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Piedra River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Forest Roads 635 @631 to Piedra
~ 20.25 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Spaniards had a name for this river - Piedra (rock.) It lives up to its name, and the higher you start the more it resembles its namesake. The Piedra River forms high in the San Juan Mountains of Hinsdale Cunty, then flows about 40 miles south into Archuleta County to the confluence with the San Juan River at Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado-New Mexico borber, though if you go all the way to the lake, then you will have to paddle an additional 4.5 miles on the lake to the Navajo State Park boat ramp in Arboles, Colorado. This mountain valley river is very rocky and cold, flowing through the beautiful San Juan National Forest with great Class IV to V rapids located in the upper and lower box canyons between high granite walls, though much of this run is more "mundane" Class II to III whitewater.

The river forms at the confluence of its Middle and East Forks about 1.5 miles above the start of this reach where Forest Roads 635 and 631 intersect and proceeds winding its way generally southward toward Navajo Reservoir. It cuts through an amazing array of geology, some from the Uncompahgre and Eolus Granite Formations 1.5 and 1.46 Billion years old, respectively creating an artist's palate of shapes and colors, and more than enough significant rapids to keep you entertained. Technically, you can paddle several miles on either of the forks, but you need to be a VERY competent whitewater boater in a VERY maneuverable boat accompanied by similarly experienced and skilled paddlers ... after carefully scouting as much of the river as you can. There is a LOT of wood and rock in both forks increasing in accumulation the higher upriver you go. There is enough fun for most boaters to be found on the Piedra itself, including some in the boxes that most will choose to avoid like the plague.

The Piedra is close to Durango and lies between the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Its limestone riverbed has been known to take a toll on rafts and cheap river shoes or boots. Sections of the Piedra River are not practical for paddling because of lack of access, but where it is runnable it can be enjoyed by canoeists, kayakers and rafters with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills, though expert skills may be more practical for rafts due to the tight, technical nature of some hazards. At least a half dozen campgrounds along, or very near to, the river offer excellent places for base camps or overnight camps on multi-day trips. The Piedra River is another photographer's paradise in Colorado, but cameras should be waterproof or carried in water-tight cases lashed to the boat. Be sure to bring plenty of film or digital media.

Because the Upper Piedra contains some rapids beyond the competency of most paddlers this description will be broken into two part - the Upper Piedra and the Lower Piedra demarked by the access at the Lower Piedra River Campground along Forest Road 622 just north of the US 160 interesection in the Town of Piedra. This guide will not address either the Middle or East Fork as a paddling destination.

Starting at the access at the intersection of Forest Roads 635 and 631 just below the Middle Fork - East Fork confluence the first half of this reach is an exciting and scenic Class II to III run for canoes, kayaks and rafts. Below the campground at the bridge on FR 622 the action picks up as the river flows into the upper and then lower box canyons with solid Class IV drops with Class V consequences. The channel is much tighter and the rocks look MUCH bigger - and there are a LOT of them! A portage would be pure hell. The next access below the hair of this run is at Lower Piedra River Campground where this upper reach ends and the lower reach begins. So, if you are in it for the fun of it, then paddle the first 10.6 miles of this reach and then take-out, living to paddle another day. If you are a hairboat kayaker, then you may want to just skip the boring Class II to III stuff and head right into the meat of the Piedra (Rock) River. It awaits yor arrival. Please tell it I said, "Hello!"

Location

A tributary of the San Juan River in Hinsdale and Archuleta Counties of southwestern Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains above Durango flowing southward to Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado - New Mexico State Line. Nearby streams include the Anima, San Juan, Hermosa Creek, Lime Creek, Dolores, San Miquel, Uncompahgre, Rio Grande, Rio Chama and Gunnison Rivers, among many others.

Distance from major cities

Durango 78 miles; Grand Junction 248 miles; Denver 289 miles; Santa Fe 270 miles; Albuquerque 270 miles; Phoenix 532 miles; Oklahoma City 730 miles; Tulsa 835 miles; Dallas 838 miles; Austin 924 miles; San Antonio 1,004 miles; Houston 1,124 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Piedra's water flows clean, clear and cold, but is not drinkable without purification. The flow is generally rated Class II to III with some Class IV rapids at any navigable level. The river starts nearly a mile and a half above sea level at an elevation of 7,634 feet msl and drops over 1,064 feet in about 20.25 miles at a rate of 52.5 fpm, making it a fairly swift-moving stream. The cold water and high elevation make it necessary to wear drysuits or wetsuits with base layers, or water-repelling garments that are layered to prevent hypothermia. Neoprene glove, helmets, properly fitted PFDs and and hard-soled river boots are also strongly recommended.

Best time to go

Generally, the optimum season is a short two months in May and June, with the possibility of some July days, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snowpack and/or recent local rains. The creek will run very low in dry winter years.

Hazards to navigation

The Second Box (the first canyon encountered paddling downriver) is rated Class III to IV. Lone Pine Rapid begins with a sharp right turn with a difficult scout and a big log jam right in front of the turn on the left side. Negotiate the line at the top, then run down the center, moving left to avoid the canyon wall on river right. About a mile below Lone Pine is Limestone Rapid, a drop that spans the river. Limestone should be scouted before running. Line up on river left, then work toward the center. Paddle straight and hard, moving right to avoid the left wall of the canyon. About a mile below Limestone is Hunter's Campground on river left, just above the First Box (the second canyon) with a Class III to V rating. Below the first bridge the river becomes technical and very pushy in Class III water. The first significant drop is named "Insignificant" (or "Number One"), and it drops into a small pool with the the vertical walls of the Piedra River Canyon rising on both sides. This marks the start of several Class IV to V drops. "Initiation (or "Number Two") is a steep drop strewn with huge boulders and big holes below the horizon, making them difficult or impossible to detect before the start of the drop. Run Initiation from left to right and be alert for a pourover at the bottom left. A short pool signals the approach to First Box Falls (or "Number Three") with a fast-moving current through all of the three approaches. Scout this one from the bank on river left. Most paddlers take the far left line then work to the right. Things tend to ease up between First Box Falls and Mudslide, but be vigilant for boulders and trees that can and will pin a boat and paddler who gets too relaxed amd let's down his or her guard.

The Piedra River Canyon starts to open and widen when approaching Mudslide, depicted by a rather large and foreboding hillside earthslide on river right. Scout Mudslide from river right. Rafts should run Mudslide on river left. Canoes and Kayaks can run any of several lines. Mudslide also offers an easy portage on river right. Coming out of Mudslide, get ready for a long stretch of Class IV water. Eye of the Needle (Mudslide # 2) starts with a dead water pool at the top. A huge boulder creates left and right channels into a big double drop with a strong hydraulic current. Paddle left to right. Canoes and kayaks will have to brace hard on the left side to run this drop successfully. Almost immediately below Eye of the Needle is Lucifer's, a Class IV+ drop where a rock island divides the current. There are three pourovers along the right wall that MUST be avoided. Run Lucifer on the right side, but close to the island. Do NOT run against the right wall! Departing Lucifer's, the Piedra River Canyon opens up into several miles of almost continuous Class III to III+ whitewater that requires a lot of stamina.

A NOTE ABOUT HAZARD DESCRIPTIONS: These are written based upon conditions present at the time of writing. Rivers change course and move around obstacles to navigation, so take these or other hazard descriptions with a grain of salt. Your own eyes are your most reliable determinant of conditions as they actually exist.

River Access Points

FR 631 @ FR 635 (N 37 25' 44.66" / W 107 11' 31.82") on river right off FR 635 (Taylor Lane) at 0.00 miles; FR 631 Bridge Access (N 37 25' 39.05" / W 107 11' 38.07") on river left after the bridge at about 0.16 miles; First Fork Piedra Campground (N 37 21' 12.35" / W 107 19' 26.82") on river left after the bridge at about 10.60 miles; Lower Piedra River Campground Upper Access (N 37 14' 26.45" / W 107 20' 30.74") on FR 622 (left side); Lower Piedra River Campground Middle Access (N 37 14' 16.05" / W 107 20' 32.11") on FR 622 (left side); Lower Piedra River Campground Lower Access (N 37 14' 04.50" / W 107 20' 35.75") off FR 622 (left side). A possible option for take-out location is the US Highway 160 bridge Access (N 37 13' 26.42" / W 107 20' 31.71")in river left after the bridge in Piedra at about 21.00 miles, but neither parking nor boat access is as good as the three Lower Piedra sites above. Other roadside access points may be available.

Campgrounds and accommodations

FR 631 @ FR 635 (N 37 25' 44.66" / W 107 11' 31.82") on river right off FR 635 (Taylor Lane); First Fork Piedra Campground (N 37 21' 12.35" / W 107 19' 26.82") on FR 622; Lower Piedra River Campground Upper Access (N 37 14' 26.45" / W 107 20' 30.74") on FR 622 (left side) or FR 621 (right side) at about 19.80 miles; Lower Piedra River Campground Middle Access (N 37 14' 16.05" / W 107 20' 32.11") on FR 622 (left side) or FR 621 (right side) at about 20.00 miles; Lower Piedra River Campground Lower Access (N 37 14' 04.50" / W 107 20' 35.75") off FR 622 (left side) Other campgrounds may be available in and near the Animas and San Juan Rivers area.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

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

Reviewer's comments

The Piedra River is one of Colorado's true gems and like most others it has a very short season, sometimes no season at all. The flow is dependent upon winter snowpack and spring rains, so wet years give wild ides and dry years give dreams of wet years. The uppermost part of this reach can be safely run by most paddlers competent in Class III whitewater, but the lower half of this reach runs through some particularly nasty rapids and falls in a tight box canyon where boat control is not an option before calming back down to modest Class II to III rapids. Access is great from top to bottom even though a lot of adjacent land is private property. Forest roads parallel much of the run on one or both sides making emergency egress possible at many places. The scenery is first rate, though at times you will not have an opportunity to appreciate it. There are also several places to camp at access points, which is especially great if you want to do runs of multiple days.

There are about 12.5 miles of the Middle Fork and 11 miles of the East Fork above the confluence that forms the Piedra River, but take lumberjack tools with you when you go. Or, just start below the confluence and save the trouble. And for those that want to avoid all the carnage there are two options: first, start at the top of this reach and take out at the campground at 10.6 miles downriver, or start at the take-out for this reach and run the lower reach. A third option would be to do both. I vote for option 3 because if you are already here, then you need to run as much of this river as you can. A nice week in Colorado would include the Piedra, San Juan, San Miguel and Dolores. That would be whitewater heaven for intermediate to advanced boaters. But, there is still plenty of fun and enjoyment to be had for less experienced boaters, especially when accompanied by more experienced paddlers.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to IV+ (V)
Length 20.25 miles
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 800 - 1,500cfs
Maximum Flow 2,000 cfs
First Put-in FR 631 @ FR 635
Lat. / Long. N 37 25' 44.66" / W 107 11' 31.82"
Last Take-out Lower Piedra River CG
Lat. / Long. N 37 14' 04.50" / W 10720' 35.75"
Elevation 7,634-6,570 feet msl (- 1,064')
Gradient 52.5 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Arboles
Boats Canoes w/ flotation, Kakyas, Rafts
Season April 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 River Homepage ] [ West or East Fork to Pagosa Springs ] [ 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 to Navajo Reservoir ][ Lime Creek ] [ Hermosa Creek ]

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