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.
This reach decription will begin at Trujillo Bridge south of Pagosa Springs and end at the top of Navajo Reservoir. The San Juan flows cold and relatively fast as the river drops about 486 feet over 24 miles on a gradient of about 20.25 fpm - comparatively "flat" compared to most Colorado rivers in the near vicinity. This is truly a great beginner whitewater run, or just a great trip for anybody wanting to enjoy the beauty of southern Colorado, with rapids in the Class I to II category - easy to read and run. Access is great with at least seven possible points between the put-in and take-out, as well as many more potential take-outs below the one list for Navajo Reservoir, it being the topmost access point after entering the lake, and the river will still be relatively narrow at that point. If the lake is wide, then you passed that take-out by about 3.8 miles.
The run is through a beautiful canyon joined by several side canyons. Banks are frequently lined with cottonwood trees, which make nice shade in the heat of the day, but they contain widowmakers, so do NOT sleep directly underneath them! This remote valley is served by a dirt road (Trujillo Road / CR 500) on river right that gives access to those living along the river and occasional potential access points for paddlers. The Navajo River flows into the San Juan about 10.5 miles below Trujillo Bridge giving a little more flow to the river. There are at least 5 possible access points between the Navajo River confluence and Navajo Reservoir, all along Trujillo Road on river right.
Of all the reaches of the San Juan in Colorado this is the most welcoming for less experienced canoeists because of the easier Class I to II small rapids. The scenery here makes up for the lack of big rapid excitement. Camping opportunities are abundant as long as you are not on private land. Most of this reach is a remote canyon valley where you might not see anybody who is not in your group. This is a seldom paddled reach of the San Juan, but it is one deserving of your time if you just want a beautiful, easy paddle in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado.
This reach begins at the Trujillo Bridge in Archuleta County, Colorado and ends on Navajo Reservoir in Archuleta County at Navajo Reservoir, which is on the Colorado - New Mexico State Line. Arboles, Colorado sits just directly across the lake from where the river becomes the lake. Nearby streams include the Anima, Piedra, Dolores, San Miguel, Uncompahgre, Rio Grande, Rio Chama and Gunnison Rivers.
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.)
The San Juan River above Navajo Reservoir is not a big flow river, but its water is usually clean, clear and very cold. This reach needs at least 500 cfs for good trips Class III or easier rapids.
Generally, the optimum season is a moderate five or less months in April through August, 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. Collecting all the water from above, this reach tends to remain navigable longer than reaches above.
The San Juan River is not known for significant hazards, and there are none along this reach that can pose problems if run improperly. Small ledges and rock garden rapids will occasionally continue most of the way down the river becoming fewer the closer you get to the lake.
Trujillo Bridge (N 37° 06' 07.09" / W 107° 02' 43.50") on river left before the bridge at 0.00 miles; Juanita Bridge (N 37° 01' 58.08" / W 107° 08' 58.14") on river left before the bridge at about 9.70 miles; Roadside Access off Trujillo Road / CR 500 (N 37° 02' 08.10" / W 107° 11' 13.21") is an unimproved possible access on river right at about 12.70 miles; Roadside Access off Trujillo Road / CR 500 (N 37° 01' 21.79" / W 107° 12' 41.98") is an unimproved possible access on river right at about 15.90 miles; Roadside Access off Trujillo Road / CR 500 (N 37° 01' 04.85" / W 107° 12' 57.91") is an unimproved possible access on river right at about 16.30 miles; Cabracas Road Bridge (N 37° 00' 06.20" / W 107° 14' 39.06") on river right at the bridge off Trujillo Road at about 19.10 miles; Roadside Access at a clearing on river right off Trujillo Road / CR 500 (N 37° 00' 47.10" / W 107° 17' 57.26") is an unimproved possible access on river right at about 22.80 miles; Navajo Reservoir (N 37° 00' 57.46" / W 107° 18' 57.95") on river right at a turn-out from Trujillo Road at about 24.00 miles. Roadside access may be possible along Trujillo Road (CR 500), but most of the land adjacent to the river is privately owned, so please avoid trespassing.
Numerous natural campsites can be found in Mesa Canyon, though most peple run this reach as a day trip. Watch for posted private property and avoid trespassing. Many nearby campgrounds, both public and commercial, can be found in and around the Pagosa Springs area. Some of these include: 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, both tent and RV, are available in the general area.
Numerous commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the San Juan River, though it is not known how many offer services for this particular reach.
This final reach of the San Juan in Colorado, unless you want to paddle onto and across Navajo Reservoir a few miles, is an easy way to end a trip on this gorgeous river that sees little traffic and almost no signs of civilization. Technically, it is not truly remote because Trujillo Road (CR 500) runs alongside the river on the right, but it is seldom traveled and more than likely you will have the place to yourself. What whitewater there is consists of easy read-and-run Class I to II rock gardens with clear lines, but mostly this is a flatwater trip that is well suited for any competent boater who is prepared. Most of the "action" occurs at higher flows, which are not common on this reach of the San Juan.
The entire reach, as described herein, totals about 24 miles through a mountain valley that is, unfortunately, populated by large ranches comprising a lot of private property along the river. But, there are still a number of great primitive campsites that can be found along this reach because most people will not want this to be a day trip. It is a great place to stay overnight to observe the color changes on canyon walls as the sun sets and then rises again. Who knows? You might even want to take a layover day just to enjoy it a little longer. It might even be practical to add three extra miles to this trip so you can take out in Arboles on SH 151 rather than having to drive slowly both ways on Trujillo Road in the dirt and dust. The take-out is in Navajo State Park, so it is a more secure location for leaving a vehicle. The downside is paddling three miles across the lake, especially if you go when the motorboaters are also there. Still, this is an option to consider.