Self-Supported Southwest, Pt. 3: San Juan River
All Photos: Michael Tavares and Bradley Hilton
Starting high in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, the San Juan gains volume and mass as it rambles through the Four Corners region of the US before its abrupt impoundment in Lake Powell, created by the plug of Glen Canyon Dam. The river provides drinking and irrigation water to feed the ever-growing appetite of the Western states and its people. And river running from Bluff to Clay Hills is one of the most spectacular mixtures of easy-to-medium whitewater with jaw-dropping landscapes around every bend.
Launching from the BLM Ranger station in Bluff, Utah, our trip would take us roughly 86 miles down the San Juan to Clay Hills and about another 15 miles of unknown riverbed into a remote arm of Lake Powell. Once we paddled away from the put in, our questions, concerns, and thoughts of daily life would slip away. All that would matter was paddling, eating, enjoying the trip, and making it to our cars 260 miles away. The beauty of self-support trips is their simplicity.
We awoke in the dark to unpack all of our gear on the BLM boat ramp in Bluff and met Linda, a Veteran BLM river ranger for check in. Linda was one of the most knowledgeable, pleasant and fun river rangers I have ever met. We spent a while chatting, checking goods and talking board designs. She was intrigued and delighted that we were choosing a different style of trip (SUP) and filled our heads with knowledge and intrigue about what lay ahead.
We slipped away from the boat ramp fully loaded, waving and smiling at a number of people wondering why in the world we were paddling 260 miles on boards. We spent the day picking our way down 20-30 rapids ranging from easy riffles to class II-III rapids, paddling past ancient petroglyphs, early settlement ruins and the town of Mexican Hat, known for its iconic hat rock that stands alone in the red rock landscape.
While the whitewater was easy to manage, visual placement of rocks was a different story in the sediment-laden water. There was almost zero visibility below the surface and at flows of around 500 CFS, we had to be extremely careful and confident in our river reading skills in order to not touch any rocks. After one minor rock impact above Mexican we pulled over for a little emergency repair. We eventually made camp in Iconic Goosenecks State Park section of the San Juan. Aerial views of the goosenecks are mind blowing, but being in the heart of the gorge with no one in sight, 31.5 miles from where we started was even more amazing!
Day 2 was filled with mind-blowing views, countless rapids and moving farther from civilization. We portaged three rapids (Ross, Twin Ledge, and Gov Camp) and waded down another few in knee-deep junk. The lines were easy, but rocks and shallow ledges that other crafts could easily scrape down was not an option for our lightly glassed boards. We camped at mile 64 adjacent to Government Rapid (one of the largest rapids on the section).
We spent what seemed like hours filtering water out of the sediment-filled river and then slithered into the lower and less travelled section of the San Juan. A ranger and his biologist friend checked our permits on the way to checking bat populations; they were the last sign of human life we’d see for almost two days.
Government Rapid down to Clay Hills is one of the most beautiful sections of river I have ever seen, with deep colored rocks and geology changing at every corner as the valley began to open up. The most noticeable change was the characters of the river as it slowed down its pace and signs of the old Lake Powell high water marks began to show their faces. The lake once reached the Clay Hills area but it eventually began dumping its massive sediment load around Slickhorn Rapid, changing the river’s gradient. This sediment once flowed freely into the Colorado River and has now been impounded by Lake Powell, making what was once a rocky riverbed filled with rapids a man-made delta slowly snaking into the reservoir.
A sign at the Clay Hills boat ramp stated that downstream travel was somewhat prohibited due to a massive waterfall. There was hardly any information on this online while we were researching the trip. Due to sediment rearranging the riverbed, the San Juan was forced out of its original channel and over a series of ledges that have worn away into a very large cascading waterfall 20-30 feet in height. The waterfall may be shrouded in mystery because it’s point of contention between government agencies as it now blocks all migratory fish passage upstream. It tells a very interesting story of how the lake has changed the landscape forever.
An obvious portage or us, we marveled in the strikingly out-of-place waterfall and wished we had some kayaks to run it. After lugging all of our gear and boards around the waterfall, we moved downstream farther into no-man’s land. The landscape changed as the San Juan attempted to reclaim what was once a thriving riverbed. We found an exposed sand bar and let the mosquitos carry us into the night, only waking to the hissing sounds of angry beavers, upset that we were in their mucky oasis.
We followed the river as it cut back into the receding mud flats of Lake Powell. The last three miles before the lake level were some of the worst mud flats I have ever seen. The rangers had warned us that this was seriously thick mud and it would potentially be over your head if you fell in the wrong spots. Luckily, we escaped high and dry with only sore muscles as we pushed through the muck. We reached the edge of Lake Powell around lunch and were met with nothing but flat water and a strikingly different landscape.
We took a quick break, switched fins, changed mentalities and paddled flat water, ending 12 miles shy of the confluence with the Colorado River about 120 miles into the journey.
Next Up – Lake Powell: The New Wild West