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San Juan River, Utah
Report by Marc W. McCord

Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing
~ 58 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The San Juan River forms in the San Juan Mountains of south central Colorado, on the Mineral-Rio Grande county line, then flows down into Archuleta County to Navajo Reservoir on the New Mexico border down through Farmington, New Mexico, then northwest into Utah near the juntion of borders between Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico (the only point in the United States common to 4 states.) About 120 miles of the river flows through Utah. The San Juan River is, for the most part, a Class I to III whitewater river in a classic pool-and-drop format, flowing across southeastern Utah to Glen Canyon on Lake Powell, and its confluence with the Colorado River just above the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

This section of the San Juan is a 58 mile, multi-day adventure through the "mini Grand Canyon" of southeastern Utah. The run is on Class I to III whitewater punctuating a lot of flatwater pools as the river works its way west through scenic canyons and spectacular vistas. The Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing reach is the most popular San Juan trip in Utah, so expect to see other paddlers along the way. The river needs at least 500 cfs for a good trip with minimal dragging, and flows above 8,000 cfs can be dangerous, especially to less experienced boaters. Trips on this section of the river can be made in canoes, kayaks and rafts whenever there is adequate flow, but permits for river access and reservations for campsites are required by the Utah BLM (435-587-1544), and stiff fines up to $500 can be issued for camping other than at a spot you reserved, so be sure to inquire about details when contacting BLM.


Far southeastern San Juan County near the Four Corners area where the borders of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet (the ONLY point in the U.S. where four state borders come together.) Lake Powell and Glen Canyon are just a few miles to the west. Canyonlands National Park and Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River are just a few miles to the north.

Distance from major cities

Salt Lake City 360 miles; Grand Junction 190 miles; Denver 436 miles; Durango 153 miles; Albuquerque 315 miles; Phoenix 341 miles; Oklahoma City 907 miles; Dallas 1,033 miles; Austin 1,068 miles; San Antonio 976 miles; Houston 1,259 miles; Little Rock 1,246 miles; Kansas City 1,031 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

San Juan waters usually flow clean and clear, but not drinkable without purification. The river has a low flow characteristic, but levels below about 500 cfs are usually too low for good trips, especially in loaded boats on multi-day adventures. Flows exceeding about 8,000 cfs are dangerously high, and should be avoided.

Best time to go

The San Juan river usually flows best from late March through June, depending upon winter snowpack and spring rainfall in the drainage basin. Local precipitation conditions can prompt adequate flows anytime, but paddling in the dead of winter would not be a pleasant experience for most boaters.

Permit requirements

A BLM permit is required to float any section of the San Juan River between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills. From November 1 to the last day of February, the permit is free. From March 1 - October 31, there is a fee for the permit, the cost depending on the number of people in your party and the reach of the river where you are paddling. Call or write to the BLM Monticello Field Office for a permit application at:

Bureau of Land Management
P.O. Box 7
Monticello, UT 84535
(435) 587-1544

Permit applications for the following season are normally available in early December and permits can be obtained through the website. Please visit the BLM website for additional information.

Hazards to navigation

This section of the San Juan River has no hazards of major consequence. Rapids are run-of-the-mill Class I to III boulder gardens with (usually) clearly defined lines and easy scouting without getting out of the boat.

River Access Points

Mexican Hat at the end of E. 3rd Street off US Highway 163 at 0.0 miles; Clay Hills Crossing on Whirlwind Crossing Road at about 58.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the San Juan River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Sand Island Campground, on the San Juan River 3 miles west of Bluff, offers a fee-based campground with 27 campsites, a group site and boat launch (open year-round, no drinking water); Newspaper Rock Campground, on SH 211, approximately 15 miles west of Canyonlands National Park, offers a fee-based campground with 8 campsites (open year-round, no drinking water, no boat launch); Hamburger Rock Campground (name may be changing to Six Shooter campground), north of SH 211, approximately 3 miles west of Canyonlands National Park, offers a fee-based campground with 8 campsites (open year-round, no drinking water, no boat launch). Natural, primitive campsites are available all along the river. Please be sure to leave no trace of your having been there. This is a popular river trip for many novice and beginner boaters in rafts, canoes and inflatable kayaks, so expect company on the river and competition for premiere campsites during peak seasons. The following information is provided by the BLM Monticello Field Office:

You must have a permit to camp on the south side of the river, please see Indian Lands above (on the BLM web site.) Camping on the north (right) side of the river is OK, except at the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel which is closed to camping. Due to camping conflicts on the lower section of the river, trip leaders must register for some sites at the metal box on the downstream side of Mendenhall Loop (3.5 miles below Mexican Hat Bridge; river right). The following sites need to be registered for and campsite occupancy is limited to one night and one launch group at all of the following: Slickhorn A, B, C, D, and E campsites, the campsite at the mouth of Grand Gulch, Trimble Camp (mile 71.7, river left), Oljeto Wash (mile 75.6, river left) and Steer Gulch (mile 77.4, river right) from March 1 through October 31.

The following items are required for all paddlers on the San Juan River in Utah:

  • A washable, reusable toilet system that allows for the carry-out disposal of solid human body waste (It must be adequate for the size of the group and length of trip, and be able to be dumped into an authorized sewer system)
  • A major first aid kit adequate for the group
  • A repair kit with adequate materials to repair the types of boats used on the trip
  • An air pump or pumps
  • A durable metal fire pan at least 12 inches wide with at least a 1.5 inch lip around its outer edge (a fire pan is required even if stoves are to be used for cooking)
  • A proper size life jacket for each member of the party
  • An extra oar or paddle for each raft or dory
  • A bail bucket or bilge pump (does not apply to self bailers or kayaks)
  • A type IV throwable device or throw bag with at least 40 feet of line for each boat 16 feet or longer
  • Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

    There are no known outfitters located on or near this section of the San Juan River. However, numerous outfitters from Utah and other states run trips to this section frequently, and may be able to provide shuttles for a nominal fee. Plan on running your own shuttles if you cannot contract services from a licensed outfitter. Shuttles from Sand Island to Mexican Hat take about one hour. Shuttles from Sand Island to Clay Hills take 4-5 hours. Plan accordingly if running your own shuttles.

    Reviewer's comments

    The San Juan reach between Mexican Hat and Clay Hills Crossing is one of the nation's most popular river trips because of its enormously beautiful scenery, easy paddling, minor rapids (mostly Class I to II, with a few Class III's thrown in for good measure) and easy access, though there are none available between the put-in and take-out. The 58-mile run can be made in as little as 2 days by marathon paddlers, water levels permitting, though most boaters will take 3-5 days to complete this run, often taking time off the river to explore the natural wonders to be found all around the river. This run is in the northernmost part of the Navajo Nation Reservation of northern Arizona and southern Utah. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and the Colorado River are just a few miles to the west of the take-out. There are no significant cities or towns near this reach, so paddlers are advised to bring with them everything they will need for their trips, and drybags to contain items you do not want getting wet are an absolute necessity when running the Class II to III rapids, especially if you have only limited whitewater experience in the craft you are paddling. Runs can be made in canoes, kayaks and rafts. Paddlers in canoes and kayaks should have at least intermediate level whitewater experience to manage the Class III's that will be encountered. Even with the crowds, this is one of the most fun trips available in the United States because of the topography, historical nature of the area and the quality of the river.

    Technical Data
    Class Rating I to III
    Length 58.0 miles
    Minimum Flow 500 CFS
    Optimum Flow 1,000-2,500 cfs
    Maximum Flow 8,000 CFS
    First Put-in Mexican Hat
    Lat. / Long. N 37° 08' 49.40" / W 109° 51' 12.89"
    Last Take-out Clay Hills Crossing
    Lat. / Long. N 37° 17' 35.61" / W 110° 23' 57.28"
    Elevation MSL
    Gradient FPM
    USGS Gauge Web: Bluff/TD>
    Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
    Permits Yes, Utah BLM (435-587-1544)

    Utah Whitewater Club - Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting

    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 ] [ Sand Island to Mexican Hat ]

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