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San Miguel River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Caddis Flat Rec Area to Norwood Bridge
~ 10.75 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

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 along SH 145, and continues as a Class I to III stream all the way to the Dolores River confluence. This section will describe the first 12.85 miles from Forest Service Road (FR) 625 / Silverpick Road to the Specie Creek Recreation Area generally running as a Class I to II stream with a single Class III rapid (Sawpit) close to the midpoint of this reach. The channel is fairly narrow along most of its course, and it flows through tree-lined and vegetated banks of the red rock formations commonly found in Southwestern Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico and Southern Utah.

Between Caddis Flat Recreational Area and Norwood Bridge the San Miguel River flows about 10.75 miles with numerous rapids in the Class II to III categories, though none are very technical or big. Starting at an elevation of 7,172 feet msl, the river drops some 585 feet at a gradient of about 54.4 fpm amid gorgeous, tree-lined slopes of the Uncompahgre National Forest on the east side and ranchland on the west side. The area sits between the alpine setting of Telluride above and the desert topography of Naturita below. It is a section of river that is frequented by commercial outfitters as well as those learning or honing their whitewater skills for bigger streams.

This section is runnable in canoes, kayaks and rafts, assuming there is adequate water to float your boat. There are no campgrounds along this reach of the river other than at Caddis Flat RA where this reach begins. There are at least three public access points between the put-in and take-out points for this run. SH 145 closely parallels the river. Its only real drawback is the shortness of its season, lasting only a few weeks in May and June, and possibly July in a year after a snowy winter. The natural beauty of the red rocks and two national forests surrounding the river adds to the enjoyment of paddling here. And, like the reaches above and below, the San Miguel is a shallow, narrow, rock-filled channel with fast currents on a steep gradient, so hang on for a thrilling ride. It's not tough, but it ain't Disneyland!

Location

San Miguel County between the Towns of Sawpit and Norwood in southwestern Colorado. The Town of Dolores is less than 2 hours to the southwest and Montrose is less than 90 minutes to the northeast. The Dolores, West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, Gunnison and Colorado Rivers all flow nearby.

Distance from major cities

Durango 116 miles; Grand Junction 116 miles; Denver 455 miles; Salt Lake City 401 miles; Albuquerque 328 miles; Phoenix 570 miles; Oklahoma City 870 miles; Dallas 996 miles; Austin 1,031 miles; San Antonio 939 miles; Houston 1,181 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

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.

Best time to go

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.

Hazards to navigation

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.

River access points

Caddis Flat Recreation Area (N 38 01' 37.07" / W 108 05' 34.90") on river right off SH 145 at 12.85 miles; Norwood Bridge at the SH 145 crossing at about 17.0 miles. There are no other access points on this section of the San Miguel River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no public or private campgrounds along this section of the San Miguel River. Sunshine Campground, south of the Telluride Ski Area on SH 145, is a riverside campground located just above this section. 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!

Liveries, Outfitters and Shuttle Services

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.

Reviewer's comments

This section of the San Miguel River is not particularly difficult, and almost anybody can enjoy paddling here. This reach include the area known locally as the "Commercial Section" becasue outfitters frequently run here when there is adequate water for rafting. It is also popular with beginner to novice paddlers learning their whitewater skills along this section of the river. It is in a gorgeous setting of forested banks along the Uncompahgre National Forest of San Miguel County that begs to be photographed. The clean, clear waters may look inviting, but they are cold, so wear layered, water-repelling garments (non-cotton) to protect against hypothermia in the event you go swimming. Be perpared to run one of the other nearby streams in the event you arrive to find flows too low to paddle.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III
Length 10.75 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow 1,000-1,500 cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Caddis Flat Rec Area
Lat. / Long. N 38 01' 37.07" / W 108 05' 34.90"
Last Take-out Norwood Bridge at SH 145
Lat. / Long. N 38 07' 32.35" / W 108 12' 27.48"
Elevation 7,172 - 6,587 feet msl
Gradient 54.4 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Web: Placerville
Boats Canoes, Kayaks Rafts
Season May and June, possibly July (?)
Permits No


Caddis Flat boat ramp
Caddis Flat boat ramp

Canoeman River Guide Services - guided river trips, trip planning and canoe instruction on rivers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Looking downriver from the Caddis Flat boat ramp
Looking downriver from the Caddis Flat boat ramp

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Looking downriver from the Specie Creek boat ramp
Looking downriver from the Specie Creek boat ramp

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Specie Creek boat ramp
Specie Creek boat ramp

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Looking downriver from Upper Beaver Creek Access
Looking downriver from Upper Beaver Creek Access

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Dolores River where you want to paddle.

Dolores River
[ Dolores River Homepage ] [ Rico Access to Stoner Bridge ] [ Stoner Bridge to Dolores ]
[ Bradfield Launch to Slick Rock ] [ Slick Rock to Bedrock ] [ Bedrock to Gateway ] [ Gateway to Dewey Bridge ]

San Miguel River
[ Silverpick Road to Caddis Flat RA (Sawpit) ] [ Norwood Bridge to Green Truss Bridge (Norwood Canyon) ] [ Green Truss Bridge to Dolores River ]

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© February 13, 2003. All rights reserved.
Last updated July 3, 2021

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