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San Juan River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

East or West Fork to Pagosa Springs
~ 19 Miles (maximum)

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The San Juan River begins at the confluence of its East and West Forks in Archuleta County, Colorado and then flows about 383 miles through Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to its confluence with the Colorado River. And while it does come within one half mile the river does not actually flow through Arizona. Both forks source above 10,000 feet in elevation in the eastern San Juan Mountains in the San Juan National Forest, but the first practical navigable elevation is at about 7,965 feel msl on Sand Creek for the East Fork, or at about 7,936 feet msl for the West Fork. The confluence sits at about 7,578 feel msl. The river flows southwest through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains through the town of Pagosa Springs to its confluence with the Navajo River, where it turns west and heads into Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado - New Mexico State Line near Arboles, Colorado. Below the Navajo Dam the San Juan River flows west through a narrow farming valley in the Colorado Plateau high desert, then west through the Navajo Nation, turning northwest near Shiprock. From there, it re-enters Colorado very near the Four Corners point where all four states touch - the only such place in the United States, before entering southeastern Utah. West of Bluff, Utah the river flows through the Comb Ridge and then through a series of rugged winding canyons, often over 1,500 feet in depth, in a remote portion of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which was formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The San Juan confluence with the Colorado is in San Juan County, Utah at an elevation of about 3,704 feel msl - some 4,261 feet lower than the East Fork run starting at Sand Creek on an average gradient of about 11.13 fpm, but do NOT be deceived - the river above Navajo Reservoir drops at a much steeper 17.3 fpm as the river drops some 891 feet in vertical elevation over about 51.3 miles.

The San Juan above Pagosa Springs can start at the East Fork - West Fork Confluence, or (for the brave) on either fork a few miles abopve the confluence. This reach decription will begin on the East Fork and then the West Fork runs before describing the San Juan between the confluence and Pagosa Springs.

The East Fork is formed from the confluence of Elwood and Crater Creeks in Mineral County and then flows to its confluence with the West Fork of the San Juan River in Archuleta County forming the San Juan River. Starting on Sand Creek and flowing two tenths of one mile to the confluence with the East Fork, then down to the West Fork confluence, this run flows about 4 miles beginning with a Class IV - V run at the top comprised a monster fall full of boulders and trees awaiting just about one third mile downriver from the Sand Creek put-in. In the two tenths of a mile through the fall the river drops about 40 vertical feet on an average gradient of about 200 fpm. Most of this run is moderately easy for intermediate level or higher whitewater skills, but the crux 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 Sand Creek the mountain is geologically unstable, and occasionally causes trees to fall and slide into the river channel, often completely blocking the channel and creating death traps for unwary paddlers. This run can start about 1 river mile below Sand Creek bypassing the "Big Kahuna" for a thrilling Class II to III+ ride that will keep you busy for three miles to the West Fork confluence. Technically, the East Fork 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 along an unstable river right wall. You can take out at the confluence, or else paddle on down toward Pagosa Springs.

The West Fork sources in Mineral County near South River Peak, about 2 miles east of Piedra Peak, at an elevation of about 12,335 feet msl, and it offers a similar run to the East Fork without the hairy fall and at nearly twice the distance, clocking in at about 7.25 miles from the West Fork Campground off FR 648 to the East Fork confluence along US Highway 160. And above the West Fork Campground the hazards are even nastier. In fact, the river may not even be navigable most of the time above the campground due to deadfallen and still breathing trees spanning the channel. It is a steep, fast run on a narrow, rocky channel that may be full of trees laying into or across your path. And, like the East Fork, the whitewater action starts immediately and barely lets up, though it does you give a few more seconds of rest time than the East Fork offers. This reach of the West Fork (you COULD start higher if you are really brave) begins at an elevation of 7,936 feet msl and drops 358 feet on a gradient of about 49.4 fpm on Class II to III whitewater.

The mainstream part of this run is not too difficult, but it is a lot of fun. It begins at the confluence and continues through a wide open valley along US Highway 160 into Pagosa Springs to the Visitor Center access 11.8 miles downriver. This part of the trip is quite scenic, but unlike its forks it is not within a tight, forested mountain valley. You will have a little more time to "smell the roses" on a "shallower" gradient of only about 42.8 fpm as the river drops some 505 feet msl. The rapids are a little more spaced out and there is more relaxation time to enjoy the view. A lot of private property abuts the river, so please avoid trespassing except in an emergency. Upon arriving in Pagosa Springs you can celebrate a great trip with good food and drinks in a quaint little town known more for skiing and hunting than for river running, but for those who do paddle here it is an experience to cherish forever.

Location

The East Fork forms in Mineral County of southcentral Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains between Alamosa and Durango. The West Fork forms from a source near South River Peak, also in Mineral County. Nearby streams include the Anima, Piedra, Dolores, San Miguel, Uncompahgre, 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 River is not a big flow river, but its water is usually clean, clear and very cold. The East Fork and West Fork need a flow of at least 250-300 cfs, and the San Juan needs at least 300 cfs for good trips. These are minimum levels, especially for the two forks. This reach is rated Class III with one Class V rapid on the East Fork about 3.7 miles above the confluence, then Class II to III below the confluence.

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 winter 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 3.7 miles above East Fork Campground, is an erosion-created Class IV rapid with a Class V threat caused by trees jammed into the drop with a fast current and large boulders. 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! And, the rapid may be unrunnable due to trees blocking the entire channel, so definitely scout before running! There are no other major hazards on this section of the San Juan River.

River Access Points

OPTION ONE: West Fork Campground (N 37 26' 59.38" / W 10654' 39.95") on river right below FR 648 bridge at 0.0 miles; OPTION TWO: Sand Creek Access (N 37 23' 10.39" / W 106 50' 41.23") in the campground on Sand Creek river left about 0.2 mile from the East Fork San Juan confluence, on river right off FR 667, at 0.0 miles; East Fork Campground (N 37 22' 58.94" / W 106 51' 26.50") on river right before the bridge off FR 667 at about 1.0 miles; OPTION THREE: East Fork - West Fork confluence (N 37 21' 54.62" / W 106 54' 01.03") on the Main San Juan on river left at about 4.0 miles (East Fork start) or 7.25 miles (West Fork start); Bridge Street Access (N 37 20' 01.74" / W 106 56' 35.85") on river right before the bridge at about 3.0 miles below the confluence (all further mileage referenced to the confluence); US Highway 160 Bridge (N 37 19' 44.81" / W 106 57' 24.41") on river left after the bridge at about 4.8 miles; San Juan Riverwalk (N 37 16' 01.57" / W 107 00' 30.58") on river right before the bridge in Pagosa Springs at about 11.7 miles; Pagosa Springs Visitor Center (N 37 16' 00.26" / W 107 00' 35.48") on river left just after the bridge at about 11.8 miles. There may be other access points along this reach including above and below the take-out inside Pagosa Springs.

Campgrounds and accommodations

West Fork Camground (N 37 26' 59.38" / W 10654' 39.95") about 7.25 miles north of the East Fork confluence; East Fork Campground (N 37 22' 58.94" / W 106 51' 26.50") on river right below Deer Creek at about 2.7 miles below Sand Creek confluence; Sand Creek Camground (N 37 23' 10.39" / W 106 50' 41.23") at the East Fork confluence off FR 667; Navajo State Park (N 37 00' 23.65" / W 107 24' 50.68") at Arboles, Colorado on Navajo Reservoir off SH 151. 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, But the ones that do can be formidable, particularly from about 3.7 miles above the confluence on the East Fork upriver, or more than about 7 miles above the confluence on the West Fork, where the channels will be clogged with boulders and trees that, in some cases, might not be avoidable due to gradient and current in a narrow channel with limited options and a short windown in which to see, decide and execute maneuvers. The San Juan is close to Durango and a host of other Colorado whitewater paddling destinations. 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.

This reach offers several options depending upon skills and courage/ Both forks offer a lot of Class III rapids, but both also offer some dangerous runs that require attention, skills, and urgency. This is particularly true starting about 7.25 miles above the confluence on the West Fork or about 3.7 miles above the confluence on the East Fork. The river MAY be unrunnable due to logjams and deadfall blockages at any point, but especially on the forks. Starting at the confluence gives a trip of about 11.8 miles to the Pagosa Springs Visitor center take-out on pool-and-drop Class II to III whitewater. Whereas the forks are tight, forested canyons the San Juan through Pagosa Springs is a wide open river valley. With a great gradient and many rapids this is a run that will excite most paddlers. The others can start further upriver!

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III (V)
Length 19 miles (max)
Minimum Flow 250 cfs
Optimum Flow 300-800 cfs
Maximum Flow 1,500 cfs
First Put-in East Fork: Sand Creek Access off FR 667
West Fork: WF Campground off FR 648
Confluence: off US 160
Lat. / Long. N 3723' 10.39" / W 10650' 41.23"
N 3726' 59.38" / W 10654' 39.95"
N 37 21' 54.62" / W 106 54' 01.03"
Last Take-out Pagosa Springs Visitor Center
Lat. / Long. N 37 16' 00.26" / W 107 00' 35.48"
Elevation 7,965-7,073 feet msl
Gradient ~47 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Web: above Sand Creek
Web: Pagosa Springs
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May through June water permitting
Permits No


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

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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

[ San Juan Homepage ] [ Pagosa Springs to Trujillo Bridge (Mesa Canyon) ] [ Trujillo Bridge to Navajo Reservoir ]

Animas River

[ Eureka to Silverton ] [ Silverton to Baker's Bridge ] [ Baker's Bridge to Durango ] [ Durango Town Run ] [ Durango to State Line ]

Other Tributaries

[ Piedra River FR 635 to Piedra ] [ Piedra to Navajo Reservoir ] [ Lime Creek ] [ Hermosa Creek ]

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