
pass upstream of the big ledges you encounter on your way up.
Another few miles downstream you will encounter Eight-Foot Rapid which is the most technical
rapid on this section. Technical manuvering between a large midstream boulder at the top of the
rapid and a bedrock wall on the right is required to safely negotiate this rapid. This drop is
easy to scout from river left.
While there are two camps immediately below Eight-Foot Rapid, the next two miles of river are
closed to camping as this is prime habitat for bighorn sheep who need to be able to access the
river for water without being disturbed. The end of this section is marked by Ledge Rapid which
is formed by a debris fan on river left that pinches the river against the bedrock wall on river
right. You will want to run river right to stay in the main current and clear of the rocky shoals
but keep your boat angled to the left to avoid going up against the wall on river right. The drop
can be easily scouted from the top on river right.
Within a mile of Ledge Rapid the canyon starts to open up and you pass Fossil Camp on the right.
As its name suggests, this is a fun place to view fossils. Within a few more bends the Mexican
Hat Rock comes into a view on river right. Once you pass this feature it is only another couple
miles down to the boat ramp at the BLM River Access site of Mexican Hat. You will find camping,
garbage collection, and toilets at this site but no running water.
A permit is required year-round to float any section of the San Juan River between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills. Permits are issued only through a pre-season lottery (for high use season of April 15 - Jul 15) and advance telephone reservations (for low and moderate use season to individuals 18 and older.
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Last Updated: 2017-07-09 21:58:42