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San Juan River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Pagosa Springs to Trujillo Bridge (Mesa Canyon)
~ 15.6 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

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.

This reach decription will begin in Pagosa Springs at the Visitor Center located at 402 San Juan Street and continue 15.6 miles through Mesa Canyon to the Trujillo Bridge take-out. The fun starts right out of the gate as you enter a Class III- rapid right by the Visitor Center. Remembering an old adage from golf, you MUST look good on the first tee box and the 18th green because that is where more people are watching, so be on your game when you launch, or else be the entertainment. From Pagosa Springs almost all the way to Trujillo Bridge you will encounter natural and man-made obstructions including small ledges and low-head dams, the latter of which can create strong hydraulic currents at the right flow. When in doubt, scout, though most of the rapids and obstructions will be "read and run" drops.

Below Pagosa Springs the San Juan is definitely an easier river than up above. About a mile after launching the river flows into beautiful Mesa Canyon where you will enjoy the splendid geology of the rock formations while traversing a river with numerous side canyons where you will likely see various birds of prey. There are still plenty of Class II to III rapids to keep you excited, but there is more time to relax between them, and none of them are technical - a competent boater will have little or no problem negotiating this run. The river diverges from US Highway 160 in Pagosa Springs and runs as a remote stream for miles before Trujillo Road (CR 500) begins to roughly parallel it down to where the road crosses the river at the take-out for this reach. Trujillo Road runs from Pagosa Springs, so getting between the put-in and take-out by car is relatively easy, though the drive is a little longer than the paddle. Running April through July, this reach flows a little longer on a slightly shallower 32 fpm average gradient, fed by many side creeks flowing into the river along this reach. Mesa Canyon is characterized by banks vegetated with Pinon Pine, Juniper, Ponderosa Pine and other magnificent trees. The USFS controls much of the land in the top half of this trip, but the Southern Ute Tribe controls the lower half banks. Very near the middle of the run is the only "significant" rapid you will encounter - Rock Garden Rapid (Class III-) near the mouth of Squaw Canyon. This rapid becomes more formidable as flow increases, especially above about 1,300-1,400 cfs. It is characterized by boulders and holes around which you will need to dance. After this the river settles down to an easy Class I to II ride to the take-out at Trujillo Bridge.


This reach begins in Pagosa Springs and ends 15.6 miles later at the Trujillo Bridge in Archuleta County, Colorado. Nearby streams include the Anima, Piedra, Dolores, San Miguel, Uncompahgre, Rio Grande, Rio Chama and Gunnison Rivers.

Distance from major cities

Durango 80 miles; Grand Junction 250 miles; Denver 325 miles; Santa Fe 292 miles; Albuquerque 292 miles; Phoenix 534 miles; Oklahoma City 693 miles; Tulsa 798 miles; Dallas 802 miles; Austin 888 miles; San Antonio 968 miles; Houston 1,074 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The San Juan River above Navajo Reservoir is not a big flow river, but its water is usually clean, clear and very cold. This reach needs at least 500 cfs for good trips Class III or easier rapids.

Best time to go

Generally, the optimum season is a short four or less months in April through July, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the winter snow pack and/or recent local rains. The river will run very low in dry winter years.

Hazards to navigation

The San Juan River is not known for significant hazards, but there are a few along this reach that can pose problems if run improperly. Small ledges will appear almost immediately after launching at the Visitor Center asnd continue most of the way down the river. Most of the more difficult rapids are from mile 4.0 to about mile 11.0 There are no major hazards on this reach of the San Juan River and the rapids are rated Class III or lower. The man-made obstructions (dams) pose the greatest risk, so scout before running anything that looks too challenging from the boat.

River Access Points

Pagosa Springs Visitor Center (N 37 16' 00.26" / W 107 00' 35.48") on river left at 0.0 miles; Trujillo Bridge (N 37 06' 07.09" / W 107 02' 43.50") on river left before the bridge at about 15.6 miles. Roadside access may be possible along Trujillo Road (CR 500), but most of the land adjacent to the river is privately owned, so please avoid trespassing.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Numerous natural campsites can be found in Mesa Canyon, though most peple run this reach as a day trip. Watch for posted private property and avoid trespassing. Many nearby campgrounds, both public and commercial, can be found in and around the Pagosa Springs area. Some of these include: Wolf Creek campground off US Highway 160 a few miles north of the East Fork; East Fork Campground on river right below Deer Creek at about 2.7 miles below Sand Creek; Navajo Reservoir State Recreation Area on the New Mexico border. Other campgrounds, both tent and RV, are available in the general area.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

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

Reviewer's comments

With no practical access between Pagosa Springs Visitor Center and Trujillo Bridge the San Juan River leaves "urban life" behind for a short trip through a wide valley leading to Mesa Canyon just south of Pagosa Springs. From the start you will encounter Class III- rapids, but there is a lot of space between them and recovery is generally easy, though the water will be cold, so prepare for a swim and hope all you get is splashed. This reach is much easier and more relaxed than the reach above, and though Trujillo Road closely parallels the river part of the way it is so lightly traveled that you might not even know it is there. The canyon itself is gorgeous with banks line with juniper, pinion and ponderosa pines that are home to various raptors such as eagles and hawks (Rodan was believed to have summered here.)

Most people will run this trip in an easy day, but it can be a great overnighter for those on a slower pace. Just make sure to observe private property markers and honor them. There are a few man-made dams in the river within the canyon, so be sure to scout before running (or portaging) because getting help here may not be quick and easy. But, generally speaking, this is a fun run with enough action to keeo it interesting without risking life and limb. The scenery is awesome as the river flows through a mountain valley into the canyon. Rock Garden Rapid, rated Class III-, sits in the lower half of the trip at Squaw Canyon and is the only real challenge to competent boaters, though the fourth in a series of man-made dams can have keeper characteristics at higher flows. This is considered by some to be a beginner whitewater run suitable for most reasonably fit paddlers. At about 32 fpm gradient there will still be a good current to move you quickly downriver, which makes this a more relaxing trip with less work to move your boat downriver.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III- (III)
Length 15.6 miles (max)
Minimum Flow 500 cfs
Optimum Flow 800 - 1,500 cfs
Maximum Flow 2,000 cfs
First Put-in Pagosa Springs Visitor Center
Lat. / Long. N 37 16' 00.26" / W 107 00' 35.48"
Last Take-out Trujillo Bridge
Lat. / Long. N 37 06' 07.09" / W 107 02' 43.50"
Elevation 7,073 - 6,576 feet msl (-497 feet)
Gradient ~32 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Web: above Sand Creek
Web: Pagosa Springs
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season May through June water permitting
Permits No

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

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 HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

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 Homepage ] [ East or West Fork to Pagosa Springs ] [ 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 16, 2021

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