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San Juan River, New Mexico
Report by Marc W. McCord

Navajo Dam to Four Corners
~ 98 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The San Juan River forms along the Continental Divide on the Mineral-Rio Grande County Line in the San Juan Mountains of southcentral Colorado, then flows southwest through Pagosa Springs to Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado-New Mexico border. Below the lake, the river flows about 98 miles across far northwestern New Mexico on Class I to II water through Blanco, Bloomfield, Farmington and Shiprock into the Four Corners area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico touch (the ONLY point in the United States that is common to four states.) In Utah, the river flows through Sand Island, Mexican Hat and Clay Hills Crossing to its confluence with the Colorado River at Glen Canyon on Lake Powell. The San Juan is a perpetual flow stream that is boatable year-round. The first 17 miles below Navajo Dam to the Town of Blanco, flowing through Navajo Lake State Park, is boatable by almost anybody regardless of experience in canoes, kayaks and rafts. Beavers, ducks, geese and many other species of wildlife and waterfowl are very common sightings.

Between Blanco and Shiprock lies a 50-mile reach of pastoral land where two diversion dams that should be portaged are located. This reach is not popular with raft paddlers because of the awkward portages, but is a great trip for canoes and kayaks. Food and supplies can be acquired along the way in Blanco, Bloomfield, Farmington and Shiprock, so boat loading can be minimized and fresh food can be had when needed. "Civilized" accommodations (motels) are available for those who prefer not to tent camp along the way.

The final 31 miles to Four Corners is a leisurely paddle trip through gorgeous red and brown sandstone canyons and bluffs and the badlands area of far northwestern New Mexico. This reach can be run in canoes, kayaks and rafts, with the possibility of continuing trips into Utah, if so desired. Be aware that a BLM permit is required for trips from Sand Island to Clay Hills Crossing in Utah.

Location

San Juan County in far northwestern New Mexico near the Four Corners area of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Farmington is in the middle of the run, where the Animas River flows down from Colorado into the San Juan River.

Distance from major cities

Santa Fe 215 miles; Albuquerque 195 miles; Las Cruces 406 miles; Durango 73 miles; Grand Junction 243 miles; Denver 412 miles; Phoenix 653 miles; Oklahoma City 737 miles; Dallas 863 miles; Austin 898 miles; San Antonio 925 miles; Houston 1,048 miles; Little Rock 1,076 miles; Kansas City 972 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is usually excellent from Navajo Dam to Farmington, and good to very good between Farmington and Four Corners, depending upon time of year and the amount of water being released from Navajo Reservoir.

Best time to go

The San Juan is a perpetual stream that can usually be paddled anytime, weather permitting. Winters will be cold and summers will be hot, so paddlers should prepare accordingly. Weather changes can occur almost without warning, so be prepared for cold, hot, wet and dry conditions when paddling the San Juan River anytime of the year.

Hazards to navigation

The San Juan River in New Mexico is virtually free of natural hazards to navigation, and can be paddled by almost any able-bodied person in canoes, kayaks and rafts, though raft paddlers will find the going rough between Blanco and Shiprock where a couple of diversion dams will require difficult portages. Other diversion dams can be run by competent paddlers after scouting, depending upon flow conditions. Numerous diversion dams and fences, some without warning signs of any kind, can be found along this river. The fences can be especially dangerous in higher water flow conditions, so be vigilant - portages may be necessary. The remoteness of the area below Shiprock should be considered as a potential hazard because of the lack of access and difficulty in summoning and receiving outside assistance in the canyons and badlands area of far northwestern New Mexico.

River Access Points

Navajo Dam (south side) off SH 539 at 0.0 miles; US Highway 64 at Turley at about 14.0 miles; US Highway 64 at Blanco at about 17.0 miles; SH 44 at Bloomfield at about 26.0 miles; SH 371 at Farmington at about 39.0 miles; US Highway 64 at Kirtland at about 47.0 miles; US Highway 64 at Fruitland at about 49.0 miles; US Highway 64 at Waterflow at about 52.0 miles; US Highway 666 at Shiprock at about 67.0 miles; US Highway 160 at Four Corners at about 98.0 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Other than immediately below Navajo Dam, there are no campgrounds located along this 98-mile reach of the San Juan River. Abundant natural campsites can be found all along the river, and paddlers should exercise all due caution to protect the natural environment - leave no trace, other than footprints, of your having been there. If you pack it in, then pack it out, and maybe pick up something left by some careless person who does not respect the beauty of this great river.

Navajo Lake State Park has three campgrounds in the very near vicinity to the start of this reach at the dam. San Juan River Campground is immediately adjacent to the river just below the dam. Sims Mesa is just south of the river and the dam off SH 539. Pine Campground is on the north side of the lake above the dam. All three state park sites offer campsites with and without electricity, drinking water, showers, restrooms, a sanitary dump station, day use area with picnic tables, a launch ramp (small fee may apply) and fishing. Motels are available in numerous towns along the river (see access points for general locations.)

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are many commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles, guided trips and/or river information for the San Juan River.

Reviewer's comments

This is one of my favorite river trips, even without any major whitewater! The area is very scenic, and though it starts in a populated zone of small towns they do not defile the natural beauty of the river. There are many places to get food and supplies so that you do not have to paddle a heavy boat, and I can keep plenty of ice aboard to keep my Dr Pepper cold. Motel accommodations are plentiful for those wanting air conditioned or heated rooms (depending upon season.) This reach can be easily divided into several trips of shorter distances for those who do not have the time or the inclination to paddle 98 miles. The last third of the trip carries you through gorgeous sandstone canyons and the New Mexico Badlands, in an area that is very primitive and unsettled. Best of all, trips do not have to end at Four Corners for those wanting to continue paddling into Utah, though I do recommend stopping at Clay Hills Crossing rather than fighting the wind and lake currents on Lake Powell below there. Trips on the San Juan in New Mexico can be taken at almost anytime of the year, so paddlers are not limited to fitting a boatable season into a tight schedule of time they are free to travel to this excellent river. And, if all that is not enough, Durango, Colorado is nearby, with trips available on the Piedra, Animas and Dolores Rivers. This area is a mecca for great paddling, and I am going to ask the Texas Legislature to see about annexing it because we have nothing comparable in the Lone Star State. BRING YOUR CAMERA!

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 98 miles
Minimum Flow 200 cfs
Optimum Flow 500 - 1,500 cfs
Maximum Flow 2,000 cfs
First Put-in Navajo Dam
Lat. / Long. 36.8064995 / -107.6138
Last Take-out Four Corners
Lat. / Long. 37.0014 / -109.0318985
Elevation msl
Gradient 10 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Farmington
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits No


Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico - For the Love of Rivers

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the San Juan River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.
[ San Juan River Homepage ] [ Animas River ]

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