San Juan, Utah, US
02. Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing (Lower San Juan)
||I-II(III) (for normal flows)
Government RapidPhoto of Dirk and Stefi do a ducky by Barry Grimes taken 07/15/01 @ 1100cfs
The Lower San Juan River down to Clay Hills Crossing and the slackwater of Powell Reservoir is a
classic western float trip and a great run for families. The river is characterized by some truly
impressive canyon scenery, plenty of great camping, and some cool side hikes. Many groups take
rafts, but this is also a popular canoe trip. Permits for river runners are distributed annually
by the Bureau of Land Management through a lottery system. While most camps are on river right,
some camps are on river left and since these lands south of the river are part of the Navajo
Reservation, a permit from the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department is required for
overnight use (put in your permit request well in advance of your trip). Flows are often best in
the spring which typically corresponds to comfortable hiking weather, but many groups come to
enjoy the river during the early summer. The usual rules for desert river trips apply and you can
expect to have your gear inspected at the put-in. This means you will need to bring a toilet,
fire pan, and ample drinking water (the sediment laden river water would not be easy to filter
and tributaries are typically dry creek beds).
The BLM launch site in Mexican Hat has ample space for camping and staging your trip. The site
does not have water however so fill your water containers before you arrive or make arrangements
with a local business. Boaters are advised to park cars at the private parking lot up the hill in
town as there have been problems with break-ins. If you hire a local shuttle driver, he should be
able to help with arrangements.
A short distance downstream of the launch, you will arrive at Gypsum Creek Rapid, a
straightforward class II. Soon after running this rapid, you pass under the Highway Bridge at
Mexican Hat and begin your journey through the impressive canyons of the Lower San Juan. It's
a mellow float for the 10 miles down to the Goosenecks, known as one of the world's best
examples of entrenched meanders where the river has cut an impressive canyon over 1000' deep
through the red rock. Many groups head to the overlook at Gooseneck State Park before they launch
to view the impressive geologic scene from above.
A couple miles downstream of the Goosenecks, you will reach the Honaker Trail on river right.
There are a few campsite options here and it's a worthwhile hike with some great views as you
climb over 1000' to the canyon rim. The trail was originally constructed by prospectors more
than a century ago and follows a series of switchbacks along the terraced canyon walls.
A little less than 10 miles downstream of Honaker Trail, you will reach Ross Rapid which is
another relatively straightforward class II. You will pass more great river camps including Johns
Canyon which has some fun opportunities for exploration. It's another 10 miles down to the
most challenging whitewater on the run at Government Rapids, a fun class III rapid. It's an
easy scout or portage from river left and the preferred line depends on level. At flows below 500
cfs you will see some significant pin hazards. At flows above 1000 cfs most of the rocks are well
covered and a few minor holes begin to appear.
Below Government Rapid, camps must be reserved in advance and to have maximum choice you should
do this as soon as you receive your permit. Slickhorn is one of the most popular camps on the
river and there are five sites here. Slickhorn sites C and D are generally the preferred larger
camps just downstream of the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon. Slickhorn Rapid, at one time a class II,
is pretty much gone with sediment deposition resulting from the backwater effect of Powell
Slickhorn Canyon offers some of the best opportunities for hiking and exploration on the entire
river so plan for a full day to enjoy it. There are several pools that offer great swimming along
with some historical artifacts associated with early attempts to drill for oil in this canyon.
Downstream of Slickhorn there are three more options for camping that must be reserved before
your trip: Grand Gulch, Oljeto Wash, and Steer Gulch. Of these camps, Oljeto Wash is on river
left and therefore requires a permit from the tribe. It does however offer a nice sandbar camp
and interesting hiking opportunities up the side canyon.
The final 5 miles of river down to Clay Hill Crossing are characterized by numerous sandbars that
can make progress slow especially if you encounter strong afternoon winds. It can make for a long
day in the hot sun especially as flows drop by early summer. For these reasons, most groups try
to get an early start. At flows above 1000 cfs it's not too bad and you will likely be able
to find a channel that winds back and forth through the sediment deposited in the backwaters of
the reservoir. As flows drop below 500 cfs it will take longer and you will likely need to get
out in a few places to pull the boats over sand bars.
The take-out at Clay Hills Crossing should be fairly obvious on river right with plenty of space
for derigging. There are no facilities to empty your toilet but if you are headed north there is
an RV dump station at Hite Marina on Powell Reservoir.
Downstream of Clay Hills Crossing the river flows through lonely country down to the reservoir,
an area that is rarely explored since there is no vehicle access and it is a very long flatwater
paddle out to the nearest marina. In recent years as the reservoir level has dropped, the river
has established a new channel forming a significant waterfall where it cascades over a bedrock
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: 2018-12-02 18:41:12