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San Juan2021-04-08T11:09:38-07:00

San Juan

On a conveyer belt of current for the first part of the journey, the San Juan takes you through beautiful canyons and is ripe with natural history. This is a great trip for those new to whitewater and who are looking to get into multi-day trips.

About this guide

This guide is from Sand Hill to Clay Hills. It covers well-known camps, all rapids and many POIs. The guide is broken up into two sections:

Please keep in mind, that many camps are named by their corresponding mileage to the tenth of a mile. When we measured this river, our mileage varied slightly, which isn’t necessarily an issue, however, it did make our naming schematic confusing. Because of this, camps that are named by their mileage are in quotes to differentiate between the river mileage that we measured.

River Info

The San Juan is known for its beautiful canyons, easy rapids, and nice camps. The two most commonly run sections are called the Upper and the Lower. For those looking for more than a four-day trip, running both is preferred. Anything shorter than that, then the Upper San Juan portion is typically preferred as the shuttle is very easy and there is current practically the entire way. One additional hurdle is that the Navajo Nation land is on river left for practically its entire length. Stopping or camping on river left requires an additional permit from the Navajo Nation. This information is provided below.

Safety

While the San Juan is a beginner trip, you still need to be competent on the oars to safely navigate it.

Float Permit

A San Juan permit is required year round. Up to 5 groups are allowed to launch per day, with a group maximum of 25 people and a total launch day maximum of 50 people. What this means is if, for example, there are two groups launching the same day with 25 people each, then no additional permits will be allocated that day.

Navajo Nation Permit

The Navajo Nation owns the land on river left for most of the river’s length. Stopping or camping on river left requires a permit from them. Areas that are not Navajo Nation land on river left are labeled in this guidebook. The website to learn more about the Navajo Nation permitting process can be found here.

Shuttles

Wild River Expeditions offers shuttles for both the Upper and Lower San Juan. Their website is here.  Alternatively, if you are running just the Upper San Juan, setting your own shuttle is easy as the drive from Sand Island Campground to Mexican Hat is about an hour round trip. Sand Island to Clay Hills is quite a bit further, at 5 hours round trip.

The San Juan gauge is located near Bluff, UT which is the Upper San Juan put-in. Being a desert river, flows are highly variable from sub thousand to over 10,000 CFS.

Sometimes the USGS flow image breaks. If this happens, here is a direct link.

Middle Fork Salmon Flow
Gauge data provided by the USGS

San Juan Guidebook

WARNING: Conditions change frequently and may make this guide useless. This guide is NOT a replacement for sound judgment or experience.

Class IV Rapid

Class IV rapid or river feature.

Class II Rapid

Class II rapid or river feature.

Class III Rapid

Class III rapid or river feature.

Put-In / Take-Out

Used at Sand Hill, Mexican Hat, and Clay Hill.

Point of Interest

These include petroglyphs, hikes, and more.

Campgrounds

Riverside camping locations.

Upper San Juan – Class I & II

Running from Sand Hill to Mexican Hat, the Upper is the most common San Juan Trip. With Bluff, UT just up the road you have access to some last-minute amenities before you head off. The primary benefit of doing this section is you don’t have to deal with the flat water and sand bars near Lake Powell, unless you continue through, of course.

Length

Sand Hill to Mexican Hat is 27.46 miles.

Difficulty

Beginner.

Feet per Mile

Sand Hill to Mexican Hat is 8 FPM

Shuttle

Sand Hill to Mexican Hat is an hour roundtrip.

Mile 0 – Sand Island Boat Ramp: River Right. This is a paved boat ramp. There are toilets and water available here. Also a campground, so many boaters will rig their trip and stay the night.

Mile 0 – Sand Island Campground: River Right. Make sure you book this campground in advance if you plan on staying here. Reservations can be made at Recreation.gov

Mile 0.48 – Highway 191 Bridge: Highway 191 runs from Canada to Mexico. You won’t see another bridge until Mexican Hat.

Mile 1.7 – Numerous Camps: River Right. There are numerous camping opportunities on river right for the next couple miles. Keep in mind that this area has road access so you may end up sharing space with other users.

Mile 1.79 – Tiger Wall: River Left. The river runs into a sandstone cliff and is forced to make a jarring right turn. This beatiful sheer wall in some spots is overhanging and has the occasional stripes, lending to its name.

Mile 2.04 – Goldmine Camp: River Right. There are numerous pull ins and camps in the Goldmine Camp area.

Mile 2.4 – “2.2 Mile” Camp: River Right. Medium sized camp.

Mile 3.33 – “3 Mile” Camp: River Left. This is a large camp on Navajo Nation land. Park upstream and walk down river to find the best place to unload your rafts as it varies based on water level.

Mile 3.6 – Moki Steps: River Right. Please stay off the toe holds. If you don’t plan on stopping, these can be easily spotted from about 100 yards downstream from the river channel.

Mile 4.63 – Butler Wash Panel: River Right. Park your raft near the mouth of Butler Wash and walk a short ways upstream to view this excellent petroglyph panel. There are more panels as you head upriver from this point.

Mile 4.63 – Butler Wash: River Right. Named after John Butler who was on the first San Juan expedition of 1879.

Mile 5 – Lower Butler Wash Petroglyphs: River Right. Immediately below the island.

Mile 5.35 – Desecration Camp: River Left. This is a large camp area that can accommodate a number of groups as there are numerous camping opportunities on this bank.

Mile 6.8 – River House Camp: River Right. This is a big camp and is named for the easy and close access to check out River House, the puebloan ruin. You should expect some traffic as this camp offers the best place to park and access this cool stop.

Mile 6.8 – River House: River Right. This is a must make stop to check out the ancient Pueblo ruins.

Mile 6.95 – Cottonwood Camp: River Left. Appropriately named this large camp is in a cottonwood grove.

Mile 7.1 – Barton’s Trading Post: River Right.

Mile 7.35 – Comb Ridge Camp: River Right. This camp is very difficult to get to at low water.

Mile 8.39 – Lime Ridge Camp: River Right. This is a large camp.

Mile 8.68 – Upper Chinle Camp: River Left.

Mile 8.86 – Chinle Camp: River Left. This is a large, open camp. Take your time finding where you want to park your boats as water levels will adjust the parking zones.

Mile 9.11 – Big Stick Camp: River Right. This is a large camp.

Mile 9.53 – Chinle Creek: River Left. If you drove to put-in from the Flagstaff area, you may recall passing over a marker pointing out Chinle Creek a couple hours from put-in. Here is the confluence of that. It is deceptive as you float by as the river splits just above this too, but that split is where the confluence occurs, it’s not just a braided stream.

Mile 9.65 – Lower Chinle Camp: River Left. This is a hot, wide open camp that has plenty of space.

Mile 10 – Mule Ear Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 10.75 – “10.3 Mile” Camp: River Right. This is a small and not desirable camp.

Mile 10.89 – “10.4 Mile” Camp: River Left. This is a medium sized camp. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 11.81 – Prospector Camp: River Right.

Mile 12.19 – Four Foot Rapid: Class II. This is a straight forward read and run and is note worthy simply because it’s the first true riffle of the trip. At low flows, pay attention to the rock towards the bottom of the rapid on the left.

Mile 13.58 – Midway Camp: River Right. This is a decent, medium sized camp. If it’s in the afternoon, and you do not have a Navajo Nation permit, and this camp is available, then I would strongly consider taking it. There are no obvious river right camps again until mile 20.

Mile 15.46 – “14.9 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 16.12 – “15.5 Mile” Camp: River Left. This is a popular medium sized camp. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 17.72 – Eight Foot Rapid Camp –  Closed: River Left. To not disturb any Big Horn Sheep this camp area is closed.

Mile 17.77 – Eight Foot Rapid: Class II. This is a boulder strewn read and run rapid that is a bit more challenging than Four Foot Rapid upstream. If you plan on scouting, do so from river left.

Mile 17.96 – Lower Eight Foot Camp: River Left. This is a medium sized camp just below Eight Foot Rapid. Navajo Nation permit required. This camp is not impacted by the Big Horn Sheep camping closure.

Mile 18.05 – Below Lower Eight Foot Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 18.09 – Camping Closure on River Left Until Ledge Rapid: River Left. From this corner until just above Ledge Rapid camping is closed.

Mile 19.88 – End of River Left Camping Closure: River Left. Camping is once again permitted on River Left starting below this point.

Mile 19.88 – Ledge Rapid: Class II. Named for the shelf coming off of the left bank, run right here to avoid shallowing out.

Mile 19.96 – Ledge Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 20.85 – Fossil Stop Camp: River Right. This is a medium sized camp that backs up against the old road.

Mile 21.04 – “20.5 Mile” Camp: River Left. This is a small camp. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 21.6 – Lime Creek: River Right. Lime Creek meets the San Juan here.

Mile 21.6 – Lime Creek Camp: River Right. This is a medium sized camp that backs up towards the creek drainage.

Mile 22.92 – Pour Off Camp: River Right. Look for the small sandy beach just downstream from the canyon.

Mile 23.76 – Mexican Hat Camp: River Left. This is a large camp that gives you front row seat to Mexican Hat rock. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 25.56 – 25 Mile Riffle: Class I. Read and run.

Mile 25.62 – “25 Mile” Camp: River Left. This was a small camp in 2021. Navajo Nation permit required.

Mile 27.46 – BLM Mexican Hat Boat Ramp: River Right. This is the takeout for the Upper and the put-in for the Lower. While there is no water available here, there is an outhouse.

Lower San Juan – Class II & III

Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, this stretch is commonly done injunction with the Upper San Juan. You do have the option to put in here though. This stretch gets you into the canyon portion of the San Juan. The latter part of the Lower San Juan runs into Lake Powell, which creates many miles of flatwater as you reach the takeout.

Length

Mexican Hat to Clay Hills is 56.86 miles.

Difficulty

Beginner.

Feet per Mile

Sand Hill to Mexican Hat is 6 FPM

Shuttle

4 – 5 hours round trip. Most prefer to hire a shuttle company for this section. Click here.

Mile 27.46 – BLM Mexican Hat Boat Ramp: River Right. The put-in “ramp” is a large gravel bar that can accommodate many rafts. There is no water available here so be sure to fill your jugs prior to arriving.

Mile 27.9 – Gypsum Creek: River Left.

Mile 27.98 – Gypsum Creek Rapid: Class II. This is probably the steepest rapid on the trip. Enter the left channel and keep working towards the right, being mindful o the left shore.

Mile 28.54 – Mexican Hat Bridge: Highway 163 crosses here. From the river, most of the town will be seen just below this point. In the last census, 31 people were living in Mexican Hat.

Mile 29.08 – “28.5 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo National land.

Mile 29.27 – “28.7 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 29.69 – Pontiac Wash Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 30.25 – “29.7 Mile” Camp: River Right.

Mile 30.73 – Mendenhall Loop: The Mendenhall Loop by river is 1.1 miles, but from this point to the otherside of the saddle and to the river bank is about 450 feet by the bird.

Mile 31.87 – Mendenhall’s Cabin: River Right. Even though you can see the saddle from the start of the Mendenhall Loop, the trail to get to the cabin is located here, on the other side. This is an easy hike that earns you some cool views.

Mile 31.91 – Mendenhall Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land. This is a hot, exposed camp.

Mile 32.56 – “32 Mile” Camp: River Right.

Mile 33.63 – Tabernacle Camp: River Right.

Mile – Tabernacle: River Left. This peak is called Tabernacle and marks the beginning of the San Juan Goosenecks.

Mile 35.5 – “35 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 36.06 – “35.4 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land. This camp backs up against a cliff wall and is a great place to be on a hot day.

Mile 36.19 – Minisazi Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land. This camp is similar to 35.4 but not quite as large.

Mile 37.76 – “37 Mile” Camp: River Right.

Mile 38.26 – “37.7 Mile” Camp: River Right.

Mile – Goosenecks State Park Overlook: River Right. You’ll see this overlook a couple times as you make your way through the Goosenecks.

Mile 41.56 – Bump Camp: River Right.

Mile 42.96 – “42.3 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 43.46 – “42.9 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 44.66 – False Honaker Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 45.11 – Upper Honaker: River Right.

Mile 45.26 – Honaker Camp: River Right. This is a large camp, with the Honaker trail starting towards the bottom of it. Expect visitors if you stay here from trail users.

Mile 46.1 – Halfway Rock: If you hiked up the Honaker trail you received a sneak peek of Halfway Rock. This large rock isn’t truly halfway through to Clay Hill, but it’s pretty close.

Mile 47.11 – “46.6 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 47.22 – “46.7 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 48.92 – Twin Canyon Rapid: Class II. Read and run.

Mile 49.06 – Twin Canyon Camp: River Right. This is a nice camp that provides easy access to the canyon behind it. Good camp for kids too as the sandy beach goes all the way upstream to the rapid, so plenty of opportunities to play.

Mile 50.24 – “49.7 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 53.24 – Ross Rapid: Class II. Named after Kenny Ross, one of the original commercial outfitters on the San Juan. This rapid is read and run, but pay attention to the rocks towards the bottom.

Mile 55.4 – “54.8 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 56.97 – “56.3 Mile” Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land.

Mile 57.36 – False Johns Camp: River Right.

Mile 58.73 – “58 Mile” Right Camp: River Right.

Mile 59.54 – John’s Canyon Camp: River Right.

Mile 59.74 – Lower John’s Canyon Camp: River Right.

Mile 61.9 – “61.2 Mile” Camp: River Right.

Mile 62.07 – Art Gallery Camp: River Right.

Mile 62.24 – “61.5 Mile” Camp: River Right. This is a small camp. From here until Government Camp there are a handful of small camps that are not worth noting that are workable but not great.

Mile 62.71 – “62 Mile” Camp: River Right. Small camp

Mile 64.08 – Furnace Flat Camp: River Right. Appropriately named.

Mile 64.46 – Government Rapid: Class III. The final rapid of the trip, Government Rapid is a short boulder garden. Most challenging at low flows, the rapid can be easily scouted on river left

Mile 64.52 – Government Camp: River Left. Navajo Nation land. This shade free camp is the final camp before reservations are required

Mile 65.11 – Start of Reservations: From this point downriver, all campgrounds on either side of the river require a reservation issued through the BLM.

Mile 65.4 – Beginning of Flat Water & Sandbars: Starting below this draw, you will no longer have current and you will need to keep your eye out for sandbars up until takeout. This is due to Lake Powell, slowing the current causing sediment deposition, effectively filling in the river bottom. Some estimate that the river drops less than a foot per mile from here to takeout.

Mile 66.9 – Slickhorn Camp A: River Right. Reservation required.

Mile 67.27 – Slickhorn Camp B: River Right Reservation required.

Mile 67.47 – Slickhorn Camp C: River Right Reservation required.

Mile 67.52 – Slickhorn Camp D: River Right Reservation required.

Mile 67.57 – Slickhorn Camp E: River Left. Reservation required.

Mile 71.17 – Grand Gulch Camp: River Right. Reservation required. This camp is located on a shelf just downstream of Grand Gulch. If the water is low, your best bet is to park the boats towards the downstream end of the shelf. You have excellent access to the wash from this camp.

Mile 72.67 – Trimble Camp: River Left. Reservation required. This is a small camp.

Mile 76.27 – False Olijeto: River Left. You’re not quite there, the real Olijeto Wash is just down river.

Mile 76.67 – Oljeto Wash: River Left. Reservation required. Even though this camp is located on river left, it is not on Navajo Nation land, and therefore doesn’t require an additional permit. However, if you hike up the Oljeto canyon, you do enter Navajo Nation land, which does require a permit. This camp is at the mouth of the wash and just downstream.

Mile 78.47 – Steer Gulch Camp: River Right. Reservation required. This is the last camp before takeout, which is just a few miles down river. This camp doesn’t have easy access to Steer Gulch as of March, 2021.

Mile 79.77 – Whirlwind Draw: River Right. This is the last big draw before takeout.

Mile 81.57 – Final Straightaway: You’re probably ready for takeout by this point between the flat water and the sandbars. Good news, you’re just 2.75 miles from the boat ramp.

Mile 84.32 – Clay Hills Boat Ramp: River Right. If the water is down then you won’t be able to back a trailer all the way to the water. There is a toilet here but no trash or water available.

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