The San Juan River; A Great Family Paddling Adventure

Looking to escape winters shackles? A trip to southern Utah can be just the ticket. The San Juan river is a sure bet for river folk wanting to explore some amazing and remote desert landscapes while enjoying some time on the water. The most popular section of this river goes from Sand Island to Clay Hills near Bluff, UT. This 84 miles of river takes the normal groups 6-7 days. Another popular option is to do the top 27 miles going from Sand Island to Mexican Hat, UT. The San Juan is a class II-III whitewater run with long stretches of moving flat water between the small rapids. Permits for river runners are distributed annually by the Bureau of Land Management through a lottery system.

We have been on the San Juan twice now. The first time was in our raft when our daughter who was 6 and we did all 84 miles and had a wonderful adventure. This past March we launched on the San Juan again, but this time were in kayaks and a standup board doing the upper 27miles from Sand Island to Mexican Hat. Both were wonderful trips, but it was really fun for all of us to be in our own boats and to each choose our own paths down the river. Abby was 8 years old on this last trip and paddled her own Jackson Sidekick the whole way (minus a few rides on the standup board). The rest of our group were in the Jackson Rogues, the perfect boat for this kind of long distance kayak camping. I took the Jackson SUPer Fishal stand up board the SUV of SUP. Each person carried their own gear minus some of the perishable food that I had in the Yeti cooler strapped on SUPer Fishal.
On the upper section there are many archeological sites to explore. The most famous is the River House Ruins. Here you will find the cliff dwellings of Ancestral Puebloans dating back to AD 900 and the late 1200s. There are also many fragments of pottery and stone tools remaining at many of the sites as well as petroglyph panels of rock art nearly everywhere you look. In the ancient grainaries you can still find corn cobs and acorn tops from over 1000 years ago.

Further down, the river cuts a deep canyon through the Raplee Anticline, a fold in the earth’s surface creating mountains of ancient rock. It’s a floating geology tour and where the first rapids are encountered. In the canyon you see many types of rock layers. Some have fossils covering large expanses of rock all around. In the Narrows, the canyon has leggy cliff walls on both sides. There are a few small rapids in this section and the amazing scenery just sucks you in making the river miles fly by.
Many amazing camp sites are found along the entire run. You can have sandy beaches, flat spots under shady cottonwoods as well as rock ledges deep in the canyon. Water levels are controlled by Navaho Reservoir but with our last trip at the low end of the annual flow (400 CFS) we still had plenty of water for a great trip in kayaks. Flows are often the best in spring but can vary from year to year.

The San Juan is an easy run at low flows which is ideal for a multi-day family adventure. Although the whitewater is Class II/III the remoteness of this river demands careful planning and should not be underestimated. Contact the BLM office for more details and river permits.

Links to more info on the American Whitewater Site:
Upper San Juan:

Lower San Juan:

Comments on “The San Juan River; A Great Family Paddling Adventure”

  1. Butler Cox
    April 30, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Very nice, Peter! Looks like Spidey’s becoming quite the slickrocker.

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