Fall River Trips on the San Juan

Upper San Juan River

At the beginning of August I posted a blog entry on my trip down the San Juan River with Wild Rivers Expeditions.  I mentioned that although that was my first trip down the river with a guide, I’d been down the river several times before.  Since my trip with Wild Rivers Expeditions, I’ve done the Upper San Juan (27 mile stretch from Sand Island to Mexican Hat- the same section I did with Wild Rivers) two more times, once over Labor Day weekend and then again the weekend before last. (October 21-23)

The trip over Labor day weekend was just my husband and I in our two person inflatable kayak.  When you have such a small boat, you really can’t take very much stuff with you, which limits the length of trip you can take.  We’ve found that 3 days/2 nights is pretty much the longest trip we can take and carry water for.  When we do these trips by ourselves we don’t take a cooler and we eat dehydrated meals for lunch and dinner and easy stuff like granola for breakfast.  It’s very easy to pack up camp when it’s just the two of us, which is one of the biggest differences when you’re in a larger group with rafts like we were the weekend before last, but I’ll get to that trip in a while.

If you want to float the San Juan River anywhere between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills, you will need to obtain a permit from the BLM.  Permits are issued through a pre-season lottery.  A permit application for the following season is posted on the BLM website in the fall each year.  As soon as it is posted, you are able to submit your application (by mail or fax) for the dates you would like to float the river the following year.  Applications are due by February 1st to be eligible for the lottery.  If your application is selected in the lottery, you will be notified by March 1st.  If you do not receive notification, you did not draw a launch.

On March 1st the San Juan River Office phone line opens (from 8am-12pm Monday-Friday) and if you were not selected in the lottery, you are then able to call in and pick up available dates and cancellations.  There are launch calendars on the BLM website that are updated daily that you can look at to see which dates are still available.  Before calling in to reserve open launch dates, you MUST have a permit application on file.

Fees are charged per person and are as follows:

  • Sand Island to Mexican Hat: $6.00
  • Mexican Hat to Clay Hills: $12.00
  • Sand Island to Clay Hills: $18:00
  • *No fee is charged for the Montezuma Creek to Sand Island section, but a permit is still required.

Whew- I hope I got all that right!  My husband works at the BLM and is the person who does all the permits for the river, so I’m sure he’s going to be checking to make sure I’m giving out accurate information!  (**All information above current as of 10/31/2011)

Okay, back to our trip…

We saw a lot of wildlife on this trip; herons, rabbits, turkeys, and of course Desert Bighorn Sheep.  I think we saw more groups with more sheep than I’ve ever seen on the river.

Turkeys on the San Juan River

Rabbits at Our Camp on Night #1- San Juan River

Heron on the San Juan River

This feather fell right by our boat when the heron flew away – San Juan River

One of Several Groups of Desert Bighorn Sheep We Saw – San Juan River

Floating Down the San Juan River

The picture above makes me think of my worst experience ever on the San Juan River.  You can see that, although I’m not wearing them, my sandals are the covered toe type.  I bought them after my second trip down the San Juan River in 2007.  At that time I hadn’t moved to Monticello yet, my husband and I were still living in Missoula, Montana and we were on a 6 week road trip through the western part of the United States.

I had gone down the San Juan for the first time the previous summer and had been completely blown away by it.  Just about 2 weeks before that first raft trip, I had returned from two years of living and teaching English in Japan, and I don’t know if it was partly because I had gotten so used to the crowds of people everywhere you go in Japan or what, but I had never been so in awe of nature before.  My dad is very into geology and will take trips specifically to look at certain kinds of rocks.  I’ve never been interested in geology AT ALL- when I was a kid I wouldn’t even get out of the car unless he made me!  (which I think he usually did!)  And in college the ONLY time I ever got a D was when, against my better judgment, I took a geology class!  But for the first time in my life, I was fascinated by the colors and layers, and formations of the rocks that I was seeing.  And I also couldn’t stop staring at the sky- it had never looked so blue before.  It was an amazing trip, so when my husband and I had the chance to go again with his dad and some of his family, we didn’t hesitate.

So the reason I bought those covered toe sandals in the picture above is because right as we were starting to launch for 7 days on the river, I was standing (barefoot) about knee deep on the boat ramp and I took a step backwards and stepped off the edge of the cement ramp and scraped my toes down it.  When I pulled my foot out of the water to look at it to see if I had actually scraped it or if it just hurt, I was definitely not prepared for what I saw- my big toe and second toe were bleeding and the toenail on my second toe looked kind of loose and it was sticking out at a funny angle.  When I saw that I just stuck my foot back in the water because I knew I wasn’t prepared to see just how bad it was.  I told my husband that I had hurt my foot and lifted it out of the water to show him.  When I saw his reaction when he looked at it, I knew it was messed up.

This happened right as our first raft had been pushed out and started down the river, so they had to pull over immediately (the first aid kit was on it) and we had to go catch up to them to get my toe fixed up.  I won’t go into any more detail, but I will say that luckily my husband’s dad used to be a nurse so he knew what to do- he thought it would be best to pull my toenail the rest of the way off, so he got out the pliers and yanked it the rest of the way off.  It was extremely painful, and I had to spend the next 7 days with a plastic bag over my foot so it wouldn’t get wet.  So as soon as we got off the river I bought myself a pair of sandals with covered toes and I haven’t set foot in ANY body of water without them ever since!

My ‘toenail incident’ on the river in 2007

Well, I got a little off track there, but my toenail accident is something that I always think about when we’re on the San Juan!

Floating Down the San Juan River

On our second night we were really hoping to get our favorite camp on the upper part of the river and were excited to see that it was still available when we got there!  It has a really nice ‘kitchen’ area with large flat rocks that you can set up your stove on, and even some smaller rocks for chairs, and a ‘table’. It’s really nice when we’re in the kayak and aren’t able to take chairs or tables with us like when we’re in a raft.

View of the River from Our Tent – San Juan River

Sunset on the San Juan River

Sunset on the San Juan River

Morning on the San Juan River

‘Kitchen’ at Pour-Off Camp – San Juan River

Reflection on the Lid of our Pan- San Juan River

You can see in the picture below how little we brought with us on the river… you’ll see how much it increases on our October trip!

San Juan River

Mexican Hat Rock – San Juan River

It’s very easy and quiet and peaceful when it’s just the two of us on the river.  But last weekend my husband’s dad invited us to go down the river again with a group of 11 people- altogether there were 6 adults, 3 teenagers, an 11 year-old, and a 4 year-old, and we had 3 rafts, a canoe, and our two person kayak.  It’s a WHOLE different experience when you’re with a group of that size.  Nothing is fast or easy, but it’s a lot of fun!

Sand Island Boat Launch – San Juan River

Everyone else was coming from Flagstaff and half of them had come over the night before and camped at the Sand Island Campground.  The other half of the group drove up in the morning and we met up with them at about 1pm in Mexican Hat and did our vehicle shuttling then.  You can leave your car at the boat launch in Mexican Hat, but I’d recommend paying to park it at Valle’s.  (Currently it’s about $2.75/day)  It’s a short walk from the boat launch to Valle’s, and I feel like it’s much more secure in the parking lot of a business rather than down at the boat launch, so I don’t mind paying a little for peace of mind!

Unloading everything and getting the boats ready takes quite a while, I think we started at about 11am and didn’t get on the river until about 2:30pm.  In the summer, 2:30 wouldn’t have seemed that late, but when the sun sets at about 6:30, that really doesn’t leave much time to get very far down the river!

Our Crew on the San Juan River

I had never gone down the river this late in the year and I was really concerned about how the weather would be.  It had already snowed a couple times in Monticello, so I was a little worried that we might have bad weather on the river.  I was tracking the weather leading up to the weekend, and it was showing low 70s for the days and low 30s for the nights.  We really couldn’t have asked for better weather, but the nights and mornings (especially the first night) were pretty cold- I don’t think I was very well prepared for how cold it got.

Dinner Duty – San Juan River

One of my favorite things about going with a larger group and having rafts is that you can bring a lot more stuff with you; coolers, chairs, tables, dishes, games, etc.  It’s always a treat to go with a group and get to have cold drinks and meat and all those things we don’t get to take when it’s just the two of us in our kayak.  The only problem with this is that then you’re expected to cook!

My husband and I were on dinner duty the first night, and we had decided to make our dinner the night before not only to save time, but also so there would be less dishes to wash on the river!  Our dinner was pesto chicken pasta salad with sun dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, french bread, and cookies. (dessert is a MUST when you’re on the river!)  We made enough pasta salad to fill 2 one-gallon ziplocs, but we were still worried that it wouldn’t be enough.  We’re not used to cooking for 11 people, and when 2 of them are teenage boys, you just never know how much they’ll be able to eat!  But it ended up being just the right amount- there was a little bit left over, which set my mind at ease that everyone had gotten their fill.  I always start to stress out a little when we have to cook for a bunch of people on the river, but then I remember that everyone is usually pretty hungry by the time we get to camp and start eating, so I think everyone is a lot less picky than they might normally be!

COLD Morning at Camp – San Juan River

Getting Breakfast Supplies Out of the Coolers – San Juan River

The first night was SO cold!  In the morning I really didn’t think I had gotten much sleep at all, but then someone mentioned that a plane had flown over at about 5am and I hadn’t heard it, so I guess I must have slept at least a little bit.  All night long when I’d wake up, all I could think about was how nice hot coffee was going to be in the morning!  When I woke up and looked out of the tent, I was happy to see that someone else was already up and that the coffee pot was on the stove!  Coffee and a hot breakfast (bacon, egg, and hash brown burritos) were very much appreciated that morning!

As soon at the sun came up and hit our camp, it immediately warmed up to a comfortable temperature and we were able to shed our layers and get on the river.  On the second day we were planning to hike up Chinle Wash to see some pictographs and just to look around a little.  Everything on the left (south) side of the river is part of the Navajo Reservation, so if you want to do any hiking or camping on that side, you need to get a permit from Navajo Parks & Recreation.  There is a per-person fee for both hiking and camping, here’s a link to the camping & hiking request application

View From the Top- San Juan River

We actually didn’t get as far as we’d been planning… the kids and teens weren’t as into it as the adults, and we also realized how late it was getting, so we hiked up to a viewpoint (which was beautiful!) and then headed back to the boats to try to get down the river a ways before it got dark.

Desert Bighorn- San Juan River

We saw male Desert Bighorns twice on this trip.  I mentioned in my blog entry on the trip I took with Wild Rivers Expeditions, that I’d never NOT seen seen bighorn sheep on the San Juan, but I think this might have been the first time I’d seen a male- and we saw two!

Camp #2 – San Juan River

The second night wasn’t NEARLY as cold as the first had been.  The first night had been so cold that we all headed to our tents pretty early to try to get warm, but on the second night we gathered some firewood and built a fire and sat around it talking for quite a while, which was nice.

It sounded like everyone was able to sleep a lot better than on the first night too.  It was definitely a little warmer, but I think it also might have had to do with the fact that everyone wore more clothes to bed on the second night!  I wore almost every piece of clothing that I’d brought with me to bed that night; a tank top, two t-shirts, two long-sleeved shirts, a fleece jacket, scarf, hat, socks, thermal pants, and another pair of pants!

On the last day we had quite a way to go still before reaching the take-out at Mexican Hat.  Everyone definitely packed up a lot quicker than they had the previous morning, and I think we were on the river a couple hours earlier too.

San Juan River

San Juan River

I love the second half of the upper stretch as you’re getting closer to Mexican Hat, it gives you a little taste of what the lower part (Mexican Hat to Clay Hills) is like.  If you’ve ever been to Goosenecks State Park and seen the river meander down in the canyon below, you float right through it if you continue on to Clay Hills.

Goosenecks State Park

Raft Going Through the Goosenecks – San Juan River

Picnic Tables at Goosenecks

Goosenecks State Park is mostly just an overlook down onto the entrenched river meander on the San Juan.  If you float through it, you travel 6 miles, but only advance 1.5 miles to the west!  It’s free to visit and you can also camp for free.  (*Fees to visit Goosenecks State Park: $5/car, $20/bus, and $10/night for camping. Updated 4-3-17)  You have to bring your own water, but they do have a pit toilet and some picnic tables.

When I worked at the Southeast Utah Welcome Center in Monticello I can’t tell you how many times people would come in and see the picture of the Goosenecks that we had hanging on the wall and say, ‘We just saw the sign for this along the road and didn’t know what it was, so we didn’t stop.’  People were so disappointed that they had missed it, so if you’re in the southern part of San Juan County (between Mexican Hat and Bluff) don’t forget to stop!  You won’t be disappointed!

Going Through Ledge Rapid – San Juan River

I have to say, I was VERY happy to be on a raft on this trip, rather than in a kayak like we usually are.  Usually when it’s really hot out, it feels good to go through rapids and get splashed, but on this trip it wasn’t that hot and I was glad to stay a little drier!

San Juan River

When we got to the take-out in Mexican Hat it was about 5pm and there were 4 other groups already there taking-out.  I find it funny how sometimes you can go down the river and just see a couple groups the whole time, and sometimes you seem to be playing leapfrog with the same groups over and over the whole time you’re on the river.  The groups who were taking-out at Mexican Hat had all been putting-in at Sand Island the same day we were, but we had only seen one of them the whole time we were on the river.  I like it when you don’t see many other groups while you’re out there- it makes it feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you have the whole river to yourself!

I’m really glad we had the chance to get out on the river and camp one last time this year.  My husband and I had taken a long weekend trip to Santa Fe and Chaco at the beginning of October.  We were camping and it was SO cold, (it snowed the first night!) I had sworn that it was the last camping trip of the year, but when this trip came up we couldn’t turn it down!  However you decide to go down the San Juan, it’s always a good time!  Whether you go with a commercial outfitter like Wild Rivers Expeditions, or on your own with a large group or just a couple people, you can’t go wrong on the San Juan River!

This entry was posted in Bluff, Camping, Mexican Hat, Off the Beaten Path, San Juan River, State Parks, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fall River Trips on the San Juan

  1. I took my 3 year old on the San Juan in the Spring. We didn’t see any wildlife, however we did hear a cougar. It’s a great river to take the family on. The rapids aren’t bad at all.

  2. Pingback: The Making of the ‘San Juan County – Utah’s Canyon Country’ Video | Utah's Canyon Country Blog

  3. Pingback: Designation of Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, UT | Utah's Canyon Country Blog

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