The San Juan River.

San Juan River

People looking up close at the archeological site near the San Juan river.

Hike and Raft in One of the Southwest’s Most Stunning Canyons

Flowing south from the foot of the Rockies’ San Juan range, the San Juan River ties together the Southwest’s Four Corners. The meandering course cuts through stunning gooseneck bends and along the edge of Bears Ears National Monument before joining with the Colorado near Lake Powell.

Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites and petroglyphs dot the canyon walls along the lower sections of the river. Though named by early Spanish explorers, the Navajo and Ute tribes have lived along the river for hundreds of years and continue to do so today, drawing on the river for irrigation and domestic supply. The San Juan River’s southern edge marks the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation.

Like many rivers in the region, the San Juan has not escaped development. Mining, agriculture, and hydroelectricity have taken a toll on the Colorado River tributary. Still, a movement to protect endemic species, like the San Juan cutthroat trout and Colorado pikeminnow, is building and has made progress in restoring fish passage and habitat.

Over the wandering raftable sections of the San Juan, the river offers a surreal desert beauty and a quiet wilderness experience with mellow rapids ideal for families and first-timers. Side canyons make for perfect hikes. Wide river banks make space for comfortable camping, and the dark skies are ideal for stargazing. Those looking for a Utah rafting trip through some of the Southwest’s most spectacular red rock scenery will find it here.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Where does OARS run trips on the San Juan River?

OARS operates on the San Juan River from Sand Island to Clay Hills Crossing and from Sand Island to Mexican Hat. The meeting place for both trips is Bluff, Utah. Our 5-day trips run from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing. The meeting location for these trips is Mexican Hat, Utah. The 6-day San Juan Hiker meets in Bluff and runs from Sand Island to Mexican Hat and provides optimal time for hiking and exploring.

What San Juan River Trip is right for me?

OARS offers San Juan river trips with 4-, 5- and 6-day itineraries. All of the trips are excellent for families and those looking for a relaxing and fun float with a few thrilling moments of whitewater.

For those who only have a few days, the 3- or 4-day upper canyon itinerary is a fantastic way to get a taste of one of the Southwest’s most beautiful river canyons, the most prominent archeological sites, like River House, as well as a few nights under the stars.

The 5-day lower San Juan trip enters near the Mendenhall Loop, the beginning of the famous Goosenecks of the San Juan. Winding back and forth, you’ll float past works of water and rock like the Tabernacle and the Second Narrows. Further down the river, rapids like Ross and Government deliver splashy excitement.

For those who want to see as much of the canyon as possible, the 6-day full canyon San Juan River trip covers over 80 miles. The extra days allow for a flexible schedule with more time for volleyball games on sandy beaches and stand-up paddling the San Juan’s riffles. The San Juan Hiker is great for those who want to hike parts of the red rock desert that are best accessed by raft. The minimum age for hiking trips is 12.

What’s the best time to raft the San Juan River?

San Juan River trips run from early May to the end of August. Hiking trips generally depart during the spring when temperatures are prime for longer desert walks. Trips in late spring can bring high water to the San Juan, which may not be suitable for inflatable kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

What’s the whitewater like on the San Juan River?

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. Some of the larger rapids are listed below:

Mile 12.2 — Four-Foot Rapid (Class II) The first named rapid of many San Juan River trips, this fun drop is great for a few splashes.

Mile 17.77 — Eight-Foot Rapid (Class II) A boulder-strewn riffle, this rapid can be tricky to navigate at low water levels.

Mile 19.88 — Ledge Rapid (Class II) A big shelf on river left is often too shallow for rafts, forcing boaters into the splashy right channel.

Mile 27.98 — Gypsum Creek Rapid (Class II) Some of the steepest whitewater on the trip, Gypsum Creek takes boaters down a roller coaster wave train and into a nice hole.

Mile 53.24 — Ross Rapid (Class II) Just before Ross Rapid Camp, this playful drop is fun to navigate, but watch out for rocks.

What is the hiking like on the San Juan River?

Raft-accessed hiking on the San Juan offers some of the best uncrowded trails in the Southwest. Expect trails to archeological sites, awesome swimming holes, and lookouts with views over the maze-like canyon country. Our hiking-focused trip generally offers a few (if not all) of these popular destinations: Moki Stairs, Desecration Panel, River House, Comb Ridge via the Mormon Trail, and the Mule Ear diatreme.

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.

Which cultural sites do you see on the San Juan River?

Native American cultural sites are abundant on the San Juan River. Some of the most popular are Moki Stairs, usually seen from the rafts, and River House, just a short hike from the river’s edge. We also visit Butler Wash and Chinle Creek, if the Navajo Nation lands on river left are open for visitors. OARS works hard to visit as many different sites as a trip will allow. Each trip is different, and visits to these sites are not guaranteed.

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San Juan river with the canyon formations in the background.

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