Don't get stuck without a paddle by Rob del Desierto
The San Juan River is a major tributary of the Colorado River (now Lake Powell), that flows through New Mexico, a slice of Colorado, and Utah. The sections in Utah are especially popular with rafters, and many river runners on this stretch take advantage of the numerous hiking opportunities that can only be accessed by the river. Most are fairly short. The most popular of the river-based hikes are listed and described below, starting nearest the put-in at Sand Island (River Mile 0) down towards the Mexican Hat Boat Ramp (Mile 27). This is by all means not a comprehensive list, as many other hikes are possible. It also excludes hikes that can be accessed from off the river, such as the Emigrant Trail, Butler Wash proper, and Midway Canyon, as well as Chinle Wash through Comb Ridge (which is a trip in and of itself).
Upper Butler Wash: Upper Butler Wash is the lesser-visited cousin of the famous Lower Butler Wash petroglyph panel, but it is by no means unimpressive. Indeed it contains some masterful and haunting images, as well as scenes not seen on the Lower Butler Wash panel. From the landing beach, make your way through the tamarisk and willow flats back towards the cliff face. Cow paths and some hiker trails help funnel you towards a dense stand of Russian Olives. Before trying to go through them, look for the faint trail leading up onto the alluvial bench above, next to the cliff face. From here, a hiker-made trail follows the cliff face through moderate vegetation (which decreases as you move west). Keep your eyes on the cliff face for petroglyphs. Soon you begin climbing a boulder fall, and break free of the foliage entirely. The view is great out towards the river. Rock art is everywhere. One of the most interesting bits of rock art at the site (indeed, one of the most interesting bits of rock art I've seen anywhere) appears to depict a Ute conflict with settlers, with the Utes leading a horse and shooting bows and arrows, and the settlers firing guns. One of the settlers lays on the ground with his hat missing and a arrow through his head! When the San Juan River (and Butler Wash) are at a low ebb, it is possible to walk from here along the cliff face across the mouth of Butler Wash, and to the Lower Butler Wash panel. The round-trip distance from your boat (without hiking to Lower Butler Wash) is approximately .68 miles.
Lower Butler Wash: Lower Butler Wash is arguably one of the most famous petroglyph panels in the entire southwest, and justifiably so. Larger-than-life San Juan Anthropomorphic figures tower over you. A myriad of fantastic images flow along the cliff face. From the beach, hike north-northeast along a well-established trail towards the 'glyphs clearly visible on the cliff. Follow this trail along the cliff towards the east, and it then loops back towards the beach. This is one of the most popular hikes along this section of the river, and because of this the BLM has closed the area to camping. Be courteous! If you are in a large private trip, make sure there is enough room for other river runners to land on the very small beach. The total mileage for this loop is .33 miles.
Desecration Panel: Desecration Panel is a famous petrogylph site on the Navajo Nation side of the river, just beyond Butler Wash. It features Basketmaker III figures that were systematically gouged out by local Navajos who had fallen sick, under the direction of a native healer. A full account can be found in David Robert's "In Search of the Old Ones." From the Desecration Campsite on river left, hike south along the hiker-made trails towards the cliff face, through tamarisk and Russian Olives. The total round trip distance is approximately .25 miles.
River House: River House is one of the largest, most famous, and most well-visited Anasazi ruins along the San Juan River. Built during the middle-late 1200's, it got its modern name from two zig-zag pictographs on the ceiling of the alcove that early explorers though represented a map of the river. River House has undergone extensive stabilization, and in some sections of the ruin concrete and wire mesh can be seen helping to support walls. The remains of a kiva, and several storage and living rooms are preserved in the alcove, some still showing several layers of original plaster on their walls. From the river, hike through the Russian Olive and willow thickets to the sandy floodplain above. Beneath the cottonwoods, catch the well-defined hiker-made trail heading towards the low bluffs to the north. River House will become visible shortly through the trees. You will cross a sandy, almost unused dirt road, and then you will be at the base of the River House alcove. Access to the ruin is via a stone staircase that leads to the western edge of the alcove. The total round trip mileage to River House and back to the beach is about .7 miles.
Mule's Ear Diatreme: The Mule's Ear is one of the most prominent landmarks on Comb Ridge. Once your river trip passes through Comb Ridge, it will be visible on the southern horizon. While it is somewhat difficult to access from the river, the old volcanic plug to its west, the Mule's Ear Diatreme isn't. From the Mule's Ear of Lower Chinle campsites on left side of the river, hike south. There are a couple faint trails leading away from both of these campsites. The diatreme can be climbed from either the western or eastern side. Either follow the wash at the base of Comb Ridge (from Lower Chinle Camp) or the wash to the west of the diatreme (from Mule's Ear Camp) to the base of the Mule's Ear Diatreme. The slope is steep and rocky, and while some hiker-made trail sections may exist in some areas, each person or trip has to decide the best was up for themselves. The diatreme was thrust upward as semi-plastic magma from deep within the earth thousands of years ago, not quite a volcano with its very viscous magma. Garnets and even diamonds have reportedly been found in the Mule's Ear Diatreme (and others in the area, such as Alhambra Rock and El Capitan). After making your way to the summit, find the best way down to the wash you began your hike in, and follow that back to your boat. The total round trip distance for this hike is approximately 2.72 miles, depending on which camp you start at.
Perched Meander: The Perched Meander, located in the San Juan Canyon of Lime Ridge, provides a unique insight into the carving of these canyons. The San Juan River uses to flow in a tight loop at the level of the perched meander hundreds of thousands of years ago. Slowly the river cut through the narrow fin separating the two parts of the bend, at first creating what was no-doubt an impressive natural bridge, and then eating that way as the river continued to cut down, leaving the former stream channel high and dry. This hike is pretty straight forward, although it also has the greatest elevation change, from 4192 feet at the river beach up to 4520 feet at the pass. This hike cannot be done (because there is no place to land a boat) during high flows. From the beach, hike up the canyon a short ways. A pourover appears across the canyon, but this can be bypassed with a little effort. From on top of the pourover the rincon (plug of rock the river once cut around) stands in front of you. Simply follow one of the washes draining either side of the rincon up and around towards the back of the rincon. After the pass, simply descend the other wash back down to the pourover, and from the pourover down the canyon to the boat. This trip is approximately 2 miles in length.
Pourover: The Pourover is a neat, simple hike usually done as part of a scout of Eight Foot Rapid. From the beach upstream of the corner at Eight Foot on river left, simply walk along the obvious hiker-made foot trail at the base of the cliff. You will pass over the top of the pourover on a limestone bench - its a pretty neat view. If you continue along the ledge for a little while further you come to the remains of an old structure built against the cliff face. Anasazi? Miner? Not enough remains to be certain. You can then either hike back to your boat via the high route you came, or (if the water is low), hike back along the low route, which will allow you to view the pourover from the bottom as well. Total distance is about .25 miles.
Soda Basin: Soda Basin is certainly the longest of the popular hikes along this stretch of the San Juan River. In the 1920's, there was an oil boom on this section of the Colorado Plateau. The little town of Mexican Hat, just downriver, has lots of small, active oil wells still in productions, and upriver, at Aneth and Montezuma Creek there is a large oil and natural gas field that is highly active today. It was during this same period of time when prospectors decided to investigate the Lime Ridge Anticline. Anticlines are naturally great places to search for oil, as the layers that trap the oil are found closer to the surface. So these intrepid prospectors pushed a "road" from the area of Mexican Hat into Soda Basin, the most accessible area of the San Juan canyons through Lime Ridge. They drilled and blasted and tested and found absolutely nothing worthwhile, so they took what they could easily salvage and left the rest. Large oil-drilling and pumping machinery still litters Soda Basin - remember that it is part of this area's history, just like Anasazi ruins, so do not disturb it. The popular way to get into Soda Basin is to hike the old road from Fossil Stop Camp, which will give you great views of the river and canyons, as well as a chance to see rafters floating downriver and running Ledge Rapid. You can also check out the old construction techniques of the road. Another option, especially during the hot summer, is to simply land a boat at Soda Basin and walk around the drilling ruins from there. It isn't quite the hike as coming up from Fossil Stop Camp, but since there is no shade on this hike, it might work better for some groups. Like with Lower Butler Wash, Soda Basin is closed to camping (until below Ledge Rapid). If you make the full round-trip from Fossil Stop Camp, it is approximately 3 miles.
Sulfur Springs: Sulfur Springs is a neat little stop after you have left the San Juan Canyon. This stinking sulfur spring is just about a tenth of a mile up a small side-canyon on river right. It can be smelled from the river usually, even before it comes into sight. Simply walk up the steep but short canyon to the seep line, where water is running (which you shouldn't drink). It is pretty neat to see the sulfur accumulating on the rocks in a yellow crust. When you've seen (or smelled) enough, head back down to your boat.
Mexican Hat View: Mexican Hat is one of the famous landmarks around the San Juan River country, and one of the best views, especially at sunrise, of this monument, is from Mexican Hat View. From Mexican Hat Camp on river left, follow a small drainage through the cliffs behind you. From this drainage, make your way through the succesion of terraces until you reach the top, then turn back along the bench you have just reached, until you gain a high vantage point. From here you can see Lime Ridge (also known locally as Navajo Tapestry Mountain), Cedar Mesa, the tops of Monument Valley's pinnacles, as well as Mexican Hat across the river. The total round trip distance is about 1 mile, and it takes you from the river at 4095 feet up to about 4250 feet on the bench.
Note: I have not mentioned exact pull-in spots for these hikes. Where each of these hikes start will fluctuate, depending on river level. It is important to have a good river guide to the San Juan River if you are boating the river yourself to help orient where you are and where each hike will start on the river. If you are on a commercial trip your guide will know where these hikes start; simply mention that you'd like to one or several of these hikes.
Special Fees and permits (as of June 2008): Commercial trips leave daily during the summer. By paying the outfitter you will have all your permits and fees rolled into your total cost (up to $500/person for a four day trip down this stretch). If you are boating the river yourself to do these hikes, you will need a San Juan River Permit from the BLM. From the BLM San Juan River Page:
Call or write to the Monticello Field Office for a permit application
BLM, P.O. Box 7, Monticello, UT 84535; (435) 587-1544.
Permit applications for the following season are normally available in early December.
If you want to be eligible for the lottery, your permit applications must be received PRIOR TO FEBRUARY 1.
A lottery drawing of those permits received prior to February 1 is conducted the first week of February. If you don't fill out the application correctly or it is illegible, it will not be processed. A notification card is sent only to those permit applicants who received a launch date. If you do not hear from us by March 1, you did not draw a launch.
To keep the launch date awarded to you, you must pay for the permit 30 days in advance of your launch. If we do not receive your money 30 days in advance, your launch goes up for grabs. You may now pay with a credit card over the phone.
If you do not draw a launch date in the lottery or you do not get your application in by February 1, you can call in (435-587-1544 between 8 am and 12 noon ) for unfilled launch dates or cancellations, starting March 1, however, we must already have your permit application on file.
In addition, for any hikes on the left bank of the San Juan River, you will need a Navajo Nation backcountry permit, available in person at the Monument Valley entrance station, or by writing to the Navajo Department of Parks and Recreation in Window Rock. Cost is $5/person/day, and camping is $5/person/night.
To hike From Kayenta, drive north on US163, through Mexican Hat, to Bluff Utah (to get together with a commercial river trip) or to San Island Recreation Area and launch ramp, to launch a private trip. Stop at the Monument Valley Visitor's Center, between Kayenta and Mexican Hat, if you will be on a private trip to pick up backcountry hiking permits for the Navajo Nation.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.