San Juan River

The San Juan River

Named by the Spanish San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist), the San Juan River twists and turns around an ancient native path, making its lonely journey through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and tipping its mythical tales into the border of northern Arizona.  Many travelers in Bluff tour the scenic rock-art and cave dwellings on the shoulders of this legendary river.

Indigenous History

A continuous source of water in the arid desert climate, the “Old Age River” (as it is known in Navajo mythology) is lined with sandstone cliffs and floodplains, scattered with cryptic Anasazi ruins and painted rock-art boarders.

The gentle rapids flowing between Bluff, Utah and the Mexican Hat, is characterized in Navajo legends as an old man with hair of white foam, a flash of lightning, a black club of protection, and coiled snake at the Goosenecks. Each image evokes a theme of protection for the Navajos, who have historically viewed the wise flowing river as a comforting boarder of separation between the refuge of their lands, and the territory of the Utes and white men.


The caliber of rock art along the painted cliffs and dwellings of the San Juan River is unsurpassed. The ancient archaeological record depicts the sad and solitary history of the rise and fall of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization. Among the famous ruins that meander down the river’s path, is the Moki Stairs, an 800-year-old staircase carved into solid rock by ancient inhabitants.

The San Juan River is also known for its areas of wild rapids, climactic colors, and legendary floods.  The river rises and falls with the regional rain and the ebbs and flow of annual precipitation. Unique and unusual colors mark the river’s monsoon season in late summer, as the geologic strata of the sub-watersheds cause flash floods to occur upstream.

The flooding of McElmo canyon causes the river to reflect staggering hues of grays and greens, which changes to a vibrant and violent red as the Chinle Wash canyon floods into the bewildering landscape.  The highs and lows of the churning rapids and the dramatic movement of color, provides a magical river retreat for travelers and tourists.

Wildlife and Geography

Travelers exploring the journey of the river can pause to enjoy the cliff dwellings and wildlife. Songbirds, reptiles, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, and waterfowl are among the exquisite array of creatures hidden along the path of the San Juan River.

300 million year old sea beds support striking landforms such as Comb Ridge, the Monument Upwarp, and the notorious twists of canyon that wander through Goosenecks State Park.

The the warm waters of Slickhorn Gulch is a perfect spot of swimming on a hot summer day, and as the cloak of night falls upon the canyon, river travelers join fellow rafters around campfires to listen to the mysterious sounds of nature’s hidden nightlife.

General Information

The Utah section of the San Juan River is a popular recreational destination.

The summer months provide whitewater, fishing, hiking and camping. The San Juan River from Bluff, Utah, to Lake Powell is managed by the Bureau of Land Management‘s Monticello Field Office. Permits are required recreation on the river.

Access Points

There are only four access points to the San Juan River:

1.  Montezuma Creek, 20 river miles above Bluff, is the first access point for day trips.

2.  The village of Bluff is provides primary access for multi-day floats of the canyon segments.

3. The Mexican Hat village is the access point for the 58-mile Lower San Juan, the Goosenecks segment, and major side canyons.

4.  Clay Hills Crossing, is the take-out point for all boats.