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San Juan River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Sand Creek to Trujillo Road
~ 31 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Starting at Sand Creek on the East Fork, flowing to the confluence with the West Fork, then down through Pagosa Springs to Trujillo Road, this section of the San Juan River flows about 31 miles beginning with a Class III run at the top and a gradient of about 93 fpm, and ending with a Class III- run on a 32 fpm gradient. Most of this run is moderately easy for intermediate level or higher whitewater skills, but one rapid earns a Class V- rating because a log jam in the boulders that create the rapid poses a potentially serious pinning hazard. Just below San Creek the ground is geologically unstable, and occasionally causes trees to fall and slide into the river channel.

Technically, the East Fork where, this section begins, has more characteristics of a creek than a river with a channel that is narrow and shallow. Canyon walls are shades of red and yellow with erosions that create surface fissures, ledges and sloping walls. Most of the rapids result from boulders that tumble down the walls into the channel. The mainstream part of this run is not too difficult, but it is a lot of fun, though it does have a series of small dams that span the river and pose problems for paddlers with lesser skills. Some of the property along the river is privately owned, so don't trespass. Be sure to take along a camera and enjoy the trip.


On the Mineral-Rio Grande County line of southcentral Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains between Alamosa and Durango. Nearby streams include the Anima, Piedra, Dolores, Rio Grande, Rio Chama and Gunnison Rivers.

Distance from major cities

Durango 80 miles; Grand Junction 250 miles; Denver 325 miles; Santa Fe 292 miles; Albuquerque 292 miles; Phoenix 534 miles; Oklahoma City 693 miles; Tulsa 798 miles; Dallas 802 miles; Austin 888 miles; San Antonio 968 miles; Houston 1,074 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The San Juan is not a big flow river, but its water is usually clean, clear and very cold. This section has an average flow of about 800-1,000 cfs and is rated Class III with one Class V- rapid on the upper 3 miles, then Class III- below East Fork Campground.

Best time to go

Generally, the optimum season is a short two months in May and June, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains. The river will run very low in dry winter years.

Hazards to navigation

The San Juan River is not known for significant hazards, but there are a few that can pose problems. Rafts should not run the East Fork above Sand Creek. Crux Rapid, about 2.5 miles above East Fork Campground, is an erosion-created Class IV rapid with a Class V threat caused by trees jammed into the drop. A river right portage behind a huge boulder against the bank can be made - this is NOT an easy portage, but usually necessary to avoid pinning in the rapid! Between Pagosa Springs and Trujillo Road is a series of four curved ledges that resemble small dams, the first three of which pose no particular problems. However, the fourth has a hole below it that can be a keeper, especially at high flows. It can be run on the left side to avoid the hole, but if you hit the meat, then you need to be moving fast and straight, and paddling hard. There are no other major hazards on this section of the San Juan River.

River Access Points

Sand Creek, on river right off FR 667, at 0.0 miles; East Fork Campground, on river right below FR 667, at 2.7 miles; City Park off South 5th Street in downtown Pagosa Springs at about 17.6 miles; Trujillo Road south of Pagosa Springs at about 31.0 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Wolf Creek campground off US Highway 160 a few miles north of the East Fork; East Fork campground on river right below Deer Creek at about 2.7 miles below Sand Creek; Navajo Reservoir State Recreation Area on the New Mexico border. Other campgrounds are available in the general area.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

Numerous commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the San Juan River.

Reviewer's comments

Natural beauty, easy access, moderately technical rapids and good campsites along and near the San Juan River make this a great destination for intermediate or high level whitewater paddlers looking for an exciting river trip in the are of the Animas, Piedra and other nearby streams. The one drawback, as with many Colorado streams, is the short season which, in this case, is usually relegated to May and June. The mountains, forests, geology and rapids make this a great place for taking memorable photographs. Few hazards present themselves, and the river is located close to scenic old Durango, a town that retains much of its ambience from the days of the Old West. The cold water does necessitate wearing proper clothing to protect against hypothermia. There are no liveries or shuttle services operating along the river, but several in and near the area provide rentals, shuttles and information.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III (V-)
Length 31 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in FR 667 at Sand Creek
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out Trujillo Road
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 7,910-6,620 feet msl
Gradient 93 / 32 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: abv Sand creek
Web: Pagosa Springs
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May through June
Permits No

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

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

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

Click HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the San Juan River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ San Juan River Homepage ] [ Piedra River ] [ Lime Creek ] [ Hermosa Creek ] [ Upper Animas River ] [ Lower Animas River ]

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