San Juan River Trip with Wild Rivers Expeditions

Upper San Juan River Trip With Wild Rivers Expeditions

A few weeks ago my co-worker, Pam, and I went on a river trip with Wild Rivers Expeditions.  This was Pam’s first trip down the San Juan, and while I have done several private trips before, this was the first time I’d ever gone with a guide.  So in a way, it was a first for both of us and we were both really looking forward to the trip!

We had signed up for the Upper Canyon Daily trip, which covers 26 miles from Sand Island (just a few miles west of Bluff) to Mexican Hat.  For this trip we were to meet at Wild Rivers Expeditions at 8am the morning of our trip and since we were coming from Monticello (approximately 54 miles to the north) this meant another early morning drive.

I had been tracking the weather all week and although there had been thunderstorms in the forecast for the beginning of the week, I was happy to see that it was supposed to be sunny and 95 degrees the day of our trip- perfect for a day on the river!

We arrived at Wild Rivers Expeditions just before 8:00 and where we were greeted by the owner, Kristen, and shuttled to Sand Island where our guide, Marcus, was getting the raft ready.  There were eight of us who would be going on the trip that day- a family of 4 from Colorado Springs, CO, a mother and teenage son from Wisconsin, and Pam and I.

After arriving at Sand Island the first order of business was to put on our life jackets and make sure they were fitted correctly.  After we got that out of the way Marcus gave us a brief overview of what the day would look like and where we would be stopping and then we were off!

Life Jacket Fitting at Sand Island

Our Guide- Marcus

Right away we began seeing wildlife- Canadian Geese, Cliff Swallows, and Herons.

Swallow Nests – San Juan River

Heron on the San Juan River

We couldn’t have gone more than a couple miles when Marcus pointed out some Moki steps on the north side of the river.  Moki steps are hand and foot holds that have been carved into steep rock surfaces.  They are often found near cliff dwellings & graneries, and water sources.

Moki Steps Along the San Juan River

Our first stop was at the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel (sometimes referred to as Kachina Panel or Big Kachina Panel)- a large, well known panel with life-sized human figures as well as a variety of animal, plant, and geometric figures.  Some of the figures are very easy to identify as bighorn sheep or yucca plants, but others leave much more room for interpretation.

Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel – San Juan River

Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel – San Juan River

Marcus Telling Us About the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel – San Juan River

Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel – San Juan River

Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel – San Juan River

Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel – San Juan River

San Juan River From the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel

Our next stop was at River House Ruin which is set back a little way from the river and is accessed on a 1 mile round-trip hike.

River House Ruin – San Juan River

Doorway at River House Ruin – San Juan River

Pictographs at River House Ruin – San Juan River

Marcus Playing the Flute at River House Ruin – San Juan River

River House Ruin – San Juan River

If you were to just walk straight to River House and back to your boat it is much less than a mile, but they make a loop out of it which takes you past River House, a granary, and some petroglyphs as well.

Granary Near River House Ruin – San Juan River

Doorway to the Granary Near River House Ruin – San Juan River

When we returned to the raft Marcus informed us that this would be our lunch spot and began lunch preparations while we cooled off by wading & swimming in the water and relaxing in the shade.  I have to say that this was a very nice change from any of the private river trips I’ve been on in the past- usually if you want food, you have to make it yourself!  But Marcus had it under control and in a matter of minutes had an assortment of vegetables cut up for sandwiches and was calling everyone to the table for lunch.

Look at that spread! Wild Rivers Expeditions – San Juan River

Lunch was delicious and definitely hit the spot.  There was no shortage of food on this trip either.  Before we even got on the raft Marcus had told us to help ourselves to the water and packets of electrolyte replacement powder, (I can’t remember what brand they had, but it was really good- not all sugary like gatorade) and also that on top of what was packed for our lunch, there were lots of snacks.

One other thing I’d like to mention about food is that when you first sign up, one of the forms you have to fill out asks if you have any food allergies.  I’m allergic to peanuts, so I was really happy to see that they ask about that ahead of time.  Whenever I do something where food is involved, I worry that it’s going to be something with peanuts in it and that I’ll be left hungry.  I can’t even tell you how many times in my life I’ve had to eat plain jelly sandwiches! There was a jar of peanut butter at lunch, but Marcus made a point of telling everyone to keep it on one end of the table away from the other food which was a relief to me- usually I have to watch like a hawk to make sure that nothing that I want to eat comes in contact with the peanut butter!

And on top of all of these precautions, Marcus also told us that they carry epipens in their first aid kits.  As someone with an allergy, I was extremely impressed and very appreciative of all the precautions they took regarding allergies.

San Juan River

After lunch most of the rest of the day was on the river.  We were all on the lookout for Desert Bighorn sheep, and we weren’t disappointed!  I think I’ve been down the river 5 times and I’ve never NOT seen one, but it was only about 30 years ago that a ewe and lamb were spotted along the river for the first time since the early 1960s.

Desert Bighorn Sheep – San Juan River

San Juan River

San Juan River

We did make a couple short stops in the afternoon- at the first one Marcus cut some willow to make split twig figures.  He brought the willow back on the raft and made split twig figures for each of us as we were floating down the river.

Marcus Making Split Twig Figures – San Juan River

Still working on it…

Finished Split Twig Figure!  San Juan River

After the trip I really wished I had asked Marcus to show me how to make them.  I watched him make several, but I should have tried it while I had someone who was so good at making them to help me!

Not only did Marcus make one for each of us who were on the trip, but he also made one for some teenage girls who were at the next place we stopped.  He also sent one home with me to give to my husband- the picture below shows the two types of the figures on my shelf at home.

Split Twig Figures

Our last stop was to take a look at some fossils in the limestone along the bank of the river.  You could see a lot of different types of fossils in the rock- they were everywhere!  Marcus knew a lot about the geology and the fossils, but I’m afraid that I didn’t retain as much of it as I would have liked!  I should have written it down, but I was too interested in looking for fossils!  The picture below shows a small piece of a crinoid fossil. (I think that’s what it was called, but PLEASE don’t quote me on it!)

Fossils – San Juan River

After our stop to look at the fossils I think it was only a few miles to the take out in Mexican Hat.  You always know that you’re almost there when you can see the Mexican Hat Rock!

Mexican Hat Rock – San Juan River

I was sad to see the day coming to an end.  It was an awesome day on the river and a whole new river experience for me!  On all the other trips I’d been on, there was nobody there to answer my questions.  I’d see plants and birds and different things and wonder what they were called, but I would have forgotten about them by the end of the trip.  I feel like I learned so much on this trip- and it was only one day!  I can only imagine how in depth they must get on their longer trips.

There was a little bit of everything on this trip- rock art & ruins, geology, wildlife, history, and of course, rapids!  I would recommend this trip to anyone and everyone- it’s a great way to see a different side of San Juan County.  Whether you have just one day or a full week to spend in our area, Wild Rivers Expeditions is sure to have a trip that will fit your vacation schedule!

Distance from Bluff to lodging in San Juan County, Utah:

This entry was posted in Bluff, Off the Beaten Path, San Juan River, Tours/Guided Trips, Travel, Utah and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to San Juan River Trip with Wild Rivers Expeditions

  1. Great article on my lil brother Marcus! I love those trips down the San Juan, especially the overnight ones!

    • Allison says:

      Thanks for your comment! Your brother was an awesome guide- my coworker and I are still talking about our trip down the river with him!
      I just did the upper part of the San Juan over the weekend with my husband and, thanks to the trip I took with Marcus, I was able to point out lots of stuff that he didn’t know about!

  2. chavez bill buck says:


  3. Pingback: Fall River Trips on the San Juan | Utah's Canyon Country Blog

  4. jeff says:

    jeez! how did you guys do such a long stretch of river in a day?? My friend and I are planning on taking a duckie down this same stretch some time soon. Neither of us has ever paddled or floated anything before (besides tubes), but since we are living (temporarily) in the area, it sounds like a great trip to get our feet wet (pun intended). As beginners, could we do this in two days (including lots of time for side hikes and delightful distractions)?

    • Allison says:

      Thanks for your comment! The only way we were able to cover this entire stretch of river in a day was because they had a motor that they used part of the time. If you’re planning to go soon, with river flows as low as they are right now, I think you should plan for 3 days/2 nights if you’re wanting to do lots of stops and side trips. (Recommendation is straight from my husband who works in the San Juan River Permitting Office)
      Another option for a day trip would be from the Swinging Bridge to Sand Island- it’s only about 6-7 miles, so no problem in just one day. I don’t find it to be as scenic as the other sections of the river, but if you’re pressed for time and just want to get out on the water, it might be something to consider.

  5. Pingback: Swinging Bridge to Sand Island on the San Juan River | Utah's Canyon Country Blog

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