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A San Juan Trip Report
Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, 10/09/20 - 10/11/20

I floated the San Juan this last weekend and thought I’d share some river notes. I always appreciate the information I find here on MB.

My friend Chris and I left Boise after work last Thursday for our annual October trip to southern Utah. This time we decided to float the San Juan River instead of the usual combo of backpacking and trail running. The drive south was 700 miles and came with the usual mess of construction and heavy traffic congestion through Salt Lake City. Fueled by caffeine and c-store "food" we drove through the night and pulled over outside of Mexican Hat around 3:30am. We tossed out sleeping bags and grabbed a few hours of sleep. Sunrise came quick. Bleary-eyed, we guzzled much needed coffee, rigged up, and set off down the river.

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After a short bounce through Gypsum Creek rapid, we crossed under the highway 163 bridge, and left civilization behind. Friday’s float was pleasant yet a little tiring due to lack of sleep. Around 3:00pm, we passed two other parties and then didn’t see a soul the rest of the trip. We rowed steadily and covered 28 miles total. Our camp destination was Ross rapid. We relaxed on the warm sandy beach, watched a large bighorn ram across the river, ate a calorie-bomb dinner, and crashed relatively early under a sea of stars.

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On Saturday we enjoyed a relaxed morning in camp and didn’t hit the water until 10:30am. We floated from Ross to Slickhorn, about 16 miles according to the GPS. I really enjoyed the nature of the river from a few miles above Ross to just below Government rapid. The weather was spectacular again. After setting up camp at Slickhorn, we did a short 4 mile hike before sunset. We sat around in short sleeves after dark under swooping bats and a brilliant Milky Way. The clear skies were a nice reprieve from weeks of wildfire smoke here locally.

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Sunday morning we broke camp around 8:30am and decided to row out the 18 miles to Clay Hills. We were scheduled to camp at Steer Gulch, but weren’t looking forward to the idea of a long Monday and potentially not arriving back in Boise until after midnight. We had several hours of strong wind and gusts, which made me happy that we chose to bring small 9’ fishing cats vs. my big boat. Despite the wind and languid current, we made approximately 3 mi/hr. The previous two days we averaged close to 4 mi/hr.

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Flows were steady around 560 cfs. You can definitely float a big boat but there are plenty of rocks and shallows, not to mention the ever-present sandbars toward the end, and the wind. I never found myself wishing I had my 16’ cat, but I definitely felt that life was less complicated because I didn’t bring it.

Government rapid was a non-issue in the little boats--a couple oar strokes and plenty of room between rocks. The other rapids were fun and straight-forward. Chris is new to rowing and had no problems, though he chose not to run Government. I got to row it twice, which was an unanticipated bonus.

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The river was running pretty clear with nearly two feet of visibility. Each evening I watched little catfish cruise around in the shallows. We hauled all our water, so we didn’t have to bother with settling and filtering. I don’t think it would have been too problematic, assuming you’re okay with drinking water from the San Juan, which a lot of people aren’t (agriculture, uranium mines, etc.). One gallon of water per person per day was plenty for us.

Having spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking on Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge, our focus was primarily the float. We didn’t plan time for side-hikes, but there is certainly a lot to explore. I’d like to get back and float Sand Island to Mexican Hat at a leisure pace and enjoy some off-river exploring. The wheels are also turning for backpacking-packrafting adventures connecting Slickhorn Canyon and Grand Gulch.

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We used Val’s San Juan Shuttles. Val was responsive and flexible. Two members of our group dropped at the last minute (an ailing MIL and a spouse breaking a wrist), so we ended up shuttling one less vehicle than planned. We parked my truck at Valles Trading Post for $5 a day. The guy there was friendly and offered to refund a day of parking if Val picked up the truck early. I told him to consider it a beer fund donation.

Since Chris and I both had Monday off, we broke up the drive home and rendezvoused with some friends for a night of camping on the San Rafael Swell. Hanksville was on the way, so we grabbed a bag of greasy goodness from Stan’s Burger Shack. Up on the Swell, the night skies were still crystal clear and we saw quite a few shooting stars. We slept well in the cold desert air. After a great sunrise trail run Monday morning, we bounced back to Boise and were home by early evening.

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Thank you, nice right up and great photos. I really enjoyed the journey with your trip report.
 

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AIRE Jag
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Thanks to you both. It was a great outing--one that will linger with me through the winter months.
 

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Nice report. Ive been talking about a low water San Juan trip with a few freinds. Was thinking of doing it as a canoe trip. Ive never been down that river, never put eyes on any rapids. Do you think it would be safe in a canoe?
 

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Nice report. Ive been talking about a low water San Juan trip with a few freinds. Was thinking of doing it as a canoe trip. Ive never been down that river, never put eyes on any rapids. Do you think it would be safe in a canoe?
With basic whitewater skills and possibly a couple short portages, I think a canoe would work well, especially a whitewater model. We talked about that during our float. You'll definitely be able to cruise through the flat water. Take a look on YouTube for Government Rapid. That's the biggest you'll encounter. It's a straight forward and short portage around. There are quite a few SJ videos that provide a good general feel for the water.
 

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Dude. Great write up. A fall SJ float has always been on my mind. We usually go in April if we don’t draw. Canoes would be awesome at these flows. A couple years ago we spotted an abandoned “taco’ed” aluminum canoe right after Ross. I think it said “something somethinganother community college” on the hull. Most have been an adventure. Canoes look nicer And nicer when the bottom falls on the flows and your dragging your 14‘ raft over rocks and sandbars at 250 cfs
 
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