A Guide Shares His Favorite Hikes on the San Juan in Utah
“The Juan,” as river guides call it, inexplicably flows across a geologically twisted land that is laced with haunts both mysterious and iconic; Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, Comb Ridge. The river can serve as a perfect avenue of access to these places, but it can also restrict boaters beneath sheer relentless cliffs. Knowing where to hike will make the most of a San Juan River rafting trip in Utah.
1) San Juan Hill
Comb Ridge is a dramatic fin of sandstone that projects out of the earth like the spine of a swordfish, running uninterrupted for miles through the heart of plateau country. Most places, the vertical west face of this escarpment deters any ascent. At mile seven of the San Juan River, however, one can stroll up an historic Mormon wagon route straight to the crest of the ridge, where crazy colorful landscapes unfold to the horizon.
2) Raplee Anticline
Ten miles below the Sand Island put-in, the river leaves its open desert environs and abruptly enters a limestone canyon where gray walls soar from water’s edge. At mile 20, this canyon ends as quickly as it began when the limestone dives steeply back into the earth. This geologic ramp is called the Raplee Anticline. Not only is it one of the most striking features of the region, the tilted smooth rocks of the anticline allow for hikers to achieve steady smooth elevation gain, offering striking views of Monument Valley, and Valley of the Gods.
3) Mendenhall Cabin
The most renowned feature of the San Juan River is its goosenecks, where the radically winding river that once circled across a floodplain now courses within a deep canyon, still maintaining its ancient horseshoe bends. The walls are too high to hike a shortcut between loops, except for one place—Mendenhall Cabin. Pull over at mile 30 to follow a gentle ledge to the cabin site, and then make a short descent back to the river where you’ll emerge one and a half river miles later.
4) Honaker Trail
Thanks to Mr. Honaker, the industrious miner, this is one of the few places where one can hike a trail out of the lower river canyon. At mile 45, the trail cuts gradual contouring switchbacks atop cliffs of limestone to a flat rocky perch two-thirds of the way to the top. This is a good turnaround point unless the rim is too much of an emotional pull. It should be, because the views from a small knoll near the top extend from the Colorado Rockies to the Navajo Nation’s Black Mesa.
5) Grand Gulch
Ancient ruins, sandstone amphitheaters, cottonwood trees, a clear trickling stream—this is Grand Gulch. Many dedicated backpackers put the upper reaches of Grand Gulch on their bucket list. The lower end, where river runners roam at mile seventy, holds several of the most spectacular sights.
Of course, the San Juan isn’t the only river out West with incredible hiking. Here are a few more of our favorite river hikes that are worth the trip.