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Piedra River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Piedra to Arboles (Navajo Reservoir)
~ 23.4 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.

From the access points just above and in Piedra the Lower Piedra River flows as a much tamer Class I to II stream for almost 20 miles before dumping its waters into Navajo Reservoir. Unlike the reach above the lower river is a gentle streat that almost anybody can enjoy. It flows through an open valley dotted with horse ranches and private property along both banks. It has been reported that some illegal barbed wire fences may be erected across the river channel in clear violation of federal navigation laws. It is also a violation of law to create a hazard in a river that forces a trespass. If these exist, then they need to be removed so that they do not injure or kill paddlers. But, please avoiud trespassing exxcept when you need to do so to get around an illegal fence across the river. But along the way you can expect a gentle ride on mostly flatwater with a good current punctuated occasionally by small rapids in the Class I to II- range. You will see fields and foothills. You probably will not see many people. Should the need or desire arise, there are several possible access points between Piedra and the lake where you can launch or take out (see "River Access Points" below.)

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 for this reach is generally rated Class I to II- at any navigable level. This reach starts in the Town of Piedra at an elevation of 6,570 feet msl

Best time to go

Generally, the optimum season is a short three months in April, 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

All the hazards on this final reach of the Piedra River are man-made in the form of low head dams and possibly barbed wire or slat fences. To be sure, ANY fence across a navigable stream is a violation of federal navigation law because it poses an imminent threat of injury or death to boaters and a threat of damage to equipment. Such a fence also illegally creates a trespass situation in getting around the illegal obstruction. Nevertheless, such obstructions in the river must be negotiated, and so boaters need to be observant in seeing them in time to take appropriate evasive action to avoid an emergency situation. Generally speaking, the river itself poses no particular problems all the way to the lake, where motorboats could be an issue.

River Access Points

Lower Piedra River Campground Lower Access (N 37 14' 04.50" / W 107 20' 35.75") off FR 622 (left side) at 0.00 miles; 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 0.75 miles (but neither parking nor boat access is as good as the three Lower Piedra sites above); CR 193 Access (N 37 09' 38.84" / W 107 21' 11.92") is at a roadside clearing on river right at about 7.0 miles; Navajo Road (Possible) Access (N 37 04' 32.46" / W 107 24' 18.47") on river left just past the bridge at about 17.0 miles; Navajo Reservoir Access (N 37 03' 44.68" / W 107 24' 51.32") above the lake on river left before the SH 151 Bridge at about 18.10 miles; Navajo State Park Boat Ramp (N 37 00' 23.55" / W 107 24' 50.43") on Navajo Reservoir on river right in the harbor at the boat ramp at about 23.40 miles. Other roadside or lakeside access points may be available.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Camping opportunities along this reach of the Piedra River are few and far between. Most adjacent land is privately owned. There are nearby campgrounds for before or after a trip here. 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

Some commercial outfitters may offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the Piedra River, but this is not a popular trip with most people or outfitters.

Reviewer's comments

Below the US 160 Bridge in Piedra lies nearly 20 miles (23.4 miles if taking out on Navajo Reservoir) of seldom navigated waters flowing more calmly than above on their way to the San Juan River confluence on the lake. The nearest thing to a city is Arboles, Colorado on Navajo Reservoir about 5 miles from the mouth of the river. This reach is mostly a wide open valley with cottonwood-lined banks and horse farms dotting the landscape. The rapids are Class I to II, but there are man-made obstacles (dams and fences) that could cause problems if not negotiated safely. Starting about 1.5 miles north of Navajo Road there is a large sand mining operation on both sides of the river. There are also a couple of bridges over the river servicing the sand mine. Noise and dust are possible in this area, which sits very near the mouth of the river. On a much shallower gradient of 20.6 fpm the river is still flowing and a good current carries you, but at a slightly more leisurely pace than upriver near the headwaters.

With multiple access points along this reach paddlers can chose the length of trip that fits their needs or schedule. You might not paddle here more than once, but if you are already on the Piedra, then you may as well do it once just to have done as much of the river as possible. Even with its peccadillos the Lower Piedra is still an enjoyable and scenic trip. The two major admonishments are (1) wait until AFTER the spring snowmelt surge, but (2) go before it all runs down to the lake! You probably need to plan ahead for this one unless you live fairly close by.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II-
Length 23.4 miles
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 800 - 1,500cfs
Maximum Flow 2,000 cfs
First Put-in Lower Piedra River CG
Lat. / Lon. N 37 14' 04.50" / W 10720' 35.75"
Last Take-out Navajo State Park Boat Ramp
Lat. / Lon. N 37 00' 23.55" / W 107 24' 50.43"
Elevation 6,570 - 6,090 feet msl (- 480')
Gradient 20.6 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 River FR 635 to Piedra ] [ Lime Creek ] [ Hermosa Creek ]

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