San Juan River and Beginers in Canoes

My wife and I are looking for a canoe trip to take the kids on during their spring break in late March. We are beginers and have done two canoe camping trips, one on the Green River between Green River, Utah and Mineral Bottom; the other was the lower Marias River in Montana. Both were very mellow water. The kids are 10 and 16 years old. We are considering the San Juan, but I’ve read that it has some large rapids. Can these be portaged or lined around in normal late March conditions?


San Juan Info

– Last Updated: Dec-29-07 8:04 PM EST –

I did the San Juan River last spring (1300 CFS) with my family (kids 14, 16) from Sand Island to Clay Hills. It is one of the most memorable trip I have ever taken. Now, commenting on the river and the skills required to run it is a very hard question to answer. Not having run rapids in the past will be a significant challenge for you and your crew. The current is strong and hazards come up very fast. Knowing WW strokes such as prying, drawing as well as ferrying will come in VERY useful. Yes, there are numerous rapids, most all rapids can be lined or portaged but also keep in mind that some of the smaller rapids can have good size waves and can potentially swap your canoe. If you consider running some of the rapids, most all have dry lines, of course you have to be able to recognize them and reach them in time before the current will get you in the main shot where the waves are the biggest. We portaged Government Rapid which is the biggest rapid on the river. We were also debating running Gypsum Rapid but opted to line it. A group of very experienced canoeist followed us; they ran Gypsum Rapid and some of them ended out swimming it.

So if you decide to run the San Juan proceed with caution, all your cargo should be tide in and if you feel gutsy and want to run some of the rapids, portage the packs and run the canoe unloaded. Of course always scout any rapids you have not seen or looks questionable. You must always consider the down side of any risky decision. On a final note, If you like to run more advanced rivers, find a local canoe WW clinic, you will be surprised of much you learn and it will also give you so much more confidence for future trips. If you like more info on this river contact me and I will do my best to answer your questions.

San Juan River
The previous writer has given you some good advice. I have run the San Juan several times in the past, but always in a raft and never as early as the dates you are considering. I am also a fairly competent canoeist and, like you, have paddled the Green River from the town of Green River, Utah; however, we went all the way to the Colorado River confluence rather than taking out at Mineral Bottom.

Very little of what you experienced on your Green River trip will have prepared you for what you are likely to encounter on the San Juan. My advice would be for you and your group undergo some whitewater instruction and get a couple of seasons of whitewater experience under your belts. Then, go on the San Juan accompanied by a support raft to carry your gear and drinking water so you can paddle your canoes filled only with flotation bags.

Lastly, go at a different time of year. A week-long paddling trip in the month of March would very likely be cold and miserable, especially since you are going to be wet much of the time. Remember that once you pass Mexican Hat you are committed to about four or five more days in complete wilderness conditions on a river that features long trains of really big compression waves and several significant rapids.

One of our most memorable trips was in late May–fully two months later than what you are thinking about–and the group experienced 50 mph winds, below-freezing temperatures, and rain showers. One of the group had to be treated for hypothermia. The very next week the daytime highs were in the high 90’s!

I understand the temptation to do an early season trip on the San Juan, since it is extremely difficult to get a permit for the “high use” period. However, I think you should consider putting this one on the back burner for a couple of years. Good luck, George

san juan
Why not paddle minear bottom to confluence on the Green.

As mentioned the weather is a bit iffy in march. I took some beginners in canoes on the san-juan in high water (7000) and then again in lowish (1300). However with one group we practiced in whitewater quite a bit before attempting the SJ. We had raft support. High water group took a swim at gov (CIII). March could be quite cold, and a swim a bit of a drag. Quite a few rapids, but they can be lined/portaged. One could try the first part (SI to MH), and if that is no problem, then keep going. On the low water trip the two more experienced ran some rapids twice while others walked around.

This was discussed extensively to a
duplicate post on one of the other pnet forums. On reflection, I agree with others that the problem will be more with the month than with the rapids.

We started in early May of 1999, the cfs being around 2000, and the group ranging widely in experience level. It is not really correct to say that the San Juan has many rapids. The only rapids worth discussing are those with names, Four Foot, Eight Foot, and Ledges in the upper canyon, Gypsum Creek near Mexican Hat, and Ross Rapid, Government Rapid, and Slickhorn Rapid in the lower canyon.

Four Foot is a bunch of waves that all of our boats ran without taking significant water. The waves can be skirted on the right.

Eight Foot Rapid was chicken-routed by most canoes down the left side. With a whitewater canoe and a fairly full load, I ran it dry right down the middle.

The Ledges was really just a diagonal ledge with no hole at 2000 cfs, and was rather inconsequential.

Gypsum Creek has kind of a hole near the top and then a series of close-spaced, steep waves. It can be snuck by paddling off to the right. I dodged the hole at the top but took a lot of water in the waves. I don’t think that standard canoes should try these waves unless prepared for swamping.

Ross Rapid can be snuck by going off to the right, but some of our party threaded down the left side without consequence.

Government Rapid is the only one that many open canoeists might choose to portage (on the left) at many or most water levels. I ran down the left center and didn’t take a drop. Every one of our 13 solo or tandem canoes ran it, most having some load of gear in their boats. Some took some water, but only one boat flipped, and that was because they relaxed their guard as they knifed into the left side eddy below the rapid.

Slickhorn Rapid can be snuck down the right, but it is really just a bunch of comfortably spaced waves at 2000 cfs.

There are a lot of other rapids, but they are just class 1, with long flattish sections in between.

We had one night in early May when we woke with hard frost on the tents. I personally just would not want to try the trip in March. Most wait until May or June to get higher water levels, but while that makes it easier for rafts, it makes it more difficult for some loaded canoes, and also, high water covers some nice campsites.

The San Juan in a Sea Kayak
I’ve read many posts about the San Juan, but they all relate to open canoes, anybody done it in a Sea Kayak?

What about in October, cooler weather and probably lower flow. (would that be good or bad?).

I’m thinking of a trip Fall of 2008

Thank you

I’ve only been down it one time
so take my words with caution, but I think the San Juan would be easier in a sea kayak in high water, rather than low water. In high water, people I’ve talked to say, the rapids pretty much wash out and all you have to worry about is swamping in a standing wave.

In low water at least some of the rapids are probably awfully boney. Wouldn’t the former, rathr than the later, situation be better for a sea kayak?

You may be right
You may be right, but as in the case of the Colorado, apparently the flow increases in Fall due to the decrease in demand for irrigation water… I wonder if San Juan is similar? Just have to watch the flow I guess…

Thanks for the comments, of my sea kayak is plastic, so I have a little less worry…

Theres a lot more rough water than he token 5 rapids in the guide book. You’d be fine if you learn to read water, draw, pry, rudder, stear, self rescue as well as line and portage. I think only one would be a pain to line and thats the last one before SLickhorn canyon,as i recall its a high wall on both sides.

I didnt think any of it was that big a deal but then again ive been paddling awhile.

next friday
next friday I leave for the san juan river. We are doing all 87 miles of it. I have a sot malibu xfactor and this is my first big trip. I will be traveling with a total of 10 other kayakers and apparently someone is bringing a big raft. I am really stoked, slightly nervous, but stoked. we are hoping the water is around 1000 cfs, but as you know, its always a gamble. I have already figured that I would probably be portaging government rapid, but its all relative at this point.

any other advice.

Have a good time
Yeah, we did the whole trip from Sand Island to Clay Hills in April 2006 mainly in solo canoes. Water level was over 1000, and we had a nice run. I ran everything except Government Loaded with no issues. I could have easily run that too.

Watch out for the winds… they are strong, and can easily stop some of your weaker kayakers in their tracks. Spend some time hiking. Visit all the scenic locales on the map.

Have a great time. You’ll want to paddle out west again.