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Thread: San Juan River, Lower Canyon, Utah (San Juan blog part 2)

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

    Default San Juan River, Lower Canyon, Utah (San Juan blog part 2)

    Welcome back, desert paddlers. This continues my account of an 85 mile, six night canoe trip with Sunrise Expeditions through the canyons of the lower San Juan. We survived the upper canyon in the first blog.

    Since then, I found that the San Juan Canyons coverage in one of my favorite guidebooks, Western Whitewater by Cassidy, Cross, and Calhoun (1994) has been made available on the internet, and if you find my account at all sparse or confusing, here is the link to theirs.

    I left you standing on a boat ramp near Mexican Hat, Utah, in early May afternoon sun. We awaited our Maine Guides, Larry and Mike, and our support raft crew, who would call on us to reboard our canoes and paddle down toward the Lower Canyon to find our third campsite.

    sanjuan86 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Once on the water and around the bend, we came to Gypsum Creek Rapid. Whether it is class 1 or class 3 for open canoes depended on how it was approached. Along the left wall was a series of large and close-spaced haystacks which surely would swamp the tandems. Our guides advised the chicken route, sneaking down the right side in the shallows. The red canoe in the picture is following that advice.

    sanjuan87 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I decided to brave the haystacks, but I stayed a little toward the right of the highest peaks, both to avoid being driven into the wall, and in case I had to exit the series. Sure enough, Gyp Creek 1, Ezwater zero. I took on considerable water, but managed to slink out of the haystacks before foundering.

    We passed under the hwy 163 bridge. The canyon walls began to rise around us as the San Juan cut into the second uplift. On this map, we ended up camping at the bottom of the first meander after Mexican Hat.

    lowercanyonFirstCamp by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here are our canoes, parked on the beach.

    sanjuan88 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Folks set up tents back in the scrub if they could, because of the wind and cold. Note the creek coming down from hwy 163 in this view from space. Before dark I hiked up that dry creek, and found an old early 50s Buick that had washed down in a flood. Its finish was in remarkably good shape, due to the dry desert environment.

    ThirdCamp by ezwater, on Flickr

    While we were eating dinner, we nearly dropped our food in our laps when a huge four engine B-1 bomber made a low altitude run right across the river. They were probably rehearsing in case they were sent to Kosovo. The B-1, with movable swept wings, was originally designed as a high altitude bomber, but it is not stealthy like the B-2, so it was reassigned to low altitude troop support. I don't know if they have ever been used in combat.

    Notice that tight loop at the left, the Mendenhall Loop. We first circled the loop......

    sanjuan92 by ezwater, on Flickr

    ...,and then landed on its downstream side, so we could hike up and see tne Mendenhall cabin.

    sanjuan89 by ezwater, on Flickr

    As I recall, Mendenhall ran a little resupply operation for mining operations. There were attempts to mine gold and more useful metals. Later, there were oil and gas wells, but by then Mendenhall was gone.

    sanjuan90 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We then had to make tracks, or waves, or whatever, because the guides wanted to get through the Goosenecks meanders and reach the deepest part of the canyon for our next camp. I had no trouble keeping up with the more conventional canoes, and I moved back and forth through the procession for camera angles. My strongest lens was only 50 mm, so you may have to squint to see if there are canoes in the pictures.

    sanjuan93 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan94 by ezwater, on Flickr

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    sanjuan100 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I believe this shot is looking up at the rim of Goosenecks State Park, where I stood ten years before to take pictures.

    sanjuan101 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan103 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan104 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The Goosenecks from space. You may be able to see the road coming in to the canyon rim at Goosenecks State Park, a little right of upper center. As the land rose, the San Juan cut down into it, meandering to dissipate energy.

    Goosenecks by ezwater, on Flickr

    Another view back at the Park rim.

    sanjuan105 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We paddled on toward our planned campsite along Honaker Point. This would be the deepest part of the canyon. The depth approaches 1500 feet.

    HonakerCamp by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's a closer view from space. You can see Honaker Point just left and below the center of the picture. We will be camped along the river right "beach" dowstream of the point.

    FourthCamp by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's where we landed.

    sanjuan106 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The Honaker campsite is large, and there were maybe three other parties camped at the time we were there.

    It had been a long day on the water, about 15 miles, but we had been helped considerably by the brisk current. You may have noted the roiling surface of the river on the photos, even though true rapids were uncommon. We had plenty of time left in the afternoon to set up our tents, and then to hike up the trail to Honaker Point.

    Here I'm over halfway up the trail.

    sanjuan110 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Note the hikers descending on lower right.

    sanjuan111 by ezwater, on Flickr

    As we neared Honaker Point, we found ourselves in the midst of a "science fair". A nearby university geology department had trucked students in over the plateau, and the students were stationed at various strata below Honaker Point, waiting to explain their assigned stratum to the professor. As a past participant in high school science fairs, I found this both inspiring and amusing.

    sanjuan109 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Up atop Honaker, we see that to get to the point, one has to jump a 3+ wide gap. Which I did.

    sanjuan108 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's looking upstream from Honaker Point.

    sanjuan107 by ezwater, on Flickr

    It had been a little warmer and less windy. This shot shows my old-style Gerry tent the next morning. This so-called 3 man tent had served us well over 12 nights in Quetico, and for many shorter outings. The tent fly is attached permanently to the tent itself, so pitching it is easy. It is somewhat floppy in wind..... But for just me, there was plenty of room.

    sanjuan113 by ezwater, on Flickr

    When we got up that morning, one young mother had already climbed up the Honaker Trail to the plateau, so that her satellite phone might allow her to talk to her 4 year old daughter in Toronto. It worked!

    Here we're getting ready to hit the water again.

    sanjuan114 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Some of the paddlers were really trying to get poling experience. But standing in a canoe in a swift current has little to do with poling. Poling is most effective when one is not moving fast, relative to the river bottom. The fellow in the picture is at risk of getting pitched into the river, but fortunately that did not happen.

    sanjuan115 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan116 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan117 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan118 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan119 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Shaman Guy in the left foreground.

    sanjuan120 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This is Scott Rapid, one of the "name" rapids. For some reason, Shaman and I weren't feeling spunky, and followed the guide recommendation that we sneak down on the right.

    sanjuan121 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan122 by ezwater, on Flickr

    If the water were higher, a big wave would develop over the hidden rock in the last picture, and canoes could run over it and swamp. One guy in a Reflection 15, in our party, went down the fast chute left of the rock, and did just fine.

    sanjuan123 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Landing for our fifth camp at Johns Canyon, named for a side canyon just below the sand berm where we set up our tents.

    sanjuan124 by ezwater, on Flickr

    This had been a fourteen mile day. Here's the view from space. We're camped just upstream from the creek coming in from the right.

    FifthCamp by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan125 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan126 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan127 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I haven't mentioned the green shrubbery along the banks. Most is an invasive species, tamarisk, also called salt cedar. The stuff transpires quite a bit of water, and fills up potential campsites. In '99, I think the only things they could do were to burn it or bulldoze it out of the sand, both obviously unacceptable along the San Juan. Since then, they have imported a critter that eats the stuff, and there are indications that there will be just enough tamarisk left for a bit of shade and to show its blossoms in June. Our camp is up behind the tamarisks in the background, on the right side.

    sanjuan128 by ezwater, on Flickr
    Last edited by ezwater; 5th-December-2012 at 04:33 AM.

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


    After we set up tents, most of the group went to climb up Johns Canyon to some plunge pools where swimming in clear water might be possible. I decided to stay down and relax. Then, after more thought (or maybe it was the wind), I tried swimming in the river. Though it was silty, I might end up with less dirt on me afterward. But it was cold! The hikers later said the Johns Canyon pools were just as cold, and some of the approach trail involved pushing on one another's butts to ascend. But the scenery, they said, was great.

    I forgot to mention that the guides brought wine for each evening, in those plastic bags. Customers were allowed to bring beer, carried in the raft coolers, and a few had done so. The Duraflame log flickered brightly in the firepan as the sun went down.

    Below, we're loading boats the next morning. The stern of my Synergy is in the foreground, and behind is the older couple loading the green Dagger Dimension assigned to them.

    sanjuan130 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking downriver, a huge shadow warns of the approach of The Ship, the Black Freighter, with 50 cannons, and Lotte Lenya at the helm...

    sanjuan129 by ezwater, on Flickr

    But just in the nick of time, a B-1 bomber appeared over the rim of the canyon, banked around, and blew the ship to bits. Made paddling kind of oily for a while....

    sanjuan131.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The flotilla on its way.

    sanjuan132 by ezwater, on Flickr

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    sanjuan134 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here we've stopped to scout and run Government Rapid. Though usually rated at only class 2++ at this level, it can be troublesome for loaded canoes. Lining would be difficult, and portaging over all the rockfall more difficult.

    sanjuan138 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's guide Larry Totten showing off, and showing us how he suggests entering the rapid just right of the rock in the left foreground.

    sanjuan136 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan137 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Customers contemplating.

    sanjuan135 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Then, guides manned the throw ropes. No one had any trouble getting through the rapid. I don't recall whether I took the "suggested" course, but I got down dry. One tandem did flip, making the classic newbie mistake of running the rapid properly, but then relaxing as they hit the leftside eddy.

    sanjuan139 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I got back in my boat to get a right side perspective downstream.

    sanjuan140 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan141 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan142 by ezwater, on Flickr

    We landed again opposite class 2- Slickhorn Rapid. This spot is a one night only, sign up in advance camping spot. It's popular because of the hike up Slickhorn Gulch to clear water swimming holes. There were a few other parties camping or visiting at the time.

    sanjuan143 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's the topo for Slickhorn.

    slickhorn by ezwater, on Flickr

    I took this shot as we hiked up the gulch.

    sanjuan144 by ezwater, on Flickr

    You can see someone diving into this pool on the other side.

    sanjuan146 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I thought the water might be warm because it had traveled many miles in the sun. I forgot it had also traveled many miles in darkness. I waded in but found it too frigid for serious swimming. Taken during the hike back down.

    sanjuan147 by ezwater, on Flickr

    After three more miles, we came to the mouth of Grand Gulch. Mr. Shaman on the left is guarding the waterfall. The catamaran is from another party. Grand Gulch is another sign-in-advance camping spot. One can hike many miles up the gulch, and there are some Anasazi leavings. Anasazi signs are scarce in the lower canyon because there are few good places to grow crops, and potable water gets scarce in late summer.

    sanjuan148 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Because of Glen Canyon Dam above the Grand Canyon on the Colorado, Lake Powell can back up above the mouth of Grand Gulch. In 1984 it rose two miles above the Gulch. However, when we were there in 1999, the west had entered a dry period, and Lake Powell had receded a number of miles below the lower canyon run. The result has been deposited silt in the river. The farther down we went, the more we encountered silt beds not far under the water surface. All would have to take care not to run aground, especially the rafts. For the canoes, this was a nuisance rather than a hazard.

    After Grand Gulch, our remaining goal was to find a last campsite.

    sanjuan149 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Some campsites are available at relatively low flows, as in our case, but may be covered with water at high flows. In some seasons, the San Juan water level may rise significantly during the period we were running the river. I was sent over to one possible campsite marked on the map, but it was low, and standing on it, not where I would want a large party with tents.

    We kind of had our hearts set on Oljeto Wash, a side canyon formed by Moonlight Creek, but from a distance we could see it was thoroughly occupied. Instead we settled for a smaller creek and canyon almost half a mile upstream. You can see it on the map, right below the "3700" marked on the river. We had covered about 15 miles.

    lastcamp by ezwater, on Flickr

    It was a little crowded, especially because all were trying to pitch tents as much above river level as level ground was available.

    sanjuan150.0 by ezwater, on Flickr

    For this last night, I didn't want to be inside a tent. It was warm, there was little wind and no sign of rain. Farther up the canyon, I found a sand-filled depression up above the creek where I could spread my sleeping bag. I think there was a waning moon that night.

    This pictue I took the next morning.

    sanjuan150.1 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Back on the water. Paddlers are emerging from the side canyon on the right. Because of low gradient and siltation, the water runs smoother in this section.

    sanjuan152.0 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan152.1 by ezwater, on Flickr

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    The Dagger Dimension folks looking up Steer Gulch on the right bank.

    sanjuan157 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan158 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan160 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A beaver, who seemed quite used to tourists.

    sanjuan162 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Clay Hills in the distance signals that we are near our end. Slowly at first, and then faster, the canyon walls have been descending.

    sanjuan163 by ezwater, on Flickr

    clayhills by ezwater, on Flickr

    That road coming to Clay Hills Crossing is our take out. Some of our group as we load up.

    sanjuan168 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The green Shaman in the foreground, and my Synergy loaded at the very top of the trailer.

    sanjuan167 by ezwater, on Flickr

    By this time, I looked and smelled bad, but felt pretty good.

    by ezwater, on Flickr

    At one time, people could continue on the San Juan to the Colorado River, and then go through easy-for-canoes Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry at the head of the Grand Canyon. After Glen Canyon Dam drowned that section, Clay Hills became the usual take out.

    The "dangerous waterfall" was formed when the lake level dropped and the river scoured a nasty drop in accumulated silt. Tamarisks and silt prevented portage, and running the "falls" was too dangerous, so BLM closed the river until the silt could be cleared out by flows. Since then, the lake has been even lower, and I imagine the lower San Juan is still a mess.

    A view of the Clay Hills parking lot shows that the land around the canyon can be flat and bleak.

    sanjuan164 by ezwater, on Flickr

    To get to Mexican Hat, where my car was waiting, and from which the rest would be vanned back to Flagstaff, we had to drive way up and around. Though you can't see it in the picture, the top of the San Juan canyons is out there on the plain.

    sanjuan169 by ezwater, on Flickr

    sanjuan170 by ezwater, on Flickr

    In Mexican Hat, they got my boat down and I got my gear out of the van and into the Outback. Maine Guide Mike allowed as how they had enjoyed watching me scoot around in my "little canoe." I drove to my sister's in Durango for a rest and some showers, and then back to Atlanta.

  3. #3
    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


    You do paddle some fantastic places, EZ. I am very envious.

    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

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Me too.

    When are we going?
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA


    You can check out the Sunrise Expeditions offerings. They do trips all over the world, and while they aren't cheap, they can help you keep plane flight costs down in many cases. In some cases, their trips use local outfitting. For example, they have connections with guiding services in Scotland, and in France and Portugal. Their guides, such as Larry Totten, one of our San Juan guides, may offer services separate from Sunrise for trips on the Rio Grande on the Mexican border, or in Costa Rica. The alloutdoorsguiding page gives a little information about Larry and about Maine Guides in general.

    Even if time or money prevents you from going on any of these trips, the websites will get you dreaming. When I had young kids, I couldn't afford to pay people to take me down rivers. It wasn't until the kids were through college, working somewhat regularly, and their college loans were paid off, that I could afford to go desert paddling with Sunrise. Now, in retirement, I can pay for such ventures with relative ease, but I'm too decrepit for many of them. Take note of my experience, and plan your expeditions accordingly.
    Last edited by ezwater; 6th-December-2012 at 08:25 PM.

  6. #6


    brilliant pictures and blogg ezwater. Reminds me of my trip down the Grand Canyon, but on a raft, not in a proper canoe!


  7. #7
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA


    The attraction of the San Juan is that you get something like the Grand Canyon's visual experience while traveling in and camping out of a canoe. Very few canoeists can tackle the Grand Canyon, but most SOTP canoeists can do the San Juan.

    Want to see how low the Grand Canyon could get, before the Glen Canyon Dam stabilized the flow? Check these links that I posted on

    All the photos are from the Belknaps, legendary SW river runners in days of yore. They are in U. of Northern Arizona archives.

    The rest are B&W. Click once on each picture, and a larger version will appear.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2012


    A great blogg.......looks like a very do-able canyon
    All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

  9. #9


    Amazing pictures ezwater. It would be a very different experience travelling down in such low water.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jan 2006
    Angus, Scotland


    Thanks for finishing the trip, it looks really spectacular.
    When I first read the Monkey Wrench Gang I assumed it was based on a real dam, but its good being able to put the location more fully into context.

    Quote Originally Posted by ezwater View Post
    When I had young kids, I couldn't afford to pay people to take me down rivers. It wasn't until the kids were through college, working somewhat regularly, and their college loans were paid off, that I could afford to go desert paddling with Sunrise. Now, in retirement, I can pay for such ventures with relative ease, but I'm too decrepit for many of them. Take note of my experience, and plan your expeditions accordingly.
    This is great advice, but I'm already finding that I can't do the trips I want to with the familt, cause when you multiply the price by 4 it becomes really unmanagable. But I hear what you are saying about doing things while you still can.
    I am growing to understand that youth really is wasted on the young.
    'There is no wealth but life itself.'

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Jul 2006


    Amazing really like the grainy 'retro' tone to the pics.

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA


    Grainy tone is probably due in part to having to use 400 film because camera would accept only 400 or 100, and to my custom when scanning negatives of using only enough pixels to fill my LCD screen. Results were better for my Dolores Slickrock Canyon blog, because I used some "pro" Kodak 400.

    Liked your 10 meter tidal blog today. Made me think of the mud flats in the Bay of Fundy.

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