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Thread: San Juan River, Upper Canyon, Utah

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

    Default San Juan River, Upper Canyon, Utah

    I first saw the San Juan Canyons in 1989. This is from the rim of the Lower Canyon, in Goosenecks State Park, Utah.

    firstCO90 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Later, in 1994, I paddled the upper San Juan through Mesa Canyon. That blog, if you haven't seen it, is here:

    The San Juan arises in SW Colorado, flows south into New Mexico, leaves the Navajo Reservoir, flowing west, and crossing near the juncture of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, flows WNW into Utah, eventually reaching Lake Powell. The San Juan contributes about 10% of the water in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Nearly all this water comes from winter snows. The Navajo Reservoir steadies the year to year flow considerably.

    This map shows the river's course in Utah.

    utah-rivers-map by ezwater, on Flickr

    Many of the Colorado tributaries are seasonal, but the San Juan Canyons can be paddled all year. Summers are very hot, winters can be bitter cold, and the water levels are best in spring, so that's when paddlers show up in large numbers.

    On seeing the San Juan in '89, I thought, that's a river that might be paddled by canoeists, including me. I put it on my list of maybes. But perhaps not high on my list, because one needs to enter a lottery to get a permit to run the San Juan.

    Ten years later, I was aiming for another, much smaller desert river, the Verde in central Arizona. I put down a bunch of earnest money with Sunrise Expeditions (, a classy outfit that runs self-supported canoe trips around the world. My brother and his wife live in Phoenix, and I could base camp with him before meeting Sunrise in late April, when snowmelt pumps up the Verde.

    In spring of 1999, low snowfall in northern Arizona meant that the Verde could not be run. Meanwhile, things were awful at the state hospital where I had worked, and long hours to fix problems left me out of shape and thoroughly depressed.

    Sunrise Expeditions fixed their part. They threw in their lot with a raft outfitter who had a permit for the San Juan Canyons. Those signed up for the trip could still fly or drive in to Flagstaff, in north Arizona, to be vanned to Bluff, Utah, and the put-in.

    Back at work, my supervisor told me that I was getting too shot to be worth much, and might as well take three weeks off to do the trip. I began gathering equipment. While Sunrise would carry all food, water, and ice on two large rafts, the canoeists were expected to carry their own clothes and gear either in their own boats, or in the canoes provided by Sunrise.

    I'd guess I had about 100 pounds of stuff, including tent, sleeping bag, pad, clothes, shoe changes, etc., nearly all protected in waterproof bags. Four of the bags were tapered inflatables, designed for kayaks. Adding attachment points to the hull, I put the tapered ends of these bags under the nylon flotation bags at the ends of the hull. The wide ends were tied down securely at the ends of the long grey minicell triple saddle. There were also some roll top enclosure bags that I arranged along the sides of the triple saddle, where they didn't interfere with my legs in kneeling position.

    By the day of departure, all this was loaded in or on our Subaru Outback. On the first day, I drove from Atlanta through Alabama, Mississippi, northern Louisiana, and into Texas. Such long driving days aren't easy even if one is used to them. It took all day to get across Texas. The spring flowers along the highway were easy on the eyes. The third day, I reached Phoenix where I spent a layover day with my brother.

    As I mentioned, the Sunrise party was meeting at a motel in Flagstaff. Paddlers were easy to tell from other tourists by their attire. I was to find Mike and Larry, our Maine Guides, to check in and get our schedule for the next day's drive to the river.

    Yellowcanoe could tell you the Full Monty on Maine Guides. All I know is that they have extensive training in guiding folks in the wilderness, and Maine being what it is, that includes canoeing, poling, and whitewater. They also seem to be great cooks, extremely efficient at getting a good meal ready, and ridding up afterward.

    I don't recall anything about that night in the motel, what I ate, how I slept, nothing. The next day, customer gear was loaded on the vans and the canoe trailers attached. Most folks had flown to Flagstaff and would use Sunrise canoes and tents. I would drive to the San Juan, where Sunrise had put me in touch with a man who would shuttle my Outback to the take out.

    We drove NNE on the outskirts of Monument Valley, eventually reaching the Sand Island Recreation Area, and our boat launch. I drove to Bluff to set up my shuttle. Below are pictures of our crew preparing to hit the water.

    sanjuan5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    As I mentioned, nearly all the canoes belonged to Sunrise, or to our Maine Guides. That green ww canoe in the right foreground is a Mohawk Shaman, and belonged to a guy even taller than I am. In the right foreground of the second picture you see my Mad River Synergy, just about loaded and ready to go. Those were the only two high rockered whitewater canoes on the trip.

    sanjuan6 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Also visible are two big oared rafts, provided by the outfitter guy who had the permit to run the canyons. Except for the permit issue, Sunrise would have done the entire trip, 85 miles with 6 nights camping, carrying all food and water in the canoes. The San Juan water can't be treated for drinking and cooking, but certain canyon side streams can be made potable, and Mexican Hat allows resupply after the first two nights. But having the rafts meant they could carry all the food, all the water, and all the ice, leaving the canoes loaded just enough to resist high winds.

    All the canoes were Royalex. There were 15 foot Dagger Reflections, assigned to solo paddlers. Tandem crews were assigned to 16 ft Reflections, to a Mad River 17 ft. Explorer, and one older couple got a Dagger Dimension, virtually a ww tripper.

    Now a word about the difficulty of the river. The San Juan has the swiftest rate of flow of any of the southeastern canyon rivers. There are occasional riffles or trains of shallow waves throughout most of the run. There are some good eddy lines. If the river had been high, we might have seen "sand waves," big moving haystacks on the surface caused when the current raises waves in the sand underneath. At higher levels, there might have been some challenging holes and turbulence. But our level was about 1800 cfs and falling, very safe for canoes.

    There would be a few rapids, but each was fairly short, and sneak routes were possible. The strongest would be class 3- Government Rapid in the lower canyon.

    Depending on the river and conditions, Maine Guides employed by Sunrise may accept novice paddlers, and provide some basic pointers. Mike and Larry called us over to streamside and went over basic strokes and water reading. After that, they pretty much left us on our own, and all the paddlers managed quite well.

    Our April-May weather was sunny except when a cold front pushed through. Air temperature called for jackets and pants. If this had been July, daytime temperature might have hit 90 degrees F, at least until summer afternoon monsoon thunderstorms developed.

    In '99 I relied on my Minolta Weathermatic 35, a waterproof film camera. Being waterproof was its highest distinction. The lens was slow, the shutter was slow, but if we had sunny weather, that made all the difference. The next shot shows we are on the water. Over the first miles, the river has beaten back the low sandstone bluffs, leaving a panoramic view of the surroundings.

    sanjuan8 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan9 by ezwater, on Flickr

    One of the guides brings up the rear.

    sanjuan10 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A huge bluff looms over the river.

    sanjuan11 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This Google Earth shot shows that the overhang covers most of the river, though I think the river was lower when the shot was taken.

    Overhang by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here I'm close to the base of the overhang, where the current is a little tricky.

    sanjuan12 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan13 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Larry the Guide stands to pole. The river was often shallow enough for poling. I was once pretty good with a pole, but my MR Synergy is way too round and narrow for standing.

    sanjuan16 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Somewhere along here, they stopped the entire party to see petroglyphs behind the scrub on the right bank. A thorn from Russian Olive drove right through the sole of my wetsuit boot into my foot. Great. Another health issue.

    sanjuan17 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan18 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here we are waiting to land at the mouth of Butler Wash. (A wash is an intermittent stream.) This would be our first campsite. Because the landing is small, the rafts go in first and tie off, and then the canoes go in one by one.

    sanjuan19 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan20 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Most of us had to erect our tents on a huge sand island. It was windy, and we scrounged for rocks to weigh down the lines. The guides set to fixing dinner.

    The washes and cliffs around the San Juan, up here where the canyons don't restrict movement, are peppered with Anasazi cliff dwellings. Hence the petroglyphs. Some of the group hiked up the wash to see what they could see. I was tired, discouraged about being tired, and my thorned foot hurt. So I lay in the tent until dinner.

    Some rules and procedures about camping along desert rivers. You pee in the river, and nowhere else. I think it was women upstream, men downstream. Women simply turn away from the river, bend down, bear down, and shoot.

    The remainder of one's leavings go in the "groover," a toilet box placed off in the scrub, out of sight of the camp but usually where you and passing boaters can wave to one another. A paddle placed across the approach path indicates when someone it using the groover.

    Traditional campfires fires are not permitted. Dead wood and driftwood cannot be used. The guides had a firepan and a synthetic log for each night. Gas stoves were used for cooking. All dishwater flotsam is screened out and saved with other garbage for disposal in civilization. It's a good system that helps keep campsites from getting ravaged.

    That night there was a full moon, and when I left my tent to raise the river level a bit, I saw my large friend sleeping in the open, on top of the long float bags in his Shaman.

    The next morning we reloaded our boat. Soon we stopped on the right bank to see a huge collection of old petroglyphs.

    sanjuan25 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Soon we stopped again, to walk in a short distance to "River House," an Anasazi dwelling built below an overhang. They chose these sites so that they were shaded most of the summer and through summer afternoons. In winter, the sun came below the overhang and warmed the dwellings. I didn't much like people clambering all over things, but actually they were pretty careful, an damage from past visits wasn't too bad.

    sanjuan26 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan28 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Not far away to the east is Mesa Verde, where there are several very large cliff dwellings. Here's one of them we saw in '89.

    firstCO96 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We're back on the water. The group stopped once again so they could hike to another cliff dwelling, but I rested under the cottonwood trees. I know you have a form of cottonwood poplars in England. They can get really big in the southwestern desert, provided they're over a steady groundwater supply. I think Lewis and Clark sometimes used cottonwood to carve wooden canoes.

    sanjuan29 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan30 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan31 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We're landing at our second camp, near the mouth of Chinle Creek. Much of the south bank of the river is Navajo land, and an advance permit must be obtained to camp there.

    sanjuan34 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Before dinner, we hiked SW to "mule ear diatreme," formed by an old gaseous vent. We're looking back upriver.

    sanjuan32 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here are some of the tents, back up from the scrub where the "kitchen" and firepan were located. We could see that a cold front was coming through. There was brief thunder and strong wind during the night, and then it got cold. There was frost on the tents in the morning.

    sanjuan35 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here is the topographical for the area. Chinle Creek comes in on the lower right. Comb Ridge runs near vertically through the picture. On the left, the river is cutting the first canyon down through the sandstone as it rises, pushed up from below.

    Project7 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking downstream at the canyon entrance. We were waiting for the sun to hit and warm us.

    sanjuan36 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Upstream, the sun is just clearing the heights.

    sanjuan39 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A splice showing Comb Ridge.

    Project2 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Standing is the assistant rower on the raft outfit. Seated is the preteen daughter of one of the Sunrise staff. I came to realize that, because this was the first San Juan run for Sunrise, several of the staff had come along.

    sanjuan43 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Warming up and loading up.

    Project3 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The last splice I'll do for the upper canyon. The shadowy variations are an artifact caused by a cheap shutter mechanism.

    Project4 by ezwater, on Flickr

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA

    Default San Juan River, Upper Canyon, Utah

    Here, from outer space, is the first part of the upper canyon. That odd round thing is a "rincon", an abandoned meander of the river with a tower of sandstone in the center. One can hike around it, but we didn't. Your eyes may find it hard to see the river as down in a snaky trench. It seems like the down cut is elevated into the air.

    Rincon by ezwater, on Flickr

    The San Juan narrows considerably when it cuts into the broad upswelling of rock. That may aid it in cutting deeper. Also, the San Juan is known to move huge volumes of sand and silt during spring runoff, which serves as an abrasive. The uplift of rock is relatively flat, and one could walk all around on it without difficulty. But as you'll see, the canyon walls are very steep. Climbing out of the canyon can require finding a sidestream, like the one coming down on the upper left.

    Here we're starting the first turn into the upper canyon.

    sanjuan50 by ezwater, on Flickr

    And here I've turned to take a last shot east from the canyon.

    sanjuan51 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This is Four Foot Rapid, first of the "name" rapids. It is just a series of big haystacks, but the guides told newbies how to run it, and had some of us wait with ropes in case there were swimmers. There weren't. Usually one can avoid taking water in haystacks by keeping the boat speed down at or below current speed. Another trick is to aim the boat down to one side or the other of the highest wave peaks. None of our group seemed to need to bail or dump water.

    sanjuan52 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan53 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Just paddlin' on down.....

    sanjuan54 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The group stops for a break.

    sanjuan56 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan57 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan58 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan59 by ezwater, on Flickr

    There appears to be a layer of limestone exposed, and the river water has been attacking it.

    sanjuan61 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan62 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Around the bend is Eight Foot Rapid, and we've stopped well in advance so that paddlers can walk down and scout. I would call it a class 2+ at this level, but it's a bit long, and there are rocks that can upset canoes and catch rafts. Mike and Larry told the group that if they paddled down the shallows toward the left, they would avoid taking water or big rock encounters.

    sanjuan63 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The big guy in the green Shaman goes around the bend toward the rapid.

    sanjuan65 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here, Mr. Shaman is standing with a throw rope. A canoe comes down on the sneak route. I'm down too. I came down on river right, as close to the big rocks as I could get, and took no water.

    sanjuan68 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan69 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Approaching the Narrows, where more limestone means a tighter passage.

    sanjuan70 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan71 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking back at the Narrows. I find that while limestone can mean steeper walls and narrower channels, it doesn't mean rapids. The limestone usually melts out of the way over time.

    sanjuan72 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This topo shows the latter half of the upper canyon run. Look close and you will see Eight Foot Rapids, the Narrows, and upcoming Ledge Rapids labeled. The western part of the upper canyon uplift will show considerable twisting of layers.

    Project5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Ledge Rapid wasn't very impressive. Maybe at higher water there might have been a hydraulic backwash to buck or duck.

    sanjuan73 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan74 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Landing for a hike.

    sanjuan76 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan77 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We hiked up the south side of the canyon.

    sanjuan79 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking north, the river just visible.

    sanjuan80 by ezwater, on Flickr

    As we descend, our canoes are visible on the bank.

    sanjuan81 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here from outer space is the western half of the upper canyon.

    SJupperCanyon by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking west from the trail.

    sanjuan82 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Note Mexican Hat Rock toward the lower left. We're coming out of the canyon.

    Project6 by ezwater, on Flickr

    There's Mexican Hat Rock on the upper left. I think the town of Mexican Hat may have glued it in place, as it is their major tourist draw.

    sanjuan85 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Fascinating rock layers.

    sanjuan84 by ezwater, on Flickr

    On the boat landing near Mexican Hat. We're stretching, resting our legs, and waiting while the guides go up into town for ice and water. We've covered 27 miles in three days and two overnights. We still have four nights of camping to go, in the lower canyon.

    sanjuan86 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We will not stay in Mexican Hat. That afternoon, we had to run Gypsum Creek Rapid, cross under a highway bridge, and find a campsite.

    (Readers, viewers, I don't know whether the Lower Canyon blog will be appended to this one or posted separately. If it is separate, I will post a response on this blog to let you know.)

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Sep 2007
    Southern Oregon


    Looks like a great desert river. I am looking forward to the next section.
    Dr. Joe
    Electric Hospital
    Coos Bay Or

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jul 2011


    Thank you!! Really enjoying reading this and there's some great pics too!!
    To Canoe is to be moved!!!

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Aug 2011
    SE London


    Great stuff Ez, look forward to future instalments.

  6. #6
    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


    Another great blog, EZ.

    Reminds me of the Tyne Valley, apart from the weather, the rocks and the river.

    How come Maine Guides are in Utah? Have they migrated?

    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

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Dec 2005
    Winnipeg, MB


    Great pictures. I love the desert.
    You may not be pleased to know however that there is a plan to mine tar sands in the San Juan watershed. So you'll be able to have your own little nightmare industry just like Canada! The company planning it do say that the new process they intend to use won't require vast settling ponds so at least it won't kill thousands of migratory birds...
    "All right" said Eeyore "We're going. Only don't blame me"

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Aug 2008
    Amersfoort, Netherlands


    What an amazing place. Thanks for the blog.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Excellent, as always.
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

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