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Floating the lower San Juan River, Utah

San Juan River Float Page 2

Floating the lower San Juan river is like taking an 8 or 10 day geology field trip. As you progress down the river you watch the geology change and become older and older as the canyon rim above gets higher and higher. Robert Pritchard and I floated the Lower San Juan River for 8 days in 2006, from 14- 21 August. The 84 mile trip started just outside Bluff, Utah at the Sand Island Campground. Our take-out was at Clay Hills. We met at and left one vehicle at the take-out and drove on to Sand Island on the first day. We hit the river later in the afternoon and only made it a few miles the first day.

If you float from Bluff to Mexican Hat, do not park at the BLM takeout, use Valles RV Park up on the highway. They will charge a small fee, $2.00 per day, but your vehicle will be safe. The Clay Hills takeout parking lot seemed perfectly safe. If you need to shuttle a vehicle from Bluff to Clay Hills, KD River Shuttle, at 435.672.2240, will move your vehicle from Bluff on the day specified for around 125 dollars. As of 2006 there was no type of pickup service from the takeout.

We used the Rivermaps Guide to the San Juan River for this trip. Rivermaps reprints all the pertinent sections of the appropriate topographic maps, turns them so you are always looking downriver, prints them on waterproof material, and spiral binds them to keep them all together. They come highly recommended. There is also the San Juan River Guide by Linda Kearsley.

We got lucky and had relatively fast water. You may want to check river flows while considering a launch date. As with many floats, you will need to compromise- you wil need to choose between warm weather, fast water, and lots of fellow boaters, or hot weather, slower flows, and less people. Take a look at the flow chart link above and the launch calendar below to get a better idea.

The permitting process for the San Juan is by lottery. To be included in the lottery, applications must be received by the first of February. After the lottery is done, you can call to reserve a launch date from the dates that are still open. However, you must first submit an application before the BLM will reserve a date for you. Call 435.587.1511 and leave your name and address to request an application. In the past the BLM has had a launch calendar online where you can find open dates. Look for it some time after 01 March, as that is the date that call in reservations can first be made. You can check the BLM Web Site, Monticello Field Office for more information. If you are a small group as we were (there were two of us in duckies) and arer looking for a late season launch date, you should have no problem getting on. In 2006 our permit cost 18 dollars per person. This may have changed, and the charge may be different for groups. Also, you can choose to make your trip shorter by taking-out or putting-in in Mexican Hat, about 27 miles below Sand Island. The permit cost is less for either of these choices.

We were checked in at Sand Island by a BLM volunteer who was very serious about her job. She was very thorough and stuck to the list as she viewed each piece of our required equipment. Make sure you have everything with you so you can get on the river. See our River Gear Page for a suggested river packing list and required items.

Detail from unnamed panel above Butler Wash pictograph panel- historic petroglyph
One of the main points of interest above Mexican Hat is the Butler Wash Petroglyph panel. It is an extensive collection of work, spanning hundreds of years. The detail to the left is from an unnamed petroglyph panel just above Butler Wash Panel.

Further down the river, on the southern side which is the Navajo Reservation, is Baseball Man Panel, with associated ruins. To visit these ruins, and any others on the Navajo Nation side of the river, you must obtain a permit from the Navajo Nation. The cost for hiking is five dollars per person per day, camping costs the same. Visit the Navajo Parks and Recreation website for more information. You can contact them by phone at 928.871.6647 to request a permit by mail. You will need to fill it out and send it back with the required payment before your trip. We had our application taken care of in a matter of days after calling them, but be sure to call far enough in advance.

Continuing down river, while floating through Mexican Hat we took advantage of the services at the Shell station up on the highway. Its only about 500 meters from the boat ramp. Since we had taken coolers on this trip, we refilled ice, bought some supplies, and had a nice cold ice tea before continuing on. You can also float through town and resupply at the San Juan Inn. They have a place to take out and a trail up to the Inn. You can get water, ice, drinks and a meal here, but items such as bread, chips and yogurt that can be purchased at the Shell station.

After Mexican Hat you begin to experience the true scale, the enormity of geologic time as the canyon walls rise higher and higher around you. For the next few days you are at the bottom, with the way out lying ahead of you down the river.

Robert Pritchard on the San Juan River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.We saw numerous groups of Desert Bighorn sheep along the river, as well as the usual Mule deer, lots of beaver on the lower section, and a variety of birds including a pair of Peregrine Falcons nesting on the canyon rim across from our last camp at Oljato Wash. Mosquitoes were not an issue at all, the bug juice didn't even come out. A number of nights we just threw our bags down on the sand and slept under the stars without even a single bug bite. Beware the Canyon Mouse however. At the reserved campsites closer to the takeout they can get a little thick. They are very brave and relentless. Be sure that your food is stored securely, that your dry bags don't smell like food and remember that these mice can jump and climb like monkeys.


Latest Visit- July 2008 Float from Sand Island to Mexican Hat

Most people do this float in a long weekend- it is only about 28 river miles. Three days and two nights is typical. It is also a popular guided day float for toursists. Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff runs trips daily on this stretch of river. We did it as a family float and took 5 days for the trip. We floated three short days of about 4 miles each, and two longer days of 8 miles. It may not seem like much floating, and a lot of work packing and rigging boats to float such a short distance, but our goal was more to relax, enjoy the river and see the sights. We floated in inflatable kayaks which do not carry so much gear and are easier to rig.

We stopped at petroglyph panels, geologic points of interest, River House Ruins, and to watch birds, deer, big horn sheep, and even cows. Nicolai is almost four now and nothing escaped his sharp eye. In the end five days felt like the perfect amount of time for the trip. Of course if we had taken the time to get a permit for the Navajo side of the river, we could have added at least another day of hiking to see Baseball Man panel and the assoicated ruins. We will be sure to add that side trip next time.

Mia and Nico at the Sand Island boat ramp, San Juan River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.
Mia and Nico next to clean boats, ready to put-in at Sand Island boat ramp.

Mia and Nico playing in the muddy San Juan River below Chinle Creek after a big storm. Photo by Gerald Trainor.
Mia and Nico playing in an eddy in the muddy San Juan. This was just below Chinle Creek after a huge rain storm.

Read more about the float on the 31 July2008 blog post.

Page 2- August 2011 Family Float- more on our San Juan adventures


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