San Juan River Canoe Beginers

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?


What Eric says

– Last Updated: Dec-26-07 4:14 PM EST –

I want to emphasize the credence I'd give to Eric Nyre's opinion. He's a real expert.

I can add that I did the San Juan from Bluff to Clay Hills Crossing two years ago in mid-April. Our group ranged from an advanced beginner or two to a couple of paddlers who are very strong and ran all the rapids. (I've also done the section of the Green River that you have, and it's much, much easier).

Most of us ran some rapids, lined some and portaged Government Rapids. Even lining some of the rapids was quite difficult--and our group included 4 adult men and 3 adult women, so we had quite a bit of muscle to put into the task.

The current is strong and the water is cold. The canyon winds can be brutal. One day we did only 8 miles, and a guided group we talked to did only 2 miles because of the wind blowing up the canyon. With somewhat higher water, the trip could turn into a real struggle. If I were you, I think I'd pass on a March trip down the San Juan for now.

P.S. Same trip as PK--glad to see our opinion isn't too different.

Hey John, how’s it going out there in Cyberland. Rarely check in here much, but happened to be slow and caught this one. Not surprising we had a similar opinion…

Sure would like to do another western canoe trip one of these years. Guess I’ll have to start stirring the pot on that, again.


I ran it with a group at about 1800cfs.
Everyone ran everything, though there was some chicken-routing at Gypsum Creek Rapid and Ross Rapid. Government Rapid would be a pain to portage, but our Maine Guides were running it standing up.

I think the issue is whether you are comfortable kneeling for stability on a fairly big, cold river. When I used to lead a lot of trips, I could get people through the “name” rapids with scouting and coaching, but the problems came in the no-name intervals where some weren’t ready to spot lurking rocks or eddy lines.

If you get doubtful about readiness, consider just going from Bluff to Mexican Hat. Make more stops to camp and explore. I found the upper canyon section more varied and interesting than the lower canyons. Most of the accessible ruins are on the upper section. There are several good hikes where you can get fantastic vistas of the geology. The only rapid that would need caution is Eight Foot, and with spring water levels, it is easy to sneak down the left side.

Thanks for your help on this. The San Juan might not be a good choice for us at that time of year. The cold water and rapids aren’t a good mix. Does anyone know of any mellow warm water that would be OK for kid’s spring break in late March?

Thanks again,


Maybe one of the quieter parts of the

– Last Updated: Dec-27-07 2:35 PM EST –

Rio Grande down in the Big Bend area? I haven't run any of them, but I think there are some where there are no major rapids to deal with.

I have more experience with rivers in Louisiana and Mississippi, but while weather can be very good in late March, it also can be changeable and violent.

Check out this link on Texas camping rivers.

March going to be very iffy

– Last Updated: Dec-27-07 4:43 PM EST –

on the San Juan. Could get a mild spring day, but more likely a cold, windy day. The windiest day I have ever spent on a river was an early April day from Oljeto Canyon to Clay's Crossing. I do this river all the time and think the rapids are trivial but notice that canoer's, especially new ones, do not. There are many photos under the San Juan trip reports on my web site, including a March trip:

As someone else pointed out, the Rio Grande would be a warm option, although likely very low water at that time of year. It's such a pain to do Big Bend commute-wise for most people. Colorado Canyon has rapids very similiar to the San Juan but either Santa Elena or Boquillas Canyon would be a mild paddle. Be aware of the legendary Rockslide obstacle if doing Santa Elena.

There is also a TR with photos of a Colorado-through-Santa Elena on my site for a trip we did at higher water this fall.

Canyonlands hard to beat for a family flatwater trip. If tired of the Green River to Confluence section, can always do Potash for a change.


san juan
i did the Sj about 15 years ago.

From what i remember may have a difficult time lineing in some rapids especially the one near slcikhorn canyon since there are high cliffs on the side. all the rapids are straight forward. not really technical…i think they fluctuate between class 2-4 depending on water levels. I went with a couple people who didnt have a lot of expereince and no mishaps to report. I went the last week of March before the permits went into effect. WE had cold temps and snow then but it was nice too. Not sure your ablity so dont want to say ‘go for it’ because you could get wet. There are Five major rapids that need to be scouted for the route thru…they change all the time due to water levels. Are you going to be in ONE canoe? You probably could line or portage if you had to. The rapids are very short except for the one near slickhorn which was about 120 yards long. the others were much less than that.

Sounds like you prefer flat water…try the Missouri from Ft. Benton to James Kipp landing…you could plan a week trip in there easily. Lots of nice sceanery and historic white cliffs that lewis and clark talked about in theri journals.


Some of us who aren’t so tough
might find the Missouri in Montana a bit of a hard go in March. I’d guess you might get some cold weather–but someone from Idaho would know better than I.

The difficulty here is to find a place to take a long trip in March on relatively flat water (I’m guessing the timing is set because of the kids spring break).

John_R has characterized himself as a beginner–that may be modest (if nothing else you’ve got to be an expert canoe camper to take a teenager and a pre-teen on two long trips and still be up for another!) but if I was taking a trip with my wife and 10 and 16 year old children, then I’d be pretty cautious as well.

What about doing the Green River starting at Mineral Bottom and finishing at Spanish Bottom? You’ve already done the upper part of the river and it’s just as beautiful (IMHO) in the second half. It is a little more expensive because you have to arrange and pay for the jet boat shuttle out. I don’t think that would cost a lot more, though, than going all the way to the Rio Grande, which is the only other river I can think of where a group of less than expert canoeists could take a long wilderness trip in March. Even the Green could be pretty cold in March, but at least it’s pretty tame.

If you wait until school’s out, then the Missouri would be great–or living where you do, you would have all kinds of options.

Why would anyone line rapids in the
San Juan? I would put Government at a low class 3, but the rest are all sneakable by paddling alternate routes. Did you have enormously high water? Up to a point, more water would make 8 Foot and Government easier, and Ross wouldn’t be harder.

I agree about the rapids.
The river is rated as a Class II with one Class III (Government). I wouldn’t rate it that high. IMHO, 8 Foot as a solid class II with the others being considerably easier. Government is a II+ to III- depending on the flow. To me, it’s harder to get a clear line at low water than at mid to high flows.

But because it’s an easy river, it draws from a larger pool of beginners than usual, and very few people use floatation. I think that is why all the talk of lining/portaging appears.

The last time through Governement, my partner lined. He had a high confidence level on making it, but just thought it would be too much trouble cleaning up the mess if he didn’t. Especially when comparing it to the 10 minutes it took to line.

Two trips ago running 8 Foot, I watched a newbie in a borrowed canoe freeze, quit paddling, and go swimming. Lost the chairs but nothing else. Looking at the ripples/dents in the new canoe broke the owners heart. Here are some photos of the scene:

Lining on the San Juan
g2d–not everybody is that good. We had a very mixed group running mostly small solo boats, heavily loaded (none dedicated whitewater canoes) with no flotation. The water wasn’t particularly high, but (except for two of us) we lined 8-foot, walked the boats down the sneak line at Gypsum Creek (there wasn’t enough water to paddle loaded down the sneak line) and portaged around Government.

On my own, I would have run everything but Government, but my wife (in a Wenonah Vagabond) was clearly not up to running those rapids, at least in that boat. She took a bad swim in Ross and I wish we’d stopped and I’d helped her line Ross as well.

gcouch–I don’t think your experience running inflatables is very applicable to people running open canoes–especially canoes that are not dedicated whitewater boats. You can pretty easily run rapids that are much more difficult in an open canoe without flotation. You may have a skill level that would also let you run the same rapids comfortably in an open canoe, but not everyone does.

We put safety first and don’t push our limits, especially on a week-long trip. It may be wimpy, but there you go.