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San Juan River

San Juan River, Utah: Everything you need to know

The San Juan River is a breathtaking natural wonder that flows through the stunning red rock canyons of southeastern Utah, making it a must-visit destination for any outdoor enthusiast. 

As it winds its way through San Juan County, the river offers a wide range of recreational activities for the whole family, including rafting, hiking, sightseeing, and more. But the San Juan River is much more than just a recreational playground; it also boasts a rich cultural history and is a vital resource for the communities that call this region home. 

In this article, we'll explore all the reasons why the San Juan River is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to experience the natural beauty and rich cultural heritage of Utah.

Floating the San Juan River

Rafting the San Juan River

For those seeking adventure and excitement, rafting or floating along the San Juan River is an experience like no other. The river's calm waters and stunning scenery make it an ideal location for a leisurely float or a thrilling whitewater ride. 

The San Juan river rapids are classified primarily as class II and III rapids, which means this river rafting experience is much more about the things you'll see, do, and learn, and less about running rapids, making it a perfect family activity for everyone to enjoy safely. 


Boats floating the San Juan River

San Juan River Course

The 383-mile-long San Juan River is a diverse waterway that offers a range of experiences for visitors of all kinds. The river runs through the Four Corners area, primarily in southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. 


As one of the Colorado River’s main tributaries, the San Juan River flows south and east, changing more than 11,000 feet in elevation, eventually merging with the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

The Utah portion of the San Juan river can be divided into two main sections: the Upper San Juan, and the Lower San Juan


The Upper San Juan

The Upper San Juan headwaters, known for its pristine beauty and abundant wildlife, begin at Sand Island, near the town of Bluff, UT, and runs to the town of Mexican Hat, Utah. Sand Island to Mexican Hat is about 27 miles, and most boaters take two to three days to float this segment.

The Lower San Juan

The Lower San Juan features an unrivaled amount of pictographs, cliff dwellings, and archaeological remains which reflect Utah's Native American past. Millions of years of geologic history are also evident along the San Juan River, particularly visible from an 'entrenched meander' in Gooseneck State Park.


The Lower San Juan begins near the town of Mexican Hat, Utah, and runs to Clay Hills Crossing, near Lake Powell. When floating from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, your trip is approximately 57 miles and is typically a four to five-day adventure.


If you are feeling extra adventurous and want to see the entire Utah portion of the San Juan river, be prepared for a full six to seven-day trip, starting at Sand Island and ending near Clay Hills on an 84-mile-long journey.

No matter which part of the San Juan River you choose to explore, you're sure to be amazed by the natural beauty and rich cultural history of this remarkable waterway.


When Is The Best Time To Float The San Juan River?


The best time to float San Juan is around the months of May and June, which are the most popular time to float the river due to higher river flows. With spring runoff and the possibility of flash flooding - it’s always best to speak to a guide and get their recommendations on when the best possible time to book your rafting trip.


San Juan River Permits

Access to the San Juan River is limited and highly regulated, with access managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Navajo Nation to ensure that the river remains pristine and protected. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the San Juan River from Montezuma Creek to Lake Powell. A lottery is used to give out limited recreation permits which are required for most river activities. 

Lucky winners of the lottery can secure permits to float the river, providing them with the opportunity to experience San Juan's majestic beauty up close and personal. Please visit for information on the San Juan River permit lottery.  

The Navajo Nation requires additional permits to camp, hike, or visit archaeological sites on the left bank of the river, so be sure to check with the Navajo Nation on accessibility if you plan on exploring further along your route.

Day trips are available, along with opportunities for multi-day experiences on the San Juan River. For more information - check out our river guides located here in San Juan County.

Whether you're an experienced rafter or a novice looking for a new adventure, the San Juan River in Utah offers a unique and unforgettable experience.

For information on the San Juan River Permit Lottery and reservations, click HERE

River House Cliff Dwellings

San Juan River Geology

The San Juan River flows through some of the most stunning and unique geology in the world. The river cuts through layers of sedimentary rock that have been deposited over millions of years, revealing a spectacular tapestry of colors and textures. Towering cliffs of Navajo sandstone, streaked with vibrant reds, pinks, and oranges, rise hundreds of feet above the river's edge. As the river meanders through the canyons, it reveals layers of shale, limestone, and sandstone, each with its own unique color and texture. 


The river also passes through several geological formations, including the Chinle Formation, which contains ancient petrified forests, and the Kayenta Formation, which boasts some of the most striking rock formations in the region. 


Visitors to the San Juan River can experience this geological wonderland up close by hiking through the canyons or floating down the river, enjoying the breathtaking views at every turn.

Native American History Along the San Juan

The San Juan River in Utah has been home to Native American cultures for thousands of years, and evidence of their presence can be found throughout the region. The Navajo Nation, which extends into southeastern Utah, has a long and rich history along the San Juan River and manages much of the land around the river today. In the early 1800s, the Navajo people began to migrate into the region, drawn by the river's fertile soil and abundant resources. However, this area’s storied history begins much earlier, with Ancestral Puebloans and their descendants who inhabited this land since 7000 -1500 BCE. 


Today, the San Juan River in Utah is home to several important Native American Archaeological sites, starting with the Sand Island Petroglyphs, which feature hundreds of petroglyphs including Kokpeli figures right near the popular boat launch. Most of the petroglyphs seen are dated to be anywhere between 2500 to 800 years old, which would place the panel's creations and additions during the early Basketmaker to Pueblo III eras. The Sand Island Petroglyphs are easily accessible, without requiring a hike in order to see the panel which makes it a great first stop for families and children.


The Sand Island Petroglyph Panel

Further along your route, you’ll find the Moki steps, which were foothold carvings used as ladders to climb the steep walls of the San Juan River cliffs. Moki steps can be found throughout the Southwest, and were used for access either to or from the river banks, lookout points, cliff dwelling homes and other various transportation needs. If you are lucky enough to visit, please respect the land and refrain from climbing or damaging any of the moki step formations you may find along your route!


One of the major highlights of your tour is a stop by the Butler Petroglyph Panel (also known as the Kachina Panel). This petroglyph panel features almost life-sized figures, with elaborate details making it one of the most unique stops along your route. 

The Butler Petroglyph Panel. Images of Kachina date back thousands of years and are just a few of the many Native American Archaeological Sites to see on your journey.

Shortly after, your next stop will be at The River House, a cliff dwelling nestled into the sandstone, just a short walk from the river banks. A true marvel of masonry, the River House was built to preserve the heat from the sun during the colder winters, and yet was shaded during the summer heat due to the precise positioning of where it was constructed.


Throughout history, the San Juan River played a critical role in the lives of the indigenous people of the area who used the river's resources to sustain their way of life. Today, visitors to the San Juan River in Utah can experience the rich cultural heritage of the region by visiting museums, cultural centers, and other important historical sites around the San Juan County area. 


As always, please respect the land and cultural significance of the area. Please do not touch, remove or disturb any of the sites or land along your route, stay on marked trails, listen to your guides, and pack out what you pack in.


After your trip concludes, we suggest visiting the Navajo Nation's Monument Valley Tribal Park, where visitors can explore ancient cliff dwellings, pictographs, and other cultural sites. Monument Valley is just around 30 minutes from the town of Mexican Hat, making it the perfect grand finale to your unforgettable outdoor adventure. 

The River House Cliff Dwelling, located near Comb Wash along the San Juan River

Explore Utah’s Canyon Country and San Juan County, UT

The San Juan River in Utah is a natural wonder that offers a multitude of activities and experiences for visitors of all ages and interests. Its breathtaking scenery, rich Native American history, and opportunities for rafting or floating make it a destination like no other. From the towering red rock cliffs that line its banks to the pristine waters that flow through its channels, the San Juan is a natural paradise that is sure to capture your heart and inspire your soul. 

Whether you're seeking adventure, cultural enrichment, or simply a chance to unwind and relax, the San Juan River has something for everyone. Don't miss out on the opportunity to explore this incredible region. Book your trip to San Juan County today and discover the many wonders of the San Juan River in Utah. Mother Nature is calling, it’s your time to answer. 


For more information on San Juan County and upcoming events or adventures - sign up for our newsletter here!



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