Discover the San Juan River canyon from Sand Island to Mexican Hat on this Utah hiking and rafting adventure.
The San Juan River Hiker in southeastern Utah offers a one-of-a-kind active vacation that combines easy paddling with ample hiking and fascinating archaeological sites. A rafting trip through the San Juan’s labyrinth of dramatic red rock walls is an otherworldly experience in its own right, but our hiking-focused trip offers curious travelers the opportunity to slow down and truly explore the open-air museum that’s hidden within the canyon. Here, as you twist and turn your way through one of the most beautiful and surreal landscapes in the West, you’ll discover mind-boggling remnants of ancient civilizations—vivid pictographs and petroglyphs, Ancestral Puebloan dwellings that sit nestled in the cliffs, and Moki Steps that were carved into near-vertical sandstone over 800 years ago. Each day, search for riverside treasures, hike along scenic ridges, and explore hidden grottos. Once at camp, rest your legs in warm riverside pools, go for a swim, feast on guide-prepared meals, and camp under the expansive night sky of the desert.
Although the hikes along the San Juan River are generally easy to moderately challenging, trails can at times be steep, rocky, and narrow with exposed sections. The hiking-focused itinerary is therefore not recommended for people who have a fear of heights or children under the age of 12 years.
What to Expect
Itinerary & Map
Itinerary at a Glance
We pride ourselves in running a relaxed and flexible schedule. Every San Juan River Hiker is different depending upon the group, other trips on the water, camp locations, and sometimes the weather. The following is a sample of what your trip might be like:
The Day Before Your Trip
We’ll meet at the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah this evening for a pre-trip orientation. This is an opportunity to meet your fellow travelers and guides, and ask any last-minute questions.
Our day begins with a short 4-mile drive from Bluff to our put-in at Sand Island where your boats and OARS crew await. Before we board the rafts, we may start the day with a short walk to view nearby rock art. Returning to the rafts and after a thorough safety talk, our journey begins.
As we float the San Juan we’ll periodically pull ashore to search for ancient relics. At Butler Wash, we’ll be amazed by petroglyphs engraved across a sheer rock wall. The figures depicted here are considered by some to be “Kachinas,” or gods. We’ll also view “moki steps” that were carved into the cliffs at least 800 years ago as well as granaries nestled in the overhangs and cliff walls hidden near the river banks.
Our first day generally sets the pace for our hiker trip. Typically, we’ll spend a short amount of time on the river concentrating on the vast hiking opportunities along the way.
At lunchtime, we pull over and enjoy a delicious picnic. After feasting, we get back in our boats or head out for another hike. Mid- to late afternoon, we stop and make camp; you grab your bags and set up your tent while we take care of the kitchen and “living room”—camp chairs and the site for tonight’s campfire (if permitted). Before long, you’ll be savoring pleasing hors d’oeuvres and the beverage of your choice. Read, nap, relax or maybe try a game of beach bocce as your guides prepare dinner. After a satisfying meal, the evening is yours to spend however you wish. Maybe music, stories, or jokes will bring us together tonight; maybe the popping of the fire, the whisper of the river, and the clarity of the big, star-filled sky will encourage silent reflection on the amazing wilderness that is, for now, our home.
Days 2 – 5
Each day begins with fresh coffee and tea waiting when you rise. Grab a cup, sit back, and take in the glory of the awakening river. Soon breakfast is served—omelets made to order, blueberry pancakes, sizzling bacon, fresh fruit, toast, and juice are among the treats you will indulge in each morning. Once you’ve eaten your fill, you pack up your things as the guides break down camp, then our new day’s adventure begins.
A short hike through tamarisk and Russian olives brings us to one of the largest and most unique petroglyph rock art panels along this section of the river. The Desecration Panel is the combined work of two cultures, the Ancestral Puebloans and the Navajo. Numerous large human-like figures are carved into this impressive panel. A walk along this sheer sandstone cliff reveals numerous petroglyphs of various shapes, sizes, and designs.
As we continue floating we arrive at River House, one of the largest and best preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings along the San Juan River. We take our time exploring this multi-room structure of living area, food storage, and kivas. Overhead pictographs adorn the overhanging walls and ceiling.
Less than a mile from River House we spot the remains of Barton’s Trading Post. In the late 1880s, several trading posts were established in this area creating trading and bartering with Indians and local cowboys. They also formed a ferry system to transport people across the river.
Rising up behind the trading post is Comb Ridge, which came to be known as San Juan Hill. We make the short hike up the hill for views of Mule Ear Rock and the green cottonwood valley below.
Chinle Wash was a prime area for the Ancestral Puebloan people to live. This winding wash, therefore, has numerous wonderful examples of small to medium-sized cliff dwellings along with granaries nestled in the alcoves above. Closer to ground level, rock art is displayed along the cliff faces and boulders. Depending on the time of year, we may also explore a beautiful fern-fringed grotto.
An interesting geologic feature is the Mule’s Ear Diatreme, which is a long narrow fin-like ridge formed from semi-plastic magma thrust upward from deep inside the earth. We hike the distance of this ridge for nice overlooks. With patience and keen eyes, we may also be able to find garnets or even diamonds in the surrounding landscape.
Continuing downstream we enter the “anticline” where the canyon walls rise up dramatically and the river narrows forming some fun, splashy rapids. Desert bighorn sheep often appear in this stretch of the river. If we are lucky, we might spot a beaver or two foraging for willows.
We expand our exploration of the San Juan with a walk up a gravel drainage in search of the numerous fossils embedded in the exposed rocks.
The vivid red canyon walls begin to shrink as the canyon widens. Within a few more bends we spot the balancing pedestal slab of rock known as Mexican Hat. Once we pass the rock only a couple more miles of floating brings us to our take out. Having enjoyed the camaraderie of past days and the magnificence of the river corridor, we say our goodbyes upon returning to Bluff.
Meeting Time & Place
7 PM, the evening before your trip
2 – 3 PM to Bluff
Dates & Prices
Save $100 on 2024 departures when you’re one of the first to book by March 31 and request “Premier Pricing” over the phone.
|2024 Departures||Adult Price||Youth Price|
• $20 per person BLM Special Area Fee
• Sleep Kit $40 | Tent included
The Need-to-Know Info
Included in Your Trip Cost
Not Included in Your Trip Cost
- Transportation to and from Bluff
- Pre- and post-trip accommodations and meals
- Sleep kit: sleeping bag, pillow & a deluxe 3-inch thick air-filled sleeping pad (available for rent)
- Insurance of any kind, including a travel protection plan
- Alcoholic beverages
The number and variety of boats on an OARS trip will vary based on water levels, the number of participants, and other factors we take into account when planning your adventure. Please be aware that in doing so we will ask you to share boat time with your fellow travelers. We don’t assign boats, nor can we guarantee exactly which crafts we bring, but trust us to provide you with the best possible mix for you and others on your trip.
Learn more about the OARS Fleet and the boats that may be a part of your experience: Oar raft, inflatable kayak, stand-up paddleboard.
After each active day on the river, we pull ashore to camp for the night. Our first task is to unload the boats using a fire-line of crew and guests to expedite the process. Individuals then collect their waterproof bags and locate an area on the beach to camp for the night.
While you put up your tent, the guides will set up the kitchen and central dining/seating area with camp chairs. They will also locate a secluded area away from camp to set up the portable toilet, where privacy is assured.
As guides prepare dinner, hors d’oeuvres are served. This is an opportunity to relax, enjoy a drink if you wish, and reflect on the day with your fellow traveling companions.
In the morning, the first wake-up call lets you know that coffee, hot water for tea or cocoa, juice, fresh fruit, and cold cereal are ready. You can fill your mug and grab a bite, then begin to pack up your personal belongings and sleep gear as the guides prepare breakfast. After breakfast, the entire camp is broken down and packed up. Once the guides have all of the gear loaded back onto the boats, we’ll head downstream to see what new adventures await us.
More info about Meals & Dietary Restrictions can be found on our Trip Resources page.
Average Air & Water Temperatures
|Air (Day) °F||Air (Night) °F||Water °F|
The flow of the San Juan River varies according to snowmelt and reservoir releases from the Navajo Dam. Because the whitewater is generally moderate, higher or lower flows do not considerably change the experience. Peak flows usually occur between mid-May and mid-June, but can vary widely from early May and into July. Water temperatures are coldest during the high water period and rain gear and warm synthetic clothing will be required.
A major tributary of the Colorado River, the San Juan forges a watery path through some of the world’s most splendid wilderness. A calm, congenial river, the San Juan offers a relaxing float trip livened up by fun Class II rapids.
Before booking your trip with OARS, there are a few important considerations we’d like you to know about.
Reservations and Deposits
A $400/person deposit is required at the time of booking. Deposits may be made by check, money order, or Visa/Mastercard (American Express and Discover incur a 3% processing fee). Prices are in US Dollars, and all payments must be made in US Dollars. Payment of the deposit establishes your acceptance of our complete Terms and Conditions. Individual departures and trip capacity are strictly limited by the managing agency.
Canceling your trip after your deposit is processed will incur cancellation fees because OARS has absorbed costs on your behalf and will turn others away who would like to book the spaces we’re holding for you. Final payment is due 60 days before departure. Accounts on which final payment has not been received 50 days before the departure date will be canceled without exception.
Cancellations and Refunds
Your deposit is fully refundable, less a 3% processing fee, for 7 days after you book when you submit a deposit 7 days or more before the final payment due date.
If you must cancel your reservation after the rescission period described above, your cancellation fee will be determined according to the schedule below. We regret we cannot make exceptions to the cancellation policy for any reason, including foul weather, poor air quality, wildfire activity, acts of terrorism, civil unrest, or personal emergencies. There is no refund for arriving late or leaving a trip early. For these reasons, we strongly urge you to consider purchasing a travel protection plan.
|Date of Cancellation||Cancellation Fee|
|180 or more days before your trip||$50/person|
|179 – 90 days before your trip||$100/person|
|89 – 60 days before your trip||$200/person|
|59 days or less before your trip||Full Fare|
Please note that different deposit/cancellation policies may apply for charter groups. Refer to the group organizer’s confirmation email for details.
OARS reserves the right to cancel any trip due to insufficient registration or other factors that make the trip impractical to operate. In such instances, we will inform you at least 45 days before departure. Do not make nonrefundable travel arrangements unless you have spoken to your Adventure Consultant regarding the status of your trip.
If a trip must be canceled or postponed due to force majeure (factors outside the control of OARS), OARS will provide full credit for payments made toward future travel, or a refund less a 5% service fee plus any nonrefundable payments made on your behalf to 3rd-party suppliers. OARS will make good faith efforts to recover deposits made on your behalf to 3rd-party suppliers, however, we can’t guarantee recovery of any or all of the advance payments made. OARS is not responsible for expenses incurred by participants in preparation for a canceled trip.
If you need to move your reservation to a different trip during the same season, or to a credit account for the following year, there is a $25/person fee up until 90 days before departure for a one-time transfer of your payment. Transfer requests made 89 days or less before departure will be treated like a cancellation according to the schedule above.
O.A.R.S. Canyonlands, Inc. operates on the San Juan River as a permitted outfitter of the Bureau of Land Management
Ancestral Lands Acknowledgement
We respect and recognize that many of the river canyons on state and federal lands where we operate are the ancestral homes of indigenous communities. Where we operate on the San Juan River between Sand Island and Mexican Hat, we acknowledge the territories of the Ute, Pueblo, Hopi, and the Navajo Nation.
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