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San Juan River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

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.

There are numerous navigable (?) tributaries flowing into the San Juan River (navigability having to do with experience, training, equipment, river conditions and the company of other paddlers in your group, as well as local knowledge of the river and an emergency plan.) These above Navajo Dam include the Rio Blanco and the Navajo River, as well as the Piedra River and Los Pinos River which join the San Juan in Navajo Reservoir. Below Navajo Reservoir the San Juan is fed by tributaries that include the Animas River, La Plata River and Mancos River in New Mexico, and McElmo Creek in Utah, among many others. The San Juan tributaries originating in the San Juan Mountains are snowmelt streams with the normal highest flows between March and June, depending upon winter snowpack and spring rains. Southern tributaries generally are lower flow streams with much shorter seasons that may last from a few days to a few weeks, but which can flash carrying copious quantities of water rushing downstream during flash floods.

The San Juan River and its tributaries are to be taken very seriously. While not all rapids are major in characteristic the very nature of location is a hazard to life safety. Other than near Pagosa Springs the area is remote with little or no telecommunications due to the mountains surrounding the river, and the channel is choked with boulders. The East and West Forks may also be heavily congested with deadfall trees that mostly or completely block the channel. The water will be cold, so dress appropriately. And while the vast majority of the rapids on the San Juan will be Class II to III there are some definite Class IV's. Some of the tributaries to the San Juan have Class V or higher rapids, primarily due to the remoteness and difficulty of rescue in a stream choked with boulder and deadfallen trees making rescues even more difficult and dangerous for rescuers. Fortunately, you can scout most of the major rapids on the two forks and the river above Pagosa Springs from the road so that you will at least have a little info to consider before launching. But, aside from the difficulty of a very few rapids the San Juan in Colorado is a gorgeous, relatively easy trip for moderately experienced whitewater paddlers and probably something close to an E-ticket ride for those with less experience in whitewater, especially if they are paddling their own boat.

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

[ 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 ] [ Piedra to Navajo Reservoir ] [ Lime Creek ] [ Hermosa Creek ]

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Last updated July 19, 2021

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