A Rafting Trip for the Ages: The San Juan River

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Few other river trips offer such a robust collection of everything that makes a river trip excellent—namely, world-class rapids, amazing vistas, and unique places to explore.

Head out on the San Juan River’s 26-mile stretch from from Sand Island near Bluff to Mexican Hat for such watery bliss. You can hire a guide service, like Wild Rivers Expeditions, or get a permit and head out on your own. Either way, make sure you see all of the wonderful sites along the way. The river can be run as a single day or multi-day trip.

The one-day rafting trip offers a high concentration of Class II rapids and boasts one of the finest collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest. There is also an immaculate ruin that you can actually walk around, plenty of beaches along the way to stop and relax, and, best of all, whitewater.

What Makes it Great

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After launching at Sand Island, you’ll first travel through the open desert of Southern Utah. You’ll be able to see moki steps (ancient ladder-like steps carved into the sandstone cliffs for Native American travel) and a few scattered petroglyphs. Following this, you come to Butler Wash. A short hike takes you to one of the biggest and most pristine collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest; there are symbols and renderings spanning centuries.

After poking around at the petroglyphs (but don’t actually poke or touch them), you’ll board your boat and venture farther down river to the pullout for Riverhouse. This unique ruin is noted for being one of the largest ruins on the river. Riverhouse, built into the underhang of a massive sandstone cliff,  has 14 rooms, including circular rooms for dwelling and a kiva.

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Once you’ve finished checking out the Riverhouse, the boat will continue along the river, and your guide will point out several more historical sites, including places where trading posts once stood and where people came to pan for riches during a gold rush a century ago. You also pass through the impressive geological formation, Comb Ridge, before entering the steep canyon.

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After all, this is a whitewater trip, so you finally hit the three Class II rapids. They are short, yet still fun, especially when the cool water splashes up at you and passengers in the raft squeal with delight. These include Four-Foot Rapid, Eight-Foot Rapid, and Ledge Rapid. It’s a grand ole time. After the rapids, you will continue along the San Juan River passing the famed Mexican Hat before the pullout to end the excellent day on the river.

What You’ll Remember

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The excitement of whitewater; cruising the mellow meanders of the San Juan River; seeing the pristine ruins of ancient Native Americans; gorging yourself on a buffet lunch while beached on a sandy perch; the tall cliffs closing in on you while you raft; the historical tales told by your guide.

Who is Going to Love It

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River rats; waterholics; families looking for a splurge (and a splash); Puebloan ruin hunters.

GPS Coordinates, Parking and Regulations

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GPS Coordinates:
(37.287736, -109.541792)

Wild Rivers Expeditions are guides for this specific trip. To book a river run with them, visit www.riversandruins.com. There are also other outfitters and guide services in the area. For the one-day San Juan River run, park at Wild Rivers Expeditions’ parking lot. You will be shuttled in a van with your boat to the put-in at Sand Hills Crossing, near Bluff. When you exit the river at Mexican Hat, the shuttle will be waiting to take you back to your car.

Prices for a guided trip vary, and this trip included the permit. You can also run the river with your own gear, but a permit is needed.

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You can run the river year-round—it really just depends on your preference. That said, most guide services only offer trips from March to October.

During the winter, there are less crowds and the water is much clearer than the normal cappuccino color. The spring and fall are pleasant temperature wise; in the spring, the water generally runs bigger and colder due to melt off from the San Juan Mountains. Summers can be a scorcher, but luckily you can take a dip in the water as you please.

Difficulty: 2 (due to the length of time spent on the river and the Class II rapids)

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