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San Juan River, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

Sand Island to Mexican Hat
~ 26.5 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The San Juan River forms in the San Juan Mountains of south central Colorado, on the Mineral-Rio Grande county line, then flows down into Archuleta County to Navajo Reservoir on the New Mexico border down through Farmington, New Mexico, then northwest into Utah near the juntion of borders between Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico (the only point in the United States common to 4 states.) About 120 miles of the river flows through Utah. The San Juan River is, for the most part, a Class I to III whitewater river in a classic pool-and-drop format, flowing across southeastern Utah to Glen Canyon on Lake Powell, and its confluence with the Colorado River just above the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The San Juan River in Utah derives its flow primarily from the Animas River of Colorado and dam releases from Navajo Reservoir in northwestern New Mexico. Permits from the Utah BLM office are required for river trips on the San Juan, and substantial fines can be levied for camping along the river without having registered for reservations, so contact BLM at 435-587-1544 for information, permits and campsite reservations.

This 26.5 mile trip is on a shallow gradient as the river flows toward Lake Powell through the southeastern-most corner of Utah. Rapids on this section of the river rate Class I to II, with no major hazard concerns for competent paddlers. Scenery around this section is awesome, and it is a perfect place to capture some great photos, so be sure to bring your camera. The short trip can be made in 1-2 days, depending upon paddling speed and river conditions. A good year-round flow is provided by the Animas River, and additional water from Navajo Reservoir boosts the natural flow, but the river needs about 500 cfs to be navigable, so be sure to check the gauges before going. If the flow exceeds about 8,000 cfs, then it night be a good time to paddle somewhere else!


Extreme southeastern San Juan County near the Four Corners area. The Colorado River flows nearly perpendicular, on a northeast to southwest course, just a few miles to the west. The Manti La Sal National Forest is to the north, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is just to the west. Farmington, New Mexico is the nearest significant town.

Distance from major cities

Salt Lake City 343 miles; Grand Junction 215 miles; Denver 461 miles; Durango 125 miles; Albuquerque 317 miles; Phoenix 366 miles; Oklahoma City 879 miles; Dallas 1,005 miles; Austin 1,040 miles; San Antonio 948 miles; Houston 1,190 miles; Little Rock 1,218 miles; Kansas City 1,003 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

San Juan waters usually flow clean and clear, but not drinkable without purification. The river has a low flow characteristic, but levels below about 500 cfs are usually too low for good trips, especially in loaded boats on multi-day adventures. Flows exceeding about 8,000 cfs are dangerously high, and should be avoided.

Best time to go

The San Juan river usually flows best from late March through June, depending upon winter snowpack and spring rainfall in the drainage basin. Local precipitation conditions can prompt adequate flows anytime, but paddling in the dead of winter would not be a pleasant experience for most boaters.

Permit requirements

A BLM permit is required to float any section of the San Juan River between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills. From November 1 to the last day of February, the permit is free. From March 1 - October 31, there is a fee for the permit, the cost depending on the number of people in your party and the reach of the river where you are paddling. Call or write to the BLM Monticello Field Office for a permit application at:

Bureau of Land Management
P.O. Box 7
Monticello, UT 84535
(435) 587-1544

Permit applications for the following season are normally available in early December and permits can be obtained through the website. Please visit the BLM website for additional information.

Hazards to navigation

This section of the San Juan River has no hazards of major consequence. Rapids are run-of-the-mill Class I to II boulder gardens with (usually) clearly defined lines and easy scouting without getting out of the boat.

River Access Points

SH 163 at US Highway 191 near Bluff, Utah at 0.0 miles; Mexican Hat at the end of E. 3rd Street off US Highway 163 at about 26.5 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the San Juan River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Sand Island Campground, on the San Juan River 3 miles west of Bluff, offers a fee-based campground with 27 campsites, a group site and boat launch (open year-round, no drinking water); Newspaper Rock Campground, on SH 211, approximately 15 miles west of Canyonlands National Park, offers a fee-based campground with 8 campsites (open year-round, no drinking water, no boat launch); Hamburger Rock Campground (name may be changing to Six Shooter Campground), north of SH 211, approximately 3 miles west of Canyonlands National Park, offers a fee-based campground with 8 campsites (open year-round, no drinking water, no boat launch). Natural, primitive campsites are available all along the river. Please be sure to leave no trace of your having been there. This is a popular river trip for many novice and beginner boaters in rafts, canoes and inflatable kayaks, so expect company on the river and competition for premiere campsites during peak seasons.

The following items are required for all paddlers on the San Juan River in Utah:

  • A washable, reusable toilet system that allows for the carry-out disposal of solid human body waste (It must be adequate for the size of the group and length of trip, and be able to be dumped into an authorized sewer system)
  • A major first aid kit adequate for the group
  • A repair kit with adequate materials to repair the types of boats used on the trip
  • An air pump or pumps
  • A durable metal fire pan at least 12 inches wide with at least a 1.5 inch lip around its outer edge (a fire pan is required even if stoves are to be used for cooking)
  • A proper size life jacket for each member of the party
  • An extra oar or paddle for each raft or dory
  • A bail bucket or bilge pump (does not apply to self bailers or kayaks)
  • A type IV throwable device or throw bag with at least 40 feet of line for each boat 16 feet or longer
  • Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

    There are no known outfitters located on or near this section of the San Juan River. However, numerous outfitters from Utah and other states run trips to this section frequently, and may be able to provide shuttles for a nominal fee. Plan on running your own shuttles if you cannot contract services from a licensed outfitter. Shuttles from Sand Island to Mexican Hat take about one hour. Shuttles from Sand Island to Clay Hills take 4-5 hours. Plan accordingly if running your own shuttles.

    Reviewer's comments

    This is an easy Class I to II run on a gorgeous high desert run through extreme southeastern Utah. The river begins in Colorado, flows into New Mexico, then enters Utah at the Four Corners area. The run of 26.5 miles can be made in a day by marathon paddlers, or stretched to span 2-3 days for lazier paddlers. The run between Sand Island near Bluff and Mexican Hat is a fairly popular run that can be made by almost anybody in canoes, kayaks and rafts with minimal difficulty. The run skirts the northern edge of the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation of northern Arizona and southern Utah, near the canyonlands of eastern Utah. Below Mexican Hat, the river flows into the Colorado River at Glen Canyon after crossing Lake Powell. Riverside camping is allowed, but BLM permits are required for trips on the San Juan in Utah. This is a great place to have your camera, so be sure to pack it and take plenty of photos to show your friends.

    Technical Data
    Class Rating I to II
    Length 26.5 miles
    Minimum Flow 500 cfs
    Optimum Flow 1,000-2,500 cfs
    Maximum Flow 8,000 cfs
    First Put-in Sand Island
    Lat. / Long. N 37° 15' 24.59" / W 109° 37' 14.14"
    Last Take-out Mexican Hat
    Lat. / Long. N 37° 08' 49.40" / W 109° 51' 12.89"
    Elevation msl
    Gradient FPM
    USGS Gauge Web: Bluff
    Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
    Season Late March through June
    Permits Yes, Utah BLM (435-587-1544)

    Utah Whitewater Club - Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting

    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 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 ] [ Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing ]

    Southwest Paddler
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