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San Miguel River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Silverpick Road to Caddis Flat Rec. Area
(Includes Sawpit)
~ 12.85 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River


The San Miguel River forms at an elevation of about 12,126 feet msl in San Miguel County southeast of Telluride near the San Juan County Line in southwestern Colorado. Its headwaters are in the San Juan Mountains and the San Juan National Forest, though it also sits very near the Uncompahgre National Forest, which grows along the east or west side of the river depending upon where on the river you are at any given time. The San Miguel flows generally northwest for about 81 miles of which the lower 75 miles are navigable through the mining town / ski resort Telluride, then on through Sawpit, Placerville, flowing near but not by Norwood, and then by Naturita and Uravan on its way to its confluence with the Dolores River in Montrose County at an elevation of about 4.842 feet msl, dropping about 7,300 feet of which 3,145 feet are within the navigable reach of the river. The upper six plus miles are not navigable due to numerous factors including river width, depth, gradient, boulders and a general lack of water that falls off the mountain at an average gradient of about 690 feet per mile. Boating usually begins just below Telluride at any of several access points found along or just off SH 145, which parallels the river most of the way to the Norwood Bridge.

On an historical note, Uravan was once a bustling uranium mining town located in the lower section of the river until many people started developing cancers. The entire town was burned to the ground and then buried under rock to prevent radiation exposure from the remaining uranium in the dust and dirt beneath the rock. You might not want to fill your water bottle here.

The river becomes a boatable stream just a few miles outside the resort town along SH 145, and continues as a Class I to III stream all the way to the Dolores River confluence. This section will describe the first 12.85 miles from Forest Service Road (FR) 625 / Silverpick Road to the Specie Creek Recreation Area generally running as a Class I to II stream with a single Class III rapid (Sawpit) close to the midpoint of this reach. The channel is fairly narrow along most of its course, and it flows through tree-lined and vegetated banks of the red rock formations commonly found in Southwestern Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico and Southern Utah.

The first 7.4 miles of this section starts at an elevation of 7,987 feet msl, and drops about 519 feet at a gradient of about 70.1 fpm. The last 5.45 miles falls from 7,468 feet to 7,172 feet on a gradient of about 54.3 fpm, for an average total gradient of about 63.4 fpm. Needless to say, if there is water, then there is a strong current! Several significant rapids along the run slow down the flow of water and keep it from being a runaway stream except at high flows when the boulders are covered and the river gains momentum. The entire run of about 12.85 miles can be scouted from the highway. Run time is quick unless you intentionally slow your boat. Anticipate moves well ahead of when you need to make them and initiate them early.

There are almost continuous Class II rapids on this run that make it fun and interesting, though most are run-of-the-mill boulder gardens without a lot of technical difficulty for competent boaters in canoes, kayaks and rafts. Sawpit Rapid is the exception, and should be carefully scouted before running. Sawpit starts with a couple of long holes to avoid approaching a pair of boulders, a slot between which is a must-make move, then comes a series of waves and holes that can eat your lunch if you miss your line. The water will probably be cold and fast, so this would be a great place to stay in the boat and keep it upright.

This rapid become even harder at flows exceeding about 1,300 cfs. A swim in higher flows anywhere along the San Miguel River will be swift and possibly painful, so hit your line and keep the hole up. That goes double for Sawpit. Below Sawpit, the San Miguel returns to being a good Class II run again for the remainder of this reach.

A run, colloquially referred to as the "Beginner Section," omits the first 7.4 miles of this trip and starts at Fall Creek Road for a Class II run of about 5.45 miles on fun, but not particularly challenging, whitewater.

This section is in the Telluride Ski Area, and the scenery here is spectacular. The trees of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests provide a beautiful backdrop to the river with its pretty, clear blue waters. There are several campgrounds located nearby and several are right beside the river. Bring your waterproof camera because you will have little time to handle one that has to be kept dry while simultaneously trying to control your boat in moving whitewater. The San Miguel, however, has a very short season and depends largely upon winter snowpack for a decent season of April through June. Check the river gauges before going! If the San Miguel is low, then it is likely other area rivers will be, as well.

River access points

FR 625 / Silverpick Road (N37 56' 49.62" / W 107 55' 11.83") on river right after the bridge off SH 145 at 0.0 miles; 60M Road (N37 50' 00.96" / W107 58' 14.82") on river right before the bridge at about 3.40 miles; 57P Road / Fall Creek Road (N37 19' 36.91" / W108 01' 20.00") on river right before the bridge at about 7.4 miles; Down Valley Park Access (N37 59' 49.11" / W108 02' 04.4") on river right after the bridge at about 8.20 miles; Placerville Access (N38 01' 05.31" / W 108 03' 23.35") on river right is a roadside access with adequate parking and easy access at abut 10.20 miles; Caddis Flat Recreation Area (N38 01' 37.07" / W 108 05' 34.90") on river right off SH 145 at about 12.85 miles. There may be other access points on this section of the San Miguel River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

The only campground located along this reach is at Caddis Flat Recreation Area (N38 01' 37.07" / W 108 05' 34.90") on river right at about 12.85 miles, where this reach ends. This RA is right off SH 145, so there is easy road and river access. Caddis Flat RA has toilets, tables, fire rings and tent camping areas, as well as a dirt boat ramp.

Nearby campgrounds include Mary E Campground on the South Fork San Miguel at its confluence with the main stem, which is accessible by river or road; Sunshine Campground, south of the Telluride Ski Area on SH 145, has no river access; Town Park in downtown Telluride is a riverside park with camping that is accessible via road, but the river is not navigable through town. There are other campgrounds in the near vicinity off US Highway 550 between Durango and Grand Junction, and along the Animas, Dolores and West Dolores Rivers. Please observe the following use rules to insure that the river remains a pristine and wonderful place to paddle:

1. Fire pans are required for all open fires. Debris MUST be carried out;
2. Porta-potties are required for all human waste, which MUST be carried out;
3. Dogs must be on leashes at all times in camp;
4. Dog feces MUST be collected and carried out;
5. Strainers MUST be used for dishwater, and food debris MUST be carried out;
6. A scrim material should be used for kitchen floors to collect dropped food. All food debris MUST be carried out.

Because of limited campsites, courtesy in setting up camps and not intruding, either physically or by noise, on other campers is expected. When meeting other groups on the way downriver discussions about campsites should be undertaken so that groups know where each other are going to be staying. Camping along the San Miguel River is specifically limited to designated camping areas ONLY! Cooperation on these simple rules and common courtesies will go a long way toward making your San Miguel River trip enjoyable for yourself and others who are on the river. If you pack it in, then pack it out. Take only photographs and memories - leave only footprints!

Liveries, Outfitters and Shuttle Services

Shuttles may be available from the BLM at 970-859-7445 (Bedrock) or 970-677-2772 (Slick Rock). Rentals and shuttles may be available from any of several outfitters serving the Dolores and surrounding rivers. Other outfitters elsewhere in Colorado and other states may also provide services on the Dolores River.

Reviewer's comments

The San Miguel is not a widely popular place to paddle due to its very short season of only a few weeks in May and June, and possibly some of July, but there are outrfitters who lead trips here, so expect some day trip traffic, mostly in rafts. Its waters are not big by whitewater standards, but offer excellent opportunities for those with intermediate or high level paddling skills to practice their strokes and maneuvers on a gorgeous stream near the Telluride Ski Area of southwestern Colorado. The river flows through the San Juan and Umcompahgre National Forests populated by silverleaf buffaloberry, red osier dogwood, narrowleaf cottonwood, blue spruce, thinleaf alder, river birch and other trees that add color to the red rocks along the river banks. Snow melt from over 12,000 feet in elevation give the San Miguel a "refreshing" chill if you choose to go swimming, so dress accordingly.

Nearby streams include the Dolores, West Dolores, Animas, Piedra, San Juan, Uncompahgre and other great paddle destinations, so you can come here and enjoy any of several great trips of anywhere from a few miles to multiple days. With numerous access points, several campgrounds and generally easy rapids the San Miguel offers an exciting run right alongside SH 145, though you will hardly have time to look for cars on the road as you negotiate the boulder field of a river, especially if the water is low. The area begs to be photographed, so bring your waterproof camera.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III+
Length 12.85 miles
Minimum Flow 250 cfs (canoes/kayaks)
Optimum Flow 500 - 1,200 cfs
Maximum Flow 2,000 cfs (above 2,000 cfs EXPERT ONLY!)
First Put-in FR 625 (Silverpick Road)
Lat. / Long. N 37 56' 49.62" / W 107 55' 11.83"
Last Take-out Caddis Flat Rec Area
Lat. / Long. N 38 01' 37.07" / W 108 05' 34.90"
Elevation 7,987-7,172 msl (-815 feet)
Gradient 63.4 fpm av (70.1 fpm max.)
USGS Gauge Web: Placerville
Boats Canoes w/ floatation, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May through June, July (?)
Permits No

Looking downriver from the Silverpick Road Bridge
Looking downriver from the Silverpick Road Bridge

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Silverpick Road Access
Silverpick Road Access

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Approaching the Caddis Flat boat ramp
Approaching the Caddis Flat boat ramp

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Caddis Flat boat ramp

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Dolores River where you want to paddle.

Dolores River
[ Dolores River Homepage ] [ Rico Access to Stoner Bridge ] [ Stoner Bridge to Dolores ]
[ Bradfield Launch to Slick Rock ] [ Slick Rock to Bedrock ] [ Bedrock to Gateway ] [ Gateway to Dewey Bridge ]

San Miguel River
[ Caddis Flat to Norwood Bridge ] [ Norwood Bridge to Green Truss Bridge (Norwood Canyon) ] [ Green Truss Bridge to Dolores River ]

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