San Juan River -- Sand Island to Mexican Hat

We're home from three days on the San Juan River!  It was a pretty incredible trip -- everything came together perfectly.  I snatched a permit at the last minute, the weather was fantastic, and we had a great time.  Now I'm sunburned, relaxed, and already chomping at the bit to hit the water again!

JAWS, the Great White.

The River:  The San Juan River is one of the major tributaries of the Colorado River.  As it flows from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado through New Mexico and into the southern portion of Utah, it carves incredible meandering red-rock canyons.  It was also home to ancient tribes who left behind intricate artwork and rock dwellings.  River runners today encounter braided flatwater sections, deep meandering canyons, and moderate rapids.

Nuts and Bolts:  A 3-day, 27-mile river trip from Sand Island to Mexican Hat took a little planning, but was logistically easier to pull off than I thought it would be!  First, I called the Monticello BLM office to secure a permit (check out their website for more detailed information.)  We spent the next couple days frantically packing, scrounging up the mandatory BLM gear, and hoping we'd be able to fit everything in our small inflatable kayak!  Because it was such short notice, I was told to pick up the permit at the Sand Island ranger station the morning of our trip.  We camped at Sand Island, then met the ranger the following morning.  She looked over our boat, made sure we had the required equipment, and issued our permit.  Supernice and friendly!

Once we got the green light from the BLM ranger, Jordan drove my car 22 miles down to Mexican Hat.  We had called Valle's Trading Post (435-683-2226) a couple days before to arrange a shuttle for $65 + $3/day.  My car stayed at Valle's, while Jordan was shuttled back to Sand Island.  (Don't leave a vehicle at the Mexican Hat ramp -- lots of theft!)

All the planning and shuttling were finally over -- time to hit the river!

bighorn sheep!

lunch break + swim

The Southwest had a really dry winter this year, and water levels are low everywhere.  April is also a little early to do a San Juan trip -- most groups wait until May or June when the water level peaks.  The river was only running at 600 cfs the day we left, but low levels probably worked in our favor because a lot of the bigger rigs were backing out.  And ... it was totally fine.  The ducky is small and light, and we were able to scoot over or wind around all the rocks.  We occasionally scraped bottom, but never had to get out and walk.

We definitely did the lazy, relaxed version of this 27-mile trip and got out to explore quite a bit.  One of the coolest stops was the Butler Wash Petroglyphs at River Mile 4.5.  This was a huge, intricate rock art panel full of Ancestral Puebloan glyphs.  Very cool.

pit stop at Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel

We also stopped at the River House at River Mile 6.  This is one of the largest Ancestral Puebloan dwellings along the San Juan River.  It was built on a south facing wall to take advantage of low-angled sun rays in the winter.  In the summer, when the sun is directly overhead, most of the rooms remain in the shade and stay relatively cool.  The structure also includes rock art images of sheep, snakes, waves, and hands.

River House

pottery sherd

swirly hand prints

prickly pear

We camped at the Comb Wash campsite, which was big, beachy, and full of lush cottonwoods.  Beautiful.  You aren't assigned campsites on a San Juan trip, but there are a couple quirks to choosing a spot.  The left side of the river is part of the Navajo Reservation, so you can't camp there unless you have a permit.  Also, it's good form for small groups to leave the big sites for big groups.

camping along the river

On Day 2, the canyon grew narrower and the walls became steeper.  At this point, we started to run the first decent rapids.  Almost everything was a Class I-II, read-and-run rapid.  We've been running rivers for less than a year, but it all seemed pretty straightforward.  I think the Moab Daily at high water was tougher!  Four-Foot Rapid (RM 11.5) and Ledge Rapid (RM 19) were both short and splashy.  We did get out to scout Eight-Foot Rapid (RM 17,) which was a little tight and rocky, but no problem for the ducky.

Eight Foot Rapid (Class II)

The rest of the trip went waaaay too fast.  On the second night, we camped at Lime Creek, which had some incredible views of the Raplee Anticline.  We gawked at the Raplee Anticline and Mexican Hat Rock all the way to the boat ramp, then reluctantly headed back to civilization.  I'm definitely hooked on the San Juan.  I would love to do the entire 83-mile run down to Clay Hills Crossing.  Wonder if there's any way to fit 7 days worth of gear in the ducky?!

Raplee Anticline from Lime Creek campsite