The San Miguel River forms at an elevation of about 12,126 feet msl in San Miguel County southeast of Telluride near the San Juan County Line in southwestern Colorado. Its headwaters are in the San Juan Mountains and the San Juan National Forest, though it also sits very near the Uncompahgre National Forest, which grows along the east or west side of the river depending upon where on the river you are at any given time. The San Miguel flows generally northwest for about 81 miles of which the lower 75 miles are navigable through the mining town / ski resort Telluride, then on through Sawpit, Placerville, flowing near but not by Norwood, and then by Naturita and Uravan on its way to its confluence with the Dolores River in Montrose County at an elevation of about 4.842 feet msl, dropping about 7,300 feet of which 3,145 feet are within the navigable reach of the river. The upper six plus miles are not navigable due to numerous factors including river width, depth, gradient, boulders and a general lack of water that falls off the mountain at an average gradient of about 690 feet per mile. Boating usually begins just below Telluride at any of several access points found along or just off SH 145, which parallels the river most of the way to the Norwood Bridge.
On an historical note, Uravan was once a bustling uranium mining town located in the lower section of the river until many people started developing cancers. The entire town was burned to the ground and then buried under rock to prevent radiation exposure from the remaining uranium in the dust and dirt beneath the rock. You might not want to fill your water bottle here.
The river becomes a boatable stream just a few miles outside the resort town of Telluride along SH 145, and continues as a Class I to III stream all the way to the Dolores River confluence. This reach describes the Norwood Canyon section of the San Miguel River of about 16.3 miles from the Norwood Bridge east of Norwood, Colorado to Green Truss Bridge east of Nucla, Colorado close to the Utah state line. Leaving the Norwood Bridge the real transition from the alpine setting of Telluride to the high desert setting of Naturita comes to full fruition on a beautiful paddle through a remote area that includes Norwood Canyon and "The Ledges", a more prominent Class III whitewater section of the San Miguel River. The river diverges from roads entering the canyon and provides a truly remote experience that will end before you know it unless you intentionally slow down to "smell the roses." Norwood Canyon is commonly run in under 4 hours and it can be run in as little as two hours. In this section the boulders are generally smaller and less frequent providing a less intense run, but one still offering some whitewater thrills. Tree-lined sandstone bluffs adorning the river banks will be found through the canyon before the banks gently slope away below the canyonbelow Norwood Canyon. The Ledges offers great surfing waves for playboaters.
Runs begin at an elevation of 6,587 feet msl and drop to 5,853 feet msl at an average gradient of about 45.3 fpm. However, the lower 5+ miles of the run (The Ledges section) has a slightly steeper gradient of about 60 fpm. Like sections above, this run is usually only boatable in May or June, and perhaps part of July. Horsefly Creek, about midway through this run, is a beautiful side canyon entering on river right. About 10.9 miles below Norwood Bridge is a small low-head dam with a somewhat strong, but runnable, hydraulic current. Adjoining land is privately owned, so scout quickly, then run on the far left and continue downstream (see the "Hazards" section below for detailed information.) Though some minor CLass I to II rapids will be found below Green Truss Bridge, this section is technically the end of whitewater runs on the San Miguel River.
San Miguel County between the Towns of Norwood and Naturita in southwestern Colorado. The Town of Dolores is about 2.5 hours to the southwest. The Dolores, West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, Gunnison and Colorado Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 132 miles; Grand Junction 132 miles; Denver 471 miles; Salt Lake City 417 miles; Albuquerque 344 miles; Phoenix 586 miles; Oklahoma City 886 miles; Dallas 1,012 miles; Austin 1,047 miles; San Antonio 955 miles; Houston 1,197 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
This section of the San Miguel usually has a navigable flow in early to mid summer for a few short weeks, but is too low to paddle at other times during normal years. Water quality is generally very good to excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold, but not drinkable without boiling or purifying by other methods. Be sure to check the flow before you go. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool air temperature, layered water-repelling garments (non-cotton) are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia. Rapids will generally be rated as Class II below flows of about 1,300 cfs, escalating to Class III when flows exceed 1,300 cfs.
Generally, the optimum season is May and June, and possibly part of July, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains.
This section of the San Miguel River has several Class II-III rapids, but none with serious potential hazard threats other than the water temperature. However, there are some features that require attention when running. About 10.9 miles below Norwood Bridge (and a little past Horsefly Creek entering on the right) is a low-head dam with a fairly strong hydraulic current and a keeper hole. This dam is runnable on the far left side, but a scout is recommended to see the best line. Hard paddling will get a boat through the hydraulic and the left side will avoid the hole, in most cases. This condition will fluctuate according to flow, with higher water levels creating a more intense hazard. After the dam comes The Ledges area located about two thirds of the way through this run from the Norwood Bridge. The gradient is steeper and the water flows a little faster. There are numerous good Class III boulder garden rapids and basement layer shelves that create surfing holes. Most of these are forgiving, but be aware of their presence.
Norwood Bridge (N 38° 07' 32.35" / W 108° 12' 27.48") at the SH 145 crossing on either side above or below the bridge at 0.0 miles; BB 36 Road Access 1 (N 38° 13' 01.35" / W 108° 20' 54.85") on river right at about 11.30 miles; BB 36 Road Access 2 (N 38° 14' 05.21" / W 108° 22' 09.79") on river right at about 13.20 miles; BB 36 Road Access 3 (N 38° 14' 48.28" / W 108° 22' 55.91") on river right at about 14.40 miles; Green Truss Bridge (N 38° 15' 59.75" / W 108° 24' 04.23") at the intersection of BB36 Road and SH 90 at about 16.3 miles. There may be other access points located along 47Z Road, which closely parallels the right on the right side on this section of the San Miguel River up to Sanborn Park, as well as along BB 36 Road on river right for the last 5 miles of this run.
There are two public and no private campgrounds along this section of the San Miguel River. Rockhouse Campground (N 38° 14' 05.21" / W 108° 22' 09.79") is located at the BB 36 Road Access 2 site on river right ast 13.20 miles; Cottonwood Campground (N 38° 14' 48.28" / W 108° 22' 55.91") is located at the BB 36 Road Access 3 site on river right at 14.40 miles. There are public campgrounds along other reaches of the San Miguel River between Telluride and Norwood Bridge (see other sections of this guide for details), as well as campgrounds in the near vicinity off US Highway 550 between Durango and Grand Junction, and along the Animas, Dolores and West Dolores Rivers. Please observe the following use rules to insure that the river remains a pristine and wonderful place to paddle:
1. Fire pans are required for all open fires. Debris MUST be carried out;
2. Porta-potties are required for all human waste, which MUST be carried out;
3. Dogs must be on leashes at all times in camp;
4. Dog feces MUST be collected and carried out;
5. Strainers MUST be used for dishwater, and food debris MUST be carried out;
6. A scrim material should be used for kitchen floors to collect dropped food. All food debris MUST be carried out.
Because of limited campsites, courtesy in setting up camps and not intruding, either physically or by noise, on other campers is expected. When meeting other groups on the way downriver discussions about campsites should be undertaken so that groups know where each other are going to be staying. Cooperation on these simple rules and common courtesies will go a long way toward making your San Miguel River trip enjoyable for yourself and others who are on the river. If you pack it in, then pack it out. Take only photographs and memories - leave only footprints!
Shuttles may be available from the BLM at 970-859-7445 (Bedrock) or 970-677-2772 (Slick Rock). Shuttles and rentals may be available from any of several outfitters serving the Dolores and surrounding rivers. Other outfitters elsewhere in Colorado and other states may also provide services on the San Miguel River.
This section of the San Miguel River is not particularly difficult, and almost anybody with moderate whitewater experience can enjoy paddling here. Paddling here will clearly show the change from Alpine Telluride to desert Naturita, though it is scenic almost everywhere you look. It is the last of the "whitewater" sections on the San Miguel River, though there are some minor rapids between the Green Truss Bridge and its confluence with the Dolores River. This section flows through the small, but beautiful, Norwood Canyon. Much of the land along the riverbanks is privately owned, so please avoid trespassing. The water temperature will be cold, so dress for that condition to avoid hypothermia unless you plan on staying inside your boat with the hole up. Paddlers have the option of taking out at Green Truss Bridge, or continuing on downriver to Uravan, just before the San Miguel meets the Dolores, but no riverside campsites are available.