Insider’s Guide to Floating the San Juan River in UtahDecember 9, 2022
By Susan Munroe
Floating the San Juan River in southeastern Utah is like drifting through a living museum. Ancient stone structures perch in alcoves above the river banks. Elaborate rock art decorates the canyon walls in an open-air gallery. Even the geology is priceless, with sweeping goosenecks and colorful uplifts. The San Juan’s current is swift, but its rapids are gentle, and its sandbars, side canyons, and campsites are natural playgrounds for kids of all ages. Holiday offers a three-day upper canyon trip for maximum archaeology and a four-day lower canyon trip for maximum wilderness; sign up for the five-day full-length trip and see it all!
Perfect for: archaeology, history, and geology buffs, families with small children, people wanting a mellow whitewater experience. Custom charter trips available for groups of 16 or more.
San Juan River Highlights
The San Juan River, the “River Flowing from the Sunrise”, snakes through the blazing red expanse of the Four Corners region, through a landscape that at least four distinct cultural groups have called home. The Archaic, Basketmaker, and Pueblo cultures all drew life from the San Juan; today it is the Diné (Navajo) People who continue to live along its shores. Artifacts, structures, and rock art dating back as far as 6,000 years are everywhere; everywhere you step is sacred ground. Mormon settlers, gold miners, and oil prospectors also left their mark on this landscape, leaving behind cabins, machinery, and impossible trails up and over the canyon walls. The river cuts through Comb Ridge, a pastel-colored sandstone uplift that rises above the landscape in scalloped waves, and then goes on to slice into the Lime Ridge and the Raplee anticlines, two more distinct geologic wonders. Wildflowers such as prince’s plume and yucca run rampant in the spring. Wild turkeys, wild horses, big horn sheep, beavers, and the ubiquitous great blue herons make their homes within the canyons of the San Juan. Minimal whitewater makes the San Juan River a relaxing place to reconnect with family, to float and play in an inflatable kayak, to simply sit and wonder. Beyond Mexican Hat, Utah, the river dives into the entrenched meanders of Goosenecks State Park. The world on the rim is quickly lost to sight, and the true wilderness of the San Juan begins. Rock layers reveal life that predates humans by hundreds of millions of years. Hidden grottos and springs await discovery. This is a landscape with countless wonders to be explored.
Only on the San Juan:
- Visit thousand-year old rock structures with the fingerprints of the builders still visible in the mortar.
- The oldest rock art on any trip that Holiday runs: Glen Canyon Linear–style, dated to 4000–500 B.C.
- Mule Ear diatreme, where escaping volcanic gases carved a vertical shaft through the overlying rock layers.
- Bioherms: fossilized reef and algae mounds visible in limestone benches along shore.
- Float beneath the Mexican Hat Rock, and through the town of the same name.
- Wind through the 1,000-foot-deep meanders of Utah’s Goosenecks State Park.
- Sand waves: unpredictable, ephemeral wave trains created by the movement of sediment on the river’s bottom.
- One of the steepest average river gradients in the U.S.: eight feet per mile.
Government Rapid, in the lower canyon. The biggest rapid on a river not known for its whitewater, Government is a solid Class III rapid that requires deft rock-dodging at low water and is a hoot-and-a-half when the water is high!
Best known for:
Archaeology and geology. Pictographs, petroglyphs, granaries, dwellings, and pottery are highlights of the upper canyon, and both the upper and lower San Juan traverse remarkable geological formations. Float through entrenched meanders and no fewer than three uplifts or anticlines, not to mention the oddities like the Mule Ear diatreme and the bioherms.
The Holiday Way: Family
Holiday River Expeditions has always been a family affair. In the beginning, it was Dee and Sue Holladay, building their nascent outfitting service while also raising four daughters. As their business grew, so did their family: every guide who ever came to work for them, every guest who signed up for a trip and came back for a second (or a third, or a fourth) became a part of the Holiday river family, a community with a shared love of running rivers, a community that understands the power of a river trip to create memories, strengthen bonds, and inspire traditions. More than 50 years later, Holiday is still family-owned and family-operated, and the extended Holiday family continues to grow. We have remarkably little turnover in our guide, office, and managerial staff, which is rare for a seasonal business, and 50% of our business consists of returning guests or referrals. People come back because of the sense of family and community that inhabits everything we do. We come back because it feels like coming home.
Easy whitewater, fun sandbars, and interesting hikes make the San Juan River a great introduction to family river trips, but the reality is that all of Holiday’s river trips are good family trips. River trips are good family trips. Being held together in a spectacular place without the distractions of technology or work, families are able to share in new experiences, to make eye contact, and to just be together. Over the course of a three, four, or five-day trip, a certain magic starts to happen. Time starts to slow down and stretch out. Conversations happen. Connections become possible. Join us, and we’ll show you how.
- Butler Wash: an easy walk to some of the best rock art in the region.
- River House, the showpiece of the San Juan, a multi-story Ancestral Puebloan structure just a short walk from the river.
- San Juan Hill: walk beyond River House to the base of Comb Ridge; for a more strenuous option, follow the audacious mule trail up the ridge for spectacular views of the Four Corners and surrounding country.
- Chinle Wash, a meandering hike through a sand and gravel wash to numerous archaeological sites.
- Mendenhall’s Loop: climb to a prospector’s cabin on a high ridge above the river while the boats float around and meet you on the other side of the loop.
- Honaker Trail: a strenuous climb along a gold miner’s trail to the canyon rim and excellent views.
- Slickhorn Canyon, a wonderland of hidden springs and lush pools.
- Grand Gulch, a classic southern Utah side canyon, with big cottonwood trees and dry waterfalls; a perfect place to explore after dinner or before breakfast.
- Oljeto Wash, a choose-your-own-adventure wander into smooth sandstone walls that go on forever.
Starting and Ending Points
For 3-day, upper San Juan trips, meet in Bluff, Utah (for exact location, contact our office). We’ll transport you and your gear to the boat ramp at Sand Island, just a few miles down the road. Float the river almost due west to the take out in the town of Mexican Hat, Utah. Our vans will be waiting to drive you back to your vehicle in Bluff (approximately 35 minutes).
4-day, lower San Juan trips meet in Blanding, Utah (contact our office for the exact location). Our comfortable passenger vans will carry you and all your gear to the boat ramp in Mexican Hat, Utah, about an hour’s drive to the southwest. From Mexican Hat, we’ll meander gradually northwest to the take out point at Clay Hills. From there, it’s a two hour drive through spectacular high desert scenery back to Blanding.
5-day, full San Juan trips meet in Blanding, Utah, put in at the Sand Island boat ramp, and float all the way to Clay Hills. Our vans will transport you back to Blanding at the end of the trip.
- Upper: 27 river miles
- Lower: 57 river miles
- Full: 84 river miles
- Class I and II, with one Class III on the lower/full trips
- May and June
- The San Juan River’s flows are highly variable, with recorded historical flows ranging from almost nothing during the heat of summer to 70,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) during spring runoff and flash flood season. Completion of the Navajo Dam in the early 1960s significantly impacted the San Juan, greatly reducing the volume of water that travels downstream; Navajo Dam stores water that is then diverted and used to irrigate Navajo farmland. Snowmelt from the Animas River, a major tributary of the San Juan, preserves some of the historical spring flood cycle on the San Juan, but much of the Animas’ water is also claimed by irrigation districts and municipalities. Late July and early August rainstorms can also dump massive amounts of water into the San Juan in the form of flash floods, but these spikes are unpredictable and short-lived.
- Holiday schedules all of its San Juan River trips in May and June, when spring runoff usually makes for good boating. We frequently run the river between 800 and 10,000 CFS. It’s unclear, however, what the future holds for the San Juan River. As water demand rises and the San Juan basin’s climate becomes more arid, the river may continue to see decreased flows.
- Required, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
- The left, or south, side of the river is part of the Navajo Nation, which manages its own permitting system. Fees are based on the activity, number of days, and number of people who seek access to Navajo lands.
First Known Descent of the San Juan River:
E.L. Goodridge, 1882. The first known white explorer of the San Juan, Goodridge noticed oil seeps near Mexican Hat and Slickhorn Gulch and by 1907 had struck a gusher that effectively kicked off the oil boom of the early 1900s.
Norm Nevills’ parents were among the hopefuls who flocked to the new town of Mexican Hat in the search for oil wealth. Instead of oil, however, they found an opportunity for tourism. They built a lodge and trading post, and in 1934, Norm Nevills took his new bride, Doris, on a honeymoon river trip down the San Juan. He would go on to become a pioneer of commercial boating, running commercial trips on the San Juan from Mexican Hat to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado, and gaining fame for guiding Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter (the first women to run the length of the Green and Colorado rivers) from Green River, Wyoming, through the Grand Canyon.
San Juan River Weather
Types of Boats Used
On all of our San Juan River trips, Holiday uses custom-built, 18-foot oar-rigs. These are inflatable rafts set up to carry gear and passengers in comfort and style. These rafts are rowed by a single guide, who uses two oars to steer the raft and move downstream. Passengers are free to lounge and enjoy the view! Holiday does not use motorized rafts on any of our San Juan trips (or any of our other trips, for that matter). We prefer to offer a river trip that lets you experience your surroundings with all of your senses. We think that listening to the birds and the unique language of the river is better than listening to a motor. On most trips, we also bring inflatable kayaks (lovingly called “duckies”). These are one-person, inflatable crafts that give you the opportunity to paddle, explore, and enjoy a little solo time.
Read more about Holiday’s boats here.
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com