Tuesday, April 21, 2015

San Juan River Trip Summary - April 2015

In early April, Megan and I rafted the lower section of the San Juan River in SE Utah. We went with two other couples (John & Sue and Caleb & Rachel) who I'd met last August at the ARTA rowing school. It was a fantastic crew all around! It was 56 river miles from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Landing that we did in 4 days. The flow started at 800 cfs and dropped to just over 600 cfs (low for this river). Daytime highs were typically in the 60-70 degrees F with overnight lows in the 40s which was a little warmer than usual according to the locals. The water was on the chilly side (50-60 degrees F). We had a great time with a fantastic crew. Here's our trip report: 

Day 0 - Picking up gear
We rented 3 rafts, a groover (toilet), and an entire kitchen kit from Ceiba Adventurers in Flagstaff, AZ. Awesome outfitter if you ever need one in the Arizona area. John & Sue had a utility trailer which held most of the gear and was a lifesaver! We both drove the 3 hr to Bluff, UT and camped at Sand Island Campground so we could get an early start on rigging. Turned out we needed it. 

Day 1 - Rigging & launching from Mexican Hat (6 river miles)
Not knowing exactly how everything fit together made rigging day a little interesting. Lots of standing around scratching our heads, getting creative, and even re-rigging a raft frame or two. Caleb and Rachel drove up in the morning with all the food. We did eventually fit all the food in the coolers and the gear into the rafts. Next time I'd probably try to pack the coolers & food the night before. Wasn't feasible on this trip but would save time on rigging day. Tip: Use light colored electrical tape and a sharpie to label ammo cans with their contents!


We finally got launched at 2pm which was a little later than I'd planned on. We stopped and hiked up to Medenhall's cabin. You can just make the stone walls out in the middle of the photo of Megan hiking. Great view, some yucca plants, and lizards too. The river nearly made a loop back on itself and a grandpa and his grandson in the group before us actually hiked up the other side and over to meet the rafts.

Afterward we continued to Tabernacle where we made camp. Dinner was grilled salmon, asparagus, summer squash, and a fancy salad. We ate well on this trip thanks to some fantastic menu planning by Caleb and John. We'd only made 6 river miles the first day so that left 50 more to go in three days! The sun set at 8pm so we finished washing dishes in the dark and then went to bed.


Day 2 - Tabernacle Camp to 50.7 Mile Camp (18 river miles)
Without having to do all the rigging, we got a much earlier start. This day we rowed through the Goosenecks which are deep entrenched river meanders. Basically that means you're winding back and forth doing a lot of river miles but not getting very far as the crow flies. The first panorama was taken from above but gives a good perspective of the Goosenecks. To make matters worse, there were some brutal head winds that we were fighting too.
We stopped to do a short hike on the Honaker Trail which goes all the way to the rim. Having a guide book which told us to look for a rock cairn really helped because the trail was nearly invisible from the river.
We called it quits at 50.7 Mile Camp, happy to have logged a third of the remaining distance. Dinner was crockpot enchiladas (big one for the meat eaters, smaller one for vegetarians). Caleb shared a trick of tapping each briquette once with the tongs to make them heat better. Although he did preface it with "I'm not sure this works or not but someone told me..."

Day 3 - 50.7 to Slickhorn E (15 river miles)
A big breakfast of huevos rancheros and fruit was a perfect start for our third day which included a couple rapids, some big horn sheep, and a hike in John's Canyon. We were glad not to have to deal with headwinds any more after yesterday.

It also included Government Rapid, the only class III on the trip. I'm still adjusting to the much larger momentum of a raft compared to a kayak so my fancy move didn't work the way I'd envisioned it. Instead we got well wedged on top of the pair of rocks that you can see to the left of Sue's pink hat in the photo where we're scouting. We haven't seen the video but we're told we looked quite amusing as we moved around on the raft jumping and tugging and prying until we finally came loose.

We camped at Slickhorn E which required a Navajo back country permit but was worth it for the extra sun that night and again in the morning. One regret is that we got to camp so late this night and had to leave early the next morning so we didn't get to hike the Slickhorn Canyon. Another fabulous dinner of pork tenderloin, veggies, veggie lasagna, and birthday cake. I have yet to go on a raft trip where the food wasn't outstanding!

Day 4 - Slickhorn E to Clay Hills Crossing (17 river miles)
We were inspired by the others to sleep without a tent on the last night. It was amazing how much light the moon provided when it rose. The last and final day had a little different feel to it as the river flattened out/met Lake Powell. There was more rowing required and if you didn't pay attention, you'd run aground on sandbars right below the surface. One of our tricks was following ducks and geese (yes Canada geese!) as they floated int the current. You knew there was going to be trouble getting the raft through when they stopped floating and started walking in the middle of the river! Megan even took a turn at the sticks and it was heaven for me to lay back and feel like Cleopatra (her words).

 As we got closer to the takeout, the canyon walls fell away and Mike's Mesa was visible in the distance. Clay Hills seemed aptly named as I sunk up to my knee at least twice and walking on even a slight slope was precarious. We camped the last night on BLM land and were greeted by grazing cows the next morning. We drove back to Mexican Hat before parting ways; we headed back to MN while the others continued to Flagstaff and beyond.
We're readjusting to normal life which involves work, laundry, grocery shopping, leaking water heaters, check engine lights, and the other day to day things that completely slip out of your mind on the river as you float idly soaking up the suns warmth. Which reminds me I ought to start planning another river trip soon ...

Misc logistic stuff:

  • Cost for the river trip was ~ $350/person
  • River does require a permit through BLM. We claimed ours on short notice (2 weeks before the trip) but you can also enter a lottery earlier.
  • Ceiba Adventures were an outstanding outfitter and lower priced than others closer to Bluff, UT. Their equipment was in great condition and the staff were extremely helpful - I highly recommend them! 
  • San Juan Shuttles are a great option to save time of setting your own shuttle.
  • If required, you can pick up back country permits in person at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
What would I do different next time?
  • Higher flow? 800 cfs was low and we did get stuck on rocks/sandbars a few times but it was manageable and we certainly still had a good time. 
  • Warmer weather/later in the season? Wait for the water to warm up and more flowers to bloom but honestly we had great weather and things were just starting to bloom.
  • Consider including or just doing the upper section from Sand Island to Mexican Hat which has petroglyphs (26.5 miles, typically 2-3 days)
  • Allow more time. 56 miles in 4 days resulted in every day being fairly full. Would have been nice to have more time in camp to relax & time during the day to stop for more hikes or exploring (ex. Slickhorn Canyon).
  • Last day was long (17 river miles) in slow water plus unrigging plus a slow drive out on an unimproved road. Not sure if it's better to get a different campsite the last night or camp on BLM land like we did but certainly important to keep in mind that the last day will be long either way.
If you have any questions or want more information, feel free to email or call us. We're happy to share what we learned.