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San Juan River Information

Water Levels:
To run the San Juan, discharge should be at least 500 cfs. At about this level, you'll necessarily have to drag your boat through a few spots but the river's still what I call runnable. When you get up to about 1000 cfs, the river speeds up significantly, and is preferred. You'll still have to watch out for sandbars at 1,000 cfs, but not a lot of boat dragging. At 2,000 cfs, the river's great and what I'd call ideal. If the river is flowing at 4,000 or more, you'll be hauling ass the whole way and will need to know where you plan to eddy out well in advance to make your stops. At 6,000 cfs, the river will take you down at about 7 mph. At high water especially, the San Juan doesn't haev an overabundance of takeout possibilities. A lot of the riverbanks are sheer cliff and besides that, the brush can be overwhelmingly thick in places.

Whitewater on the San Juan is not dangerous compared to other rivers. At a maximum, I'd call it about a class 3 with most of the river being class 1 or 2. The stretch of river between Montezuma Creek and Mexican Hat is probably all class 1-2. This stretch parallels the road and makes for an easy shuttle. Continuing on to the Clay Hills Crossing will require driving on dirt roads, finding your way, and is a much longer trip altogether. From Montezuma Creek to Mexican Hat is a good 2-3 day trip. If the water's low and you don't like working, another day would be recommended. If the water's very high and you are paddling or rowing hard, you could probably go from Montezuma Creek to Mexican Hat in 2 days.

You can check the current water flow: USGS San Juan river flow

I recommend you also check the weather in the area before running the San Juan. Rain, even if it happens far from the river, will greatly affect water flow levels: Weather forecast for Bluff, Utah.


Permitting:
The right side of the river is owned by the Americans. The left by the Navajo Nations. You'll need a permit from one or the other to camp on the river. I asked both the Americans and the Natives what they would do if you were to camp IN the river. By that I mean on an island which is not on the right side or the left side and neither side knew what to tell me, so theoretically you could run it with no permit, but it wouldn't be very interesting. If you get caught on the right side of the river by the Americans, the fine is about $250. The permit is only $6 and can be obtained from the Bureau of Land Management's Monticello Field Office.

If you want to go on the left side of the river, permits are available from the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department. The Navajo permit is only $5 but takes longer to get, up to a month.

A ranger with the BLM told me they hope to have a unified permitting system which will allow visitors to camp on both sides of the river soon, possibly sometime in 2009, but for now they're separate permits and each allows access to only one side of the river.

Camping:
You can camp pretty much wherever you want. The only exceptions are the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel and surrounding area. You'll need to coordinate with other groups at times but the rule is that it's first come, first serve. Camping in different regions I notice there are different boundary spaces one must keep to keep other campers happy. In Havasupai, one of the Grand Canyon's most treasured spots, you can camp ten feet from a stranger's tent and you will not be intruding. On the San Juan, I had a guy one time demand that he get the entire flat area near River House Ruin for his group alone. It's probably a mile square. You could fit an army in that area, but his group needed and expected that much space for themselves, and even went so far as to say that he had it reserved (you cannot reserve camp spots). We decided that if that's what he expected, we would oblige (besides, the guy had a major attitude problem and we didn't want to camp anywhere near them) and we were able to find a spot not far downstream from River House Ruin yet still far enough away from the large commercial group. Had we known, however, we would have been better off camping further upstream. The camping before River House is, in my opinion, better camping and more plentiful than below River House. It's shadier, there are more beaches with better walking areas, it's sandier, has more cottonwoods, etc. Any place you see cottonwood trees is probably a good place to camp. They grow in comfortable places and offer shade for early morning sunshine. I like to position my tent so that in the early morning, my tent and camp is in the shade. That way I can wake up to a shady light rather than a hot direct light. It's much more comfortable. Small groups can find excellent camping just upstream from River House and enjoy a more natural setting. The camping before River House is plentiful and is better than below, where the geology changes. The BLM won't let you camp two nights in the same spot but I've done it not knowing I broke the rule. In general, if you are respectful and decent campers, and I mean in all regards, you have nothing to fear from the BLM. They're people who appreciate the same things you and I do, and that's mostly what they care about. There are some special items you need for camping on the river:

Washable, re-usable toilet system. This is the big one. If you don't have and use this, BLM is looking for you and WILL ticket you for the good of us all.

Do not disturb artifacts. There is no reason to touch this stuff. When you move it, it becomes out of place. An artifact by itself in your junk drawer is just a rock or a piece of your mom's planter for all I know. When you remove it, it becomes worthless and at the cost of the destruction of the historical record. Forever. If you destroy the historical record, what good is your piece? It can't be verified. It is known that the BLM has placed cameras in some locations to catch people disturbing or stealing artifacts, but they are not the only ones who one should be warned about. It is also rumored that there are indians who camp in the cliffs where they can watch known places. According to this rumor told to me by a Navajo man, these guys "are ready to fight!" and they hide and watch from the cliffs just as the natives always have in this region, protecting their tribe from intruders in a sort of way. Your pictures are more valuable that the artifacts themselves because you get the context in with it. Leave everything intact and don't even touch it. More often, people distrub artifacts without knowing it. You should not go inside of the ruins, they're too fragile. You shouldn't touch the rock walls either. You can't get good shots from inside the ruins anyway, but it's not worth trying. When you approach a known place where there are going ot be artifacts, you should start watching your step long before you get to the ruin itself. Since everything falls downhill, there is likely a lot of pottery on and in the sand beneath any ruin. I've seen groups walk right up to ruins and walk right over fields of pottery without knowing it. Start looking for pottery shards long before you get to a ruin or rock art panel. 100' away or so you might find yourself really watching your step. Near ruins, stay on solid rock only. If the rock below a ruin is cracking and breaking, you shouldn't walk on it. Find another angle to see it or whatever you've got to do, but keep the preservation of ancient stuff in mind at all times. I like to stop myself when I first approach something like a ruin , while I am still very far away. I stop and think to myself and kind of tell myself, ok, I am just now leaving the desert and entering into a museum. I would normally want to be a little cleaner than this if I were visiting a museum, but here I am in a museum without walls and I should treat everything I see like I am in a museum.

Fire Pan. You can't leave ashes in the sand because they will not just break down or wash away. If we didn't use fire pans, pretty soon the beaches would just be sand and wood ash like a fire pit. Please use your fire pans and use them well. Seriously, that half-burnt wood doesn't go away in the desert. Nothing deteriorates rapidly in the desert, it stays around for years.

First Aid Kit. You should have one of these anyway, but the BLM will check you for one. Basically you need antibiotic ointment, some bandaging materials, maybe some antibiotics and some painkillers, sewing stuff for if you need it, the more stuff you have the better, as is true in all cases.

Map(s.) The more the better. These are good to have for your enjoyment but also in case you should need to hike out or if you go off hiking into often confusing territory. It's easy to go down the wrong wash and end up following a dry wash for a long time before realizing you've made a wrong turn. From that point on, your way only becomes more and more confusing. Maps can be good. Since there is a road that parallels the river from Montezuma Creek to Mexican Hat, if you were to go north until you hit the road, your furthest hike would be about ten miles, but those ten miles are nearly impassible for most of the river. You would be much better off seeking help on the river. The canyon walls are barriers with only a few ways to get up and down and those are often dangerously steep. Don't leave thinking you can always walk out of there if things go bad. You most likely can't. Between River House and Clay Hills, there's no chance of walking out of this river.

Boat Repair Kit. The BLM will not let you pass without a boat repair kit that you can fix your boat with. You also need; a pump, an extra oar, throw rope, personal flotation device.

Water. Lots of it. I think the rangers recommend about a gallon per day per person. I find myself drinking 1.75 gallons per day with making coffee and drinking as much as I can all day long. I think if you have that much water, most anybody will be ok. The other thing you need and I mean need, is a way to make water should you need to. A large coffee pot is barely adequate for one person to boil water through the night. To make water, you need to arrange three rocks in your fire pan and hold the pot of water above the fire. Let it boil for at least 2 minutes. Then you need to settle out the sand and whatever else, for example, the uranium from the tailings upstream, you don't want to drink that. This takes a few hours. So if all you have is a small pot to boil with, you're going to be spending a lot of time watching sand settle and water cool. After this, I recommend that you filter the water through something like an MSR water filter. If you do this, you're taking 3-4 hours per 1/2 gallon of water. If your group gets stranded, can you survive doing this? Do you like to drink pee? Be prepared with regard to water in this region. Carry a little extra in case you meet someone who wasn't prepared or got lost or something, you never know.

You should pee in the river, spit any toothpaste, and wash dishes in the river. I like to use nothing but sand and leaves for abrasion when washing dishes, but some people still use soap. The BLM has a saying that they use for answering why you should pee right into the sedimentary river, "the solution is dilution." I think what it really means though is "If you can't solve it, dissolve it."