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Thread: San Juan River--- Pagosa Springs through Mesa Canyon.

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA

    Default San Juan River--- Pagosa Springs through Mesa Canyon.

    Again I'm leading up, or rather leading down, to something. This blog is about a class 2+ run on the San Juan River, near its headwaters in south central Colorado. Before too long, I'll blog a later trip I took through the deep canyons of the San Juan, down in Utah.

    The year was 1994, and my wife and I were jumping all around the western half of Colorado, as I paddled whatever easy whitewater I could find. Besides the San Juan, I paddled the Conejos, the upper Rio Grande, the Taylor, and the upper Dolores. I must have paddled the Animas in Durango, too, because that's where my sister and her family live.

    Here's the oversimplified diagram of Colorado rivers. The upper San Juan is indicated by an asterisk toward the bottom of the map. The San Juan runs south into upper New Mexico, gathers the waters of the Piedra and Animas rivers, and then is stilled by Navajo Reservoir for a ways. As with other Colorado rivers, most water input comes from snowmelt.

    Copy of colorado-state-rivers_02 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The San Juan mountains, where most snowfall is raked from the sky, are volcanic in origin. But when the San Juan flows south, through the town of Pagosa Springs, it enters a zone of uplifted sedimentary layers, mostly sandstone. These layers are often flat-topped, and so are called mesas. That's how this paddling run, from Pagosa Springs most of the way to Trujillo, came to be called the Mesa Canyon run. If not too high, it can be done in open canoes, but at that time I was still scrunching my legs into a C-1.

    yankee by ezwater, on Flickr

    I was fortunate enough to find a rafting outfitter in Pagosa Springs who was willing to let me tag along for a reasonable price. This left my wife free to hang with my sister's family in Durango. Our trip begain at a dirt and gravel boat ramp in Pagosa Springs. Note the red asterisk next to the highway bridge. There's a mesa right in town, right of center. Pagosa Springs has some reliable hot springs, which have made it a tourist trap. The river in Pagosa Springs is just under 7000 feet in altitude.

    Pagosa1.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I think the river was running about 1800 cfs, high enough for the rafts to proceed without scraping. This shot looks back north toward town as the swift current carries us downstream. Look real hard, and you'll see a raft in the distance, and on the horizon, peaks of the San Juan mountains.

    94co24.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    On this map you can see flat-topped heights closing in on both sides.

    Pagosa2.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking back north, again you can see the rafts, and the San Juan mountains showing more clearly.

    94co24.51 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking downstream.

    94co24.52 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This map segment shows us paddling into land owned by the Ute Tribe. Our outfitter has negotiated agreements as to where his rafts can land for lunch or respite. The Ute do some tourist trade with trout fishermen.

    Pagosa3.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.54 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.62 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.55 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.56 by ezwater, on Flickr

    You'll notice that I often paddle ahead so I can catch the rafts in the pictures. Here's the next map segment. We're nearing the heart of the run.

    Pagosa4.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    But first, time to stop for lunch! You understand..... I had my own meagre lunch, while the raft guides were putting out a big spread for their customers. It gave me time to walk up and down the bank and take pictures.

    94co24.57 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.58 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.61 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A splice of two photos as the river turns the corner into a section that, at higher water, can reach class 3.

    94co24.98 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The map shows where the strongest whitewater occurred, roughly opposite "Squaw Canyon." The word "squaw" has become almost like the "N" word in American society. You want to avoid using it.

    Pagosa5.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I was not able to take pictures when I negotiated the worst rapids. They were mainly boiling, somewhat irregular, waves and holes, but I did not spot any good eddies where I could sit and work the camera. Here the rafts are just emerging from the good stuff.

    94co24.80 by ezwater, on Flickr

    You may have noticed that one of the rafts is a catamaran. These have grown gradually more popular. They are a little faster and easier to maneuver by just one oarsman, but their carrying capacity is lower.

    94co24.81 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.82 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Those vertical slabs on the left may be old volcanic dikes, where lava forced itself between sedimentary layers.

    94co24.83 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We've stopped again opposite some ranch fields.

    94co24.85 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking north, a summer "monsoon" thunderstorm is forming near the San Juans.

    94co24.86 by ezwater, on Flickr

    My boat, parked along the bank. My paddle at that time was the redoubtable Norse, heavy and stiff.

    94co24.87 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.88 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.89 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.91 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.90 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Back on the water.

    94co24.84 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.93 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.94 by ezwater, on Flickr

    94co24.95 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Another volcanic dike amidst unstable strata.

    94co24.96 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This map shows the end of the run. A paved road has come down next to the river from the mesas.

    Pagosa6.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    And here we're loading. I got a ride back to Pagosa Springs where my car was sitting.

    94co24.97 by ezwater, on Flickr

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 2006
    Angus, Scotland


    Thanks for sharing. Its good to see more of the area.

    I'm struck by how much parts of the landscape reminds me of parts of perthshire, complete with volcanic dykes. Although much dryer and warmer with a different range of trees.
    'There is no wealth but life itself.'

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Looks like a nice grade of river that, a few bits interesting enough to catch your attention, but generally amiable enough for you to be able to look around you...
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  4. #4
    Crow's Avatar
    Crow is offline こんにちは。私はカラスと私はスコットラ ンドの出身で す。
    Join Date
    May 2009
    Third stone from the sun


    Nice n' EZ does it every time.

    Here comes the future and you can't run from it
    If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it

    Crow Trip Log

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Aug 2011
    SE London



    Look forward to the canyons.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Apr 2006


    Fantastic, really nice to see a different area
    'Of all the paths you choose in life, make sure some of them are wet'

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2008
    Amersfoort, Netherlands


    Thanks for the blog. I was not aware that the Upper San Juan is also a great river. Tried without success last year to get a permit for june to paddle from Sand Island to Clay Hills.
    Is the Upper River permit free?

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA


    The upper river is permit free, but you might find and check the site to see about recent effects of Ute tribe control of the banks. I noticed that either fishermen or paddlers or both have put some boulder weirs in the river. This might help fishing and add ww interest, but it might affect how low the stream can be run. I also don't know if the outfitter in Pagosa Springs is still operating, and under the same rules.

    Also keep your eye on the Dolores, where no permit is required for the upper three sections. I posted a blog on the 37 mile Slickrock Canyon in SOTP, and it should pop up if you search for Dolores.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA



    link so you can find this blog from other blogs of mine.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA


    This was supposed to be linked in the 5 Easy Pieces blog now runniing. Sorry about that, but no great harm done. This Mesa Canyon blog and a short one on the Dolores near Rico, Co, are the only "de ja vu" portions. The rest, on the Conejos, Wagon Wheel Gap, the Taylor, and the family raft trip in Durango are all new.... which is not to say they are any good, but you can decide.

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