The San Miguel River forms in San Miguel County near the San Juan County Line in southwestern Colorado. Its headwaters are in the San Juan National Forest, though it also sits very near the Uncompahgre National Forest, which grows along the east side of the river. The San Miguel flows northwest to its confluence with the Dolores River in Montrose County, just above the Town of Uravan.
The Sawpit run is about the best whitewater section on the San Miguel. It starts about 7 miles above the Town of Sawpit and runs between FR 625 (Silverpick Road) and 57P Road (Fall Creek Road), running parallel to SH 145 from which the entire run can be scouted. This section starts at an elevation of 7,965 feet msl, and drops about 500 feet at a gradient of about 69 fpm. Several significant rapids along the run slow down the flow of water and keep it from being a runaway stream except at high flows when the boulders are covered and the river gains momentum.
There are several Class II to III rapids on the Sawpit run that make it fun and interesting, though most are run-of-the-mill boulder gardens without a lot of technical difficulty for competent boaters in canoes, kayaks and rafts. Sawpit Rapid is the exception, and should be carefully scouted before running. This rapid become even harder at flows exceeding about 1,300 cfs. Below Sawpit, the San Miguel returns to being a good Class II to III run again.
This section is in the Telluride Ski Area, and the scenery here is spectacular. The trees of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests provide a beautiful backdrop to the river with its pretty, blue waters. There are several campgrounds located nearby and one of them (Sunshine) is located right beside the river. Bring your camera, but carry it in a waterproof case.
San Miguel County near the Town of Telluride and the Telluride Ski Area of southwestern Colorado. The Town of Dolores is less than 2 hours to the southwest. The Dolores, West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, Gunnison and Colorado Rivers all flow nearby.
Durango 108 miles; Grand Junction 124 miles; Denver 447 miles; Salt Lake City 409 miles; Albuquerque 320 miles; Phoenix 562 miles; Oklahoma City 862 miles; Dallas 988 miles; Austin 1,023 miles; San Antonio 931 miles; Houston 1,173 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 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.
Generally, the optimum season is 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 only one with serious potential hazard threats. Sawpit Rapid, a solid Class III at flows between about 800 - 1,300 cfs, is a tricky run with obstacles to avoid. Leading into Sawpit Rapid are a couple of big holes extending downriver above two big boulders. Navajo Rock sits in midstream, with a smaller boulder off to the side, creating a slot through which paddlers must pass. Coming out of the slot the river enters an area of more holes and waves, then into Sawpit Rapid. Just getting to the rapid is half the work. The drop at Sawpit Rapid is tough enough normally, and becomes even harder when flows exceed 1,300 cfs. Solid intermediate or higher level whitewater skills are advised for running Sawpit. After this rapid the river settles back down to its usual Class II to III demeanor.
FR 625 (Silverpick Road) off SH 145 at 0.0 miles; 57P Road (Fall Creek Road) at about 7.3 miles. There are no other access points on this section of the San Miguel River.
Sunshine Campground, south of the Telluride Ski Area on SH 145, is a riverside campground. There are other 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). Rentals and shuttles 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 Dolores River.
The San Miguel is not a widely popular place to paddle due to its very short season of only a few weeks in June and possibly some of July. Its waters are not big by whitewater standards, but offer excellent opportunities for those with intermediate or high level paddling skills to practice their strokes and maneuvers on a gorgeous stream near the Telluride Ski Area of southwestern Colorado. Nearby streams include the Dolores, West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, San Juan and other great paddle destinations, so you can come here and enjoy any of several great trips of anywhere from a few miles to multiple days. The area begs to be photographed, so bring your camera.