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Piedra River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord

Above US Highway 160
~ 19.2 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Piedra River forms high in the San Juan Mountains of Hinsdale Cunty, then flows about 40 miles south into Archuleta County to the confluence with the San Juan River at Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado-New Mexico borber. This mountain valley river is very rocky, flowing through the beautiful San Juan National Forest with great Class IV to V rapids often located in canyons between high granite walls. The Piedra is close to Durango and lies between the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Its limestone riverbed has been known to take a toll on rafts and cheap river shoes or boots.

Sections of the Piedra River are not practical for paddling because of lack of access, but where it is runnable it can be enjoyed by canoeists, kayakers and rafters with intermediate or higher level whitewater skills, though expert skills may be more practical for rafts due to the tight, technical nature of some hazards. At least a half dozen campgrounds along, or very near to, the river offer excellent places for base camps or overnight camps on multi-day trips. The Piedra River is another photographer's paradise in Colorado, but cameras should be waterproof or carried in water-tight cases lashed to the boat. Be sure to bring plenty of film or digital media.

Location

A tributary of the San Juan River in Hinsdale and Archuleta Counties of southwestern Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains above Durango. Nearby streams include the Anima, San Juan, Dolores, Rio Grande, Rio Chama and Gunnison Rivers.

Distance from major cities

Durango 78 miles; Grand Junction 248 miles; Denver 289 miles; Santa Fe 270 miles; Albuquerque 270 miles; Phoenix 532 miles; Oklahoma City 730 miles; Tulsa 835 miles; Dallas 838 miles; Austin 924 miles; San Antonio 1,004 miles; Houston 1,124 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Piedra's water flows clean, clear and cold, but is not drinkable without purification. The flow is generally rated Class IV with some Class V rapids at any navigable level. The river starts nearly a mile and a half above sea level at an elevation of 7,620 feet msl and drops over 1,000 feet in less than 20 miles at a rate of 54 fpm, making it a fairly swift-moving stream. The cold water and high elevation make it necessary to wear drysuits or wetsuits with base layers, or water-repelling garments that are layered to prevent hypothermia. Neoprene glove and and hard-soled river boots are also strongly recommended.

Best time to go

Generally, the optimum season is a short two months in May and June, with the possibility of some July days, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snowpack and/or recent local rains. The creek will run very low in dry winter years.

Hazards to navigation

The Second Box (the first canyon encountered paddling downriver) is rated Class III to IV. Lone Pine Rapid begins with a sharp right turn with a difficult scout and a big log jam right in front of the turn on the left side. Negotiate the line at the top, then run down the center, moving left to avoid the canyon wall on river right. About a mile below Lone Pine is Limestone Rapid, a drop that spans the river. Limestone should be scouted before running. Line up on river left, then work toward the center. Paddle straight and hard, moving right to avoid the left wall of the canyon. About a mile below Limestone is Hunter's Campground on river left, just above the First Box (the second canyon) with a Class III to V rating. Below the first bridge the river becomes technical and very pushy in Class III water. The first significant drop is named "Insignificant" (or "Number One"), and it drops into a small pool with the the vertical walls of the Piedra River Canyon rising on both sides. This marks the start of several Class IV to V drops. "Initiation (or "Number Two") is a steep drop strewn with huge boulders and big holes below the horizon, making them difficult or impossible to detect before the start of the drop. Run Initiation from left to right and be alert for a pourover at the bottom left. A short pool signals the approach to First Box Falls (or "Number Three") with a fast-moving current through all of the three approaches. Scout this one from the bank on river left. Most paddlers take the far left line then work to the right. Things tend to ease up between First Box Falls and Mudslide, but be vigilant for boulders and trees that can and will pin a boat and paddler who gets too relaxed amd let's down his or her guard.

The Piedra River Canyon starts to open and widen when approaching Mudslide, depicted by a rather large and foreboding hillside earthslide on river right. Scout Mudslide from river right. Rafts should run Mudslide on river left. Canoes and Kayaks can run any of several lines. Mudslide also offers an easy portage on river right. Coming out of Mudslide, get ready for a long stretch of Class IV water. Eye of the Needle (Mudslide # 2) starts with a dead water pool at the top. A huge boulder creates left and right channels into a big double drop with a strong hydraulic current. Paddle left to right. Canoes and kayaks will have to brace hard on the left side to run this drop successfully. Almost immediately below Eye of the Needle is Lucifer's, a Class IV+ drop where a rock island divides the current. There are three pourovers along the right wall that MUST be avoided. Run Lucifer on the right side, but close to the island. Do NOT run against the right wall! Departing Lucifer's, the Piedra River Canyon opens up into several miles of almost continuous Class III to III+ whitewater that requires a lot of stamina.

River Access Points

Put in at the campground near the bridge on Piedra Road (FR 631) 16 miles from the Fina service station at the top of the hill west of Fairfield and Pagosa Springs. Take out on FR 622 one mile after crossing the river on US Highway 160 about 40 miles west of Durango.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Campsites are available at the Lower Piedra Campground located near US Highway 160 and the river. There are Piedra River campsites located above the run, but they are difficult to access, and may not be reachable from the roads that lead to the river. Other campgrounds may be available in and near the Animas and San Juan Rivers area.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

Numerous commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the Piedra River.

Reviewer's comments

The Piedra River is a beautiful stream that is more difficult to access than it is to run. This one gives new meaning to the type of directions you get when asking a rural area inhabitant for directions (go down to ole John's mailbox, then hang a left fer 'bout ten-fifteen miles to the holler by the lightnin'-struck oak tree...) If you are running other rivers in the area of the Animas and San Juan Rivers and are lucky enough to catch the Piedra in May or June when it is flowing, then you will be rewarded with a true wilderness run that is awesome in its beauty and challenging without being life-threatening as long as you run it properly. There are some great places higher up than you can get in your vehicle that would make excellent runs if only they were accessible. The tall granite canyon walls are majestic as they tower above the river below. This is a place to get back to nature and appreciate the work that time has done carving a beautiful canyon among the trees and rocks in the mountains of the San Juan National Forest. Bring your camera, because you are going to need it here!

Technical Data
Class Rating III to V
Length 19.2 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Piedra Road (FR 631)
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out FR 622
Lat. / Long.
Elevation 7,620-6,583 feet msl
Gradient 54 fpm
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Canoes w/ flotation, Kakyas, Rafts
Season May through June
Permits No


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