Take a Relaxing Ride on the San Juan River


Photo credit: Forrest Rhinehart

In Utah, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to river rafting. With so many beautiful locations, picking just one can be a difficult task. But if you are looking for spectacular desert scenery, manageable rafting for all skill levels, and an easy drive from Salt Lake City, then look no further than the San Juan River.

A trip to Sand Island in Bluff, Utah — the most popular starting location for San Juan rafting adventures — is a five-and-a-half hour drive from downtown. It is important that you do some research before you get out on the water, especially if you are unfamiliar with river rafting.

It’s a good idea to either find a friend who has experience or throw down some money for a guided river trip offered by one of the companies in the area. Having a knowledgeable guide will make your experience much more enjoyable. The U sometimes offers guided trips on the San Juan in the spring through the Outdoor Recreation program. Permits are required for rafting the river.

It was late May two years ago when I ventured down the San Juan on a trip led by a couple friends who are experienced river runners. They had done the stretch of river that we were floating every year for the past decade or so. I felt like I was in good hands, even though it was technically my inexperienced father who was rowing our boat. We still managed to make it out in one piece, as the river is relatively calm.

Late spring is a great time to experience the San Juan, as the daytime temperatures have not yet reached the sweltering heat of summer. Though it is still a bit too chilly to swim, you can take a quick dip and dry off in the sun.

Unlike many southern Utah rafting options, the San Juan is unique, sporting a gradual drop in depth that makes for a mellow ride. It is also ideal in that the sand shifts constantly, adding a bit of excitement and making every trip down the river a little different.

In addition to the calm pace and stunning scenery, there were some fun rapids during the two-day stretch that I went on (they were nothing too scary). But it’s a nice switch-up from the otherwise leisurely floating over the calm muddy river with blue skies and towering red rock formations.

The San Juan is a great choice for a relaxing float down the river with plenty of opportunities to hop out and stretch your legs with some hiking through canyons and up to stunning vistas. Keep your eye out for pictographs, as well as Anasazi and ancestral Puebloan ruins found all along the river bank. Make sure not to miss the Butler Wash Pictograph panel, which is a must see along the San Juan.

There are lots of small beaches along the way to pull up for the night to make camp. Listening to the river flow past while sleeping under the desert stars made for some of the most restful nights of my life.

Another great aspect of a trip down the San Juan is that you can tailor the length to anywhere from a day to a full week. I went for three days and two nights, and it was just about perfect, as I was getting a little bit tired of the constant packing and moving by that point.

If you have yet to make it down to the southern Utah rivers, now is the time to plan a rafting trip down the San Juan. It is a great river for an introduction to rafting or for the seasoned veteran who wants to have a relaxing trip in the desert.

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