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Utah's San Juan

Each spring, daring travelers come to the dry desert of the Southwest for . . . the water. They come to raft down rivers like the San Juan in southeastern Utah, wild rivers that tumble out of snow-topped mountains and spill through forlorn valleys, contorted canyons, and millions and millions of years of geology.

San Juan River in southern Utah, image
Photo caption
The San Juan River snakes around southern Utah and joins the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

This love affair is becoming obsessive. All I want to do is run rivers. More exactly, all I want to do is run rivers in the wide-open West. I want to be floating on that thick, brown, silty water that pours, cuts, oozes between high sandstone walls, past dusty washes, along empty meadows where maybe a cow grazes or a horse bends to drink. The Green, the Yampa, the Gunnison, the Salt, the Dolores, the San Juan.

Aaah, the San Juan. My latest interlude.

At the bottom of southern Utah, above the Navajo Nation, runs the San Juan. To get there I drove a diagonal southeast across Utah from Salt Lake City, heading for a blip-on-the-highway town called Green River. There I met up with four guides and a gaggle of other clients at Holiday Expeditions, and we loaded up a van with three rubber rafts (which would carry 2,000 pounds each) and four inflatable kayaks and headed south for Bluff, Utah.

The Wild West lives in this tough country. The red desert floor often gives way to deep-gashed chasms such as those in Canyonlands National Park; tall mountains, like the Abajos in La Sal National Forest; and grand empty spaces like Monument Valley. There are plenty of places to lose yourself, intentionally or not, and people have been doing so for years. Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang disappeared in this area time and again—his infamous Robber’s Roost is near Four Corners. And the week before we arrived, two fugitives, fresh from a killing spree, were spotted in Bluff and then vanished.

Bluff is also known for its perch above the San Juan. People like me, in search of some adventure and some serenity, come to run the immense, silty desert river south and west between ever-deepening canyon walls for 84 miles until the river drowns in Lake Powell. And although mellow, with just a few vigorous rapids, the waters that gush out of the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado drop farther in elevation, and therefore run faster, than even the notorious waters of the Colorado, which carve the Grand Canyon.

We weren’t 6 miles downriver on our first day when the guides maneuvered the rafts to shore and we set out to see a wide wall packed with petroglyphs of large, square-shouldered figures. About a mile farther, River House Ruins, an ancient cliff dwelling, has remained hidden and well-protected by the river canyons for hundreds of years. By landfall our first night, we had passed an ancient granary and more cliff dwellings. We had crossed the Comb Ridge monocline and slid by layered sandstone and varicolored shale. We’d walked across dusty tamarisk-filled fields where brown male lizards stood on warm rocks, doing push-ups to impress nearby female lizards. This is a land full of synclines and anticlines—the ground has pushed and groaned and warped its way into massive red and orange and tan swells. Throughout the trip I had to remind myself to expand my gaze across the landscape to take in the immense formations we were floating past.

"Sometimes I feel sorry for the river. It works every second of the ages carving away at the rocks and digging its canyons. It carries a million tons of silt a day. And again, I feel sorry for the mountains with the river gnawing at their inside, but I guess my sympathy doesn’t seem very important to either of them."

—Buzz Holmstrom, legendary Southwest river man

Because its water is relatively smooth, the San Juan is made for families. On this trip there were three. In all we had four kids under 10, three teenagers, 11 adults, and the guides: Gaby, T.J., Leslie, and Mike.

At 6 a.m. on our second day on the river a loud cry of "COFFFEEE!" echoed over the campsites. The guides do all the cooking on these trips, so breakfast was ready by the time I packed up my tent. Soon we were back on the river, bumping over sand waves and down lively rapids. On long stretches of smooth water, we told riddles for 6-year-olds Haley and Raven. In the early afternoon I hopped into an inflatable kayak and paddled over to find out what was going on in the other rafts. T.J. was telling stories of old-time river runners. Leslie was pulling hard at the oars and talking about her river days in the Grand Canyon. That evening we hiked to the top of a cliff above the river. The sun was dropping fast behind the canyon walls, and T.J. read essays and poetry written by legendary river runners while we sat in an unexcavated Indian kiva trying not to disturb the remaining shards of pottery.

The south bank of the San Juan marks the border of the Navajo Reservation. The river figures prominently in Navajo, or Diné, mythology: River gods protect the Indians from marauders. Traditional Navajo will sprinkle corn pollen in the river as an offering to ensure safe passage into alien lands. Halfway through our second day on the river, an immense, prehistoric-looking great blue heron sailed off his high-cliff perch and escorted us down the river, flying ahead of us for awhile, then stopping until we caught up. For the rest of the trip, a great blue could be seen above, either soaring over us or high on a ridge.

At about the 30th mile downriver, after passing by the town of Mexican Hat and the rock formation that gives it its name, we floated into Utah’s Goosenecks State Park. In this section of the canyon the water has pushed and gnawed dramatic bends in the aged layers of limestone—so tight are these bends that the river takes 6 miles to cover a distance of 1.5 miles as the crow flies.

Each day, during three full days on the river, we traded seats in the rafts and the kayaks and stopped for lunch where we could rest and hike and get our feet wet. At night we made camp at a sandy spot next to the water and went to bed not long after dark filled the canyons. Our longest hike was to be about 2 miles up the Honaker Trail to an overlook of Monument Valley, but when we got to the riverside trailhead too many boats were tied up. Instead, we stopped at a place called Slickhorn Gulch, where we swam in natural pools high up the side canyon.

The shale of the San Juan is full of oil—geologists from the oil companies have scouted these areas for years, but have yet to do any major drilling along the river. At lunch one day we found an area where the silt had mixed with seeping oil and formed a kind of benign quicksand. The kids quickly figured out that they could bounce on the quicksand and it would quiver like Jell-O until they sank down to their knees. Pretty soon, kids and adults alike were hopping around on the silty mixture, all pitches of laughter echoing off the stone walls.

After lunch on the last full day of the trip, we headed for Government Rapid. Although only a relatively harmless Class III, Government was the biggest rapid of this trip. The idea of nosing into the swirling vortex in what amounted to a thick, banana-shaped beach ball was summoning the butterflies in my stomach, so I tried to lie low when kayaks were being parceled out. But Deb, a mom from Colorado, announced that she’d take the double kayak if I went with her. Then Leslie said, "We need a show of women-power," and that was that. With the guides, we scouted the rapid from the shore, pointing out which holes and rocks to avoid. Then we were back in our boat, waves twisting around us, noisy as they pushed and pulled the kayak. Deb’s two young sons, proud but nervous, cheered their mom on. She and I yelled commands at each other: "Paddle hard right! Now fast left!" And we popped out of the last curve of white foam onto flat waters, whooping and smiling.

Later that day, I was floating in a one-person kayak, staring at the sandstone walls and letting my feet drag in the cold water, when Gaby yelled to me, "How are ya?" Without a pause I yelled back, "I don’t think it’s possible to be any better."

The last stretch of runnable water on the San Juan is slow and full of ever-shifting sandbars. Through some stretches the water is so low that the guides had to stand up on their seats and study the ripples and waves of the water to maneuver the boats. The Glen Canyon Dam that created Lake Powell has backed the river up to a slow shuffle here, so a bunch of us pulled our life jackets snug and jumped into the chilly water to float freestyle. As we neared the take-out point, we climbed back into the rafts and everyone grew quiet. Then a great blue heron dropped off his perch, wheeled in the air above us, and disappeared downriver. At one time he would have flown into Glen Canyon and maybe a narrow side canyon, or over a billowing rapid. Now those lie somewhere below the surface of Lake Powell.

Too soon we were at Clay Hills Crossing, and the vans were waiting. We piled in, off to the airport to catch planes back to Green River. There was nothing in sight down the red dirt road but the tough desert. I was straining to see an airport building or a runway when we nosed off the road between the tumbleweeds. Then two tiny Cessnas landed on the dirt road we had just been driving down. The pilots got out, turned the planes around by hand, and motioned to us. We piled in, and pretty soon were lifting into the sky, waving back at the guides in the shrinking van below.

The pilot motioned to the right of the plane, and there were the high red towers of Monument Valley just beyond the river. But I found, as we headed back to Green River, that I wasn’t searching the landscape beneath us for wider views of Monument Valley or Canyonlands National Park. Instead, my eyes raced to find those ribbons of river that mean life out here—and love for some of us.

Photography courtesy of MostlyDeserts/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in March 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.