May 10-15, 2010
The San Juan River has been on my “to do” list for many years, but it has never been a high priority because it is primarily a river for younger children who, unfortunately, are in school during prime water flow season. But this year Karla Lloyd obtained a permit which enabled Jarem to run one last river before he moves back to New York for his residency. This document summarizes our trip.
For additional photos, check my Picasa photo album at:
- 16’ raft: Barry and Karla Lloyd.
- 14’ raft: Dee Gardiner, Jarem Lloyd, and Tressa Larsen.
- Inflatable kayak: Jamie Gardiner and Hannah Lloyd.
The week prior to the trip made me nervous because the water level was dropping rapidly – down to around 750 cfs. We only had 4 full-days and 2 half-days to cover the 84 miles of river – and many people take 7 days. Luckily, the weather in Colorado warmed up which caused the Animas River to increase in flow, giving us around 1500-2000 cfs for our trip.
The dominate theme of this river trip was wind!
One of my guide books states:
“Strong prevailing upstream winds may be hazardous to your schedule, so carry extra food and water on every trip.”[i]
Another book states:
“Spring is also notorious for strong winds which can blow for days, and almost always upstream.”[ii]
More on wind later as the story continues. Other than the wind, the weather was mild, but nice. It was a little on the cool side and sometimes even a little cold – making us not want to get wet – but great for camping and hiking.
The drive to the Sand Island put-in near Bluff is just over 6 hours from Sandy. Shuttle takes almost exactly 2 hours one-way, regardless of whether you go via Mexican Hat and the Moki Dugway or via Blanding. Both routes are fairly scenic and quite different from each other, making a loop a good way to go. The return trip took about 8 hours (plus stops) since it included a 2 hour return to the put-in plus the 6 hour drive back home.
We drove to Sand Island on Sunday May 9th, the day prior to our launch. The campground at the Sand Island put-in was less than desirable. The ranger told Karla there were plenty of sights and we didn’t need a reservation. We found what we believe was the last available sight that had a picnic table and reasonable spots for tents. You don’t want to wander around in the dark or you are likely to fall in the swift flowing river. But the campground does have outhouses, shade, garbage dumpsters, and usually running water (although it was out of order this year).
Day 1 – Monday May 10:
Our campsite was quite a long distance from the put-in ramp, so in the morning we had a quick cold breakfast, broke camp, and headed to the boat ramp to unload the trailer. Hannah and I then headed off on shuttle while the others rigged and readied the boats and enjoyed the strong breeze.
As estimated, shuttle took almost exactly 4 hours. We drove to the take-out via the Blanding route as we had heard the Moki Dugway was not appropriate for trailers. This was a scenic drive with constantly varying terrain and scenery. We left my vehicle and trailer at the Clay Hills Crossing take-out and returned to the put-in in Lloyd’s 4Runner. We returned via the Mexican Hat/Moki Dugway route and found that indeed both routes take about the same amount of time. Other than the spectacular Moki Dugway, the return route was much less scenic.
After arriving at the put-in and finding the boats fully rigged and ready to go (way to go Jamie!), we had a quick lunch and began our journey down the San Juan River shortly after 2:00 PM. As usual, the afternoon winds were blowing fairly strong upstream. In fact they had been blowing all morning as well. The ranger warned that we would have wind for a few days – and he was right.
There are numerous petroglyphs in the first few miles below Sand Island, but the swift current, thick Tamarisk, and Russian Olive trees makes landing very difficult. We were, however, able to see from the river some “Moki Step” toeholds the Indians had carved into the sandstone cliff.
We stopped at Butler Wash and photographed some cactus in bloom, a few petroglyphs, and an interesting old Cottonwood tree.
About a mile and a half downstream from Butler Wash is the River House Indian ruin. This is one of the nicer Indian ruins in the area. We were lucky enough to visit the ruin while another group was there with a guide that really knew the history. He filled us in on some of the details of the area – which we would have completely missed if he hadn’t pointed them out.
It was getting late, so we decided to camp at upper River House rather than risk finding the upcoming camps already taken. It was a nice camp, but we only covered 6 river miles while we hoped for about 10.
Day 2 – Tuesday May 11:
The wind calmed down during the night, but unfortunately started up again before morning. Not a good sign. Our goal for the day was to push past Mexican Hat (~24 miles) so we could enjoy more time in the lower canyon. We tried for an early launch, but after a nice breakfast we weren’t able to launch until almost 10:00 AM. As the week progressed we did get more efficient at packing each morning.
The wind was fairly strong in the morning – about what it normally is on a windy afternoon on a hot day. With the good current (averaging between a 6 and 10 foot drop per mile) we were able to make progress as long as we didn’t stop rowing. We passed a few other groups including a group of college age kids. One gal had a nice Captain Jack Sparrow pirate hat that Jamie would love to own. It would have looked great with her dreadlocks a few days later in the trip.
As the day wore on, the wind grew stronger and stronger. I have on occasion rowed in winds this strong, but they were always just short bursts as a storm front crossed. This was a very strong sustained wind all afternoon and evening. I would say that it was at least a 35 mph wind – perhaps more. We began double rowing to battle the wind. Karla helped Barry while Tressa helped me. It was amazing how much that helped (thanks to Marcy figuring out this technique a few years back). Tressa picked up the technique almost instantly, helping us move along downstream.
At about mile 15 I traded and let Jarem row. We immediately hit a bend in the river where the wind was the strongest yet. I signaled “time-out” to Barry and we stopped to see if the wind would subside. It was too windy to set up lunch, so we had a brief snack and then sought shelter in a small ravine a few hundred feet away from the river. We decided that it was not going to let up and this was a terrible place to camp, so we pressed on to make it past mile 16 where the river turned slightly to the north, which reduced the force of the headwind somewhat.
We successfully negotiated Four-Foot Rapid and Eight-Foot Rapid without scouting. There were also numerous Class I rapids all throughout the canyon. All were easy to “read and run” and didn’t get anyone too wet (which was nice because of the cool wind).
The last good camp on river right (you need a Navajo Nation permit to camp or hike on the left) is Lime Creek. The college kids said they were targeting Lime Creek (although I’ll bet they didn’t make it that far) so we didn’t want to take that one. It was another 7 miles to Mexican Hat bridge and then a few miles beyond that to the first camps beyond Mexican Hat (which didn’t look very nice). We decided to camp just prior to Mexican Hat Rock at about mile 23. The range warned us there was a risk of locals coming down the dirt road to party in this section. Being a week night and extremely windy, we figured we would be spared a nighttime visit. This turned out to be a very nice camp with a great view of Mexican Hat Rock.
Day 3 – Wednesday May 12:
At great relief we woke to a beautiful morning without wind! We launched at about 9:30 AM and made good time as we passed Mexican Hat. Our goal for the day was Honaker camp which was 21.5 miles downstream (mile 44.5). With the good current and no wind we averaged about 5 mph.
We floated around “Mendenhall Loop”, “The Tabernacle”, and the “Great Gooseneck”. We could see people on the rim at Gooseneck State Park. We wanted to stop at the park on the way home, but didn’t have time.
To our surprise, no one was camped at Upper Honaker camp. I asked Jamie to take the two-way radio and run down the trail to see if Honaker or Juniper camps were open. These three camps have access to the famous Honaker Trail, and they usually fill fast. Jamie reported that a group was at Honaker but not at Juniper. It turns out the group at Honaker just finished the hike and were pulling out, so we moved the boats down and claimed the camp. We arrived at about 3:00 PM, which gave us time for the 3-hour hike to the rim and back.
The Honaker Trail is simply amazing. The trail was started by Augustus Honaker in 1894 to support his gold mining claim in the canyon. How he found a way down the cliff is beyond me. The prospectors eventually gave up when they learned that the only gold was “flour gold” which was carried in with the river sand. What little gold existed was not economical to recover.
The trail consists of large switchbacks that follow the sloping terraces, with short climbs to each new layer.
The Honaker Trail is about 2.5 miles long and climbs to a plateau 1200’ above the river. About 1/2 of the way up you reach “Horn Point” which reminded me of Angles Landing in Zion National Park. It is a narrow outcropping of rock surrounded by steep cliffs to the river below. You have to step/jump across about a 3′ crack to reach the end of the point.
As we approached the summit a storm started blowing in. The winds grew stronger, the temperatures dropped, and then as we reached the summit it began to rain lightly. Here we were 1200’ feet above camp, it was raining, and our rain flies were not on our tents. We hustled back down and luckily the storm just sprinkled lightly and then blew over.
Day 4 – Thursday May 13:
Thursday was another beautiful day without wind. Again we averaged around 5 mph and traveled another 21.5 miles to our assigned camp at Slickhorn A (mile 66). We ate lunch at Johns Canyon, but didn’t venture into the canyon since another group was already camped there.
We scouted Government Rapid (Class III) which is the most technical rapid on the river. In lower water it is very rocky and a lot of boats get snagged on rocks. At this flow (~1700 cfs) it was really quite easy. Someone lacking river reading skills might get into trouble, but it was very easy for us – almost disappointingly so. But we were able to take photos and video.
Slickhorn Canyon is a beautiful paradise of small pools, waterfalls, and plant life. On a warmer day we would have taken a nice refreshing swim. As it was, we just enjoyed a lovely hike part way up the canyon and took lots of beautiful photos.
Day 5 – Friday May 14:
Past Slickhorn Canyon the river really slows down. Slickhorn Rapid was buried by silt when Lake Power was high. The river gradient drops to a whopping 6 inches per mile – a far cry from the 6-10 feet of prior days. Luckily we only had to travel 10 miles to reach our assigned camp at Oljeto Wash (mile 76).
We stopped briefly at the mouth of Grand Gulch and talked with some hikers that were on their 6th day of hiking down the gulch visiting Indian ruins and petroglyphs. They seemed to envy our boats and excellent supply of food and water. We considered hiking part way up the canyon, but the hikers indicated the lower few miles are brutal with no interesting sights to see. So we moved on.
As we floated past Trimble we looked for remnants of the camping equipment that was buried in May of 2009 by a flash flood. We couldn’t see any gear, but the campsite has been completely obliterated and buried in boulders and sand. There was also much evidence of flooding throughout the canyon with dried mud about 8’ up the river banks.
When we arrived at Oljeto Wash, Jamie and I tried to land on the beach. Jamie was rowing, so I jumped out to land the boat. I almost lost my shoes in the extremely sticky mud. We opted to park our boats on the sandstone landing instead.
Camp didn’t look like much from the river, but it was the best camp of the trip! We had a nice kitchen sheltered from the wind and plenty of perfectly flat tent sights. We even enjoyed a sunrise breakfast out on the beach.
A short walk up the wash (you need a permit to hike further) brings you to an alternate camp with a large sandy area that would be great for Ultimate Frisbee. And of course we can’t have a river trip without a nice mud bath.
Day 6 – Saturday May 15:
In order to get a quick start we had another cold breakfast (as the sun rose over camp). We quickly loaded up the boats and were on the river shortly after 8:00 AM. We had no wind, so we quickly traveled the remaining 7 miles to the Clay Hills Crossing boat ramp. Everyone took turns rowing, and by now Tressa was a pro at maneuvering the raft and staying close to shore in the deeper channels to avoid sand bars. Between me, Jarem, and Tressa, Tressa was the only one that didn’t get my boat stuck. It was a beautiful and peaceful final day of our trip.
We arrived at the take-out at about 11:00 AM and began de-rigging the boats and loading the trailer. We ate lunch, changed clothes (some of us) and headed for home. The 11 miles of dirt road was in good shape, but it completely covered all of our gear with dust even though it was covered by a tarp.
Once we hit the highway my car began having problems – dying each time I let off the gas and then tried to accelerate again. Our best theory was water in the tank picked up at the gas station while driving shuttle. Once I refueled in Moab the problem went away.
We safely returned home to Sandy at about 11:00 PM, emptied the “hooter” and went to bed.
All in all it was a wonderful trip. All agreed that the rapids were wimpy, but the river is worth doing again. The Indian artifacts, hikes, and beautiful scenery make it all worthwhile. And total trip costs were very reasonable since we drove our own shuttle. We had excellent meals (mostly thanks to Karla) and excellent company. It was a small group, but everyone had a great time.
[i] Don Baars & Gene Stevenson; “San Juan Canyons – A River Runner’s Guide”.
[ii] Lisa Kearsley; “San Juan River Guide – Sand Island to Clay Hills Crossing”.