San Juan Rivers of Southwest Colorado

The Navajo called it Powhuska - the Mad River. The Spaniards named one major branch El Rio de las Animas Perdidas - River of Lost Souls. Another they called Rio de la Piedra Parada - River of the Rock Wall. With headwaters among the fourteeners of the San Juans and chasms several thousand feet deep, you can understand why the San Juan River system has earned such respect.

The San Juan drains southwestern Colorado through four major forks, the Animas, the Piedra, the Navajo, and the San Juan itself. Together, they generate over a million acre-feet of runoff in a wet year. In the upper reaches, world-class kayakers find challenges that even expert skills can tackle only at moderate water levels. In the lower stretches where the river spreads across the Colorado Plateau, the flow meanders through steep walls where novice paddlers can enjoy magnificent canyon scenery and the prehistoric culture of the Anasazi.

The Animas - River of Lost Souls
The Animas is a tempestuous serpent. It comes hurtling out of the peaks above Silverton and raises hell as it plunges over 2,000 feet in the next 30 miles. Then it spreads across the flood plain, a welcoming smoothwater run into Durango. But its fury is not quite spent. Below the town, the gradient steepens again, not the life-threatening tumble of the Upper Animas but enough to give intermediate paddlers a run for their money.

Upper Animas: Silverton to Rockrwood
The river runs 28 miles from Silverton to Rockwood. With a gradient of 80 feet/mile, this stretch is for experts only, and is for no one if the water is running high. Kayakers can run it in a day, but two to three are recommended, partly to provide plenty of time for scouting quite dangerous rapids and partly to allow one to enjoy the spectacular country of 14,000 foot peaks through which the river flows. Kayaks are the preferred vehicle. Operators out of Durango offer multi-day rafting trips.

A mile below the put-in at Silverton, the river enters a monstrous chasm that splits the Needle Mountains. With fourteeners like Sunlight Peak and Mt. Eolus and thirteeners too numerous to count, the Animas snakes between giants. Sidestreams like Kendall Gulch and Sultan Creek angle in from all sides, creating foaming cauldrons. And these rapids are tame compared to what's coming.

Paddlers enjoy a brief respite through Elk Park. At a little over 8 miles, the river runs under a bridge of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad, which follows the river gorge between the two towns. A mile further, the rapids really begin - a continuous series of Class III to IV whitewater to the Needleton Packbridge six miles down. Slide Rapids early in the run rates Class V at high water, as does an 8-foot falls mid-way along.

The excitement continues for many more miles. Just below Tacoma, a bridge crosses east to west. Most paddlers take out here and follow the railroad tracks for two miles into Rockwood. Commercial rafting companies typically arrange to be picked up by the train.

DO NOT try the stretch below Rockwood. The river is impassable for the next few miles.

Remember the Upper Animas is dangerous territory. The rapids have claimed more than one life. Don't take this serpent lightly.

Middle Animas
For ten miles above Durango, the Animas is tame. Dropping only five feet/mile, the river welcomes open canoes and novice paddlers. Put in is at the Trimble Bridge just off Highway 550, with the takeout in North Durango. If you are just learning to paddle, Durango has many options for a guided run down this stretch.

Lower Animas
Although nothing like the Upper Animas, the run between Durango and Bondad Bridge offers enough whitewater to give novices and intermediates a thrill. The full run is 20 miles from the Durango put-in just north of Highway 160 to Bondad Bridge. The most tumultous rapid, though only Class II to III, is Smelter before one really even leaves Durango. After the first couple of rapids, much of the run is gentle water shared by rafters, kayakers and canoeists. Several put-ins/take-outs are possible in the middle stretchs of the run for shorter paddles.

The Piedra - River of the Rock Wall

Like its brethren the Animas, the Piedra River splits into a wild upper section and a meandering lower. The full run is 30 miles from the Piedra Road Bridge to the Navajo Reservoir.

The upper twenty miles of the Piedra make a hurried one-day or great two-day run for serious paddlers. The put-in is about 10 miles from Pagosa Springs up road 631. At that point, the river is small, but it picks up massive volumes of water over the next few miles. Just below Sand Creek, the river enters the first of two Box Canyons, the upper one known as Second Box. Second Box Rapids near the entrance and Limestone Rapids near the exit are both Class IV.

The river then runs through a stretch of Class II and III water before reaching the more challenging First Box Canyon. Here the paddler knifes between vertical walls, alternating class IV rapids with smooth pools. Emerging from First Box, the river offers rapids like Eye of the Needle and Climax, before settling into relatively smooth water to a take-out a mile before Highway 160 crosses.

Beyond Highway 160, the river settles into a 10-mile run to the Navajo Reservoir, dropping only about 200 feet with no serious rapids. To the east of the river rises the spires of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, a prehistoric settlement from which the Anasazi observed a miraculous astonomical phenomenon. Below Chimney Rock, the river parallels Highway 151, with numerous take-outs along the way.

The San Juan - The Mad River

The San Juan is tame compared to its tributaries the Animas and Piedra. The river runs 51 miles from Sand Creek to the Navajo Reservoir in 3 good paddling sections.

Only for a brief 8 miles above Pagosa Springs is the San Juan as intimidating as its neighbors. Any paddler putting in at Sand Creek and taking out at Pagosa Springs better be an expert. East Fork Gorge is a challenging half-mile of Class V tumult.

Below Pagosa, the river is a great run for the developing enthusiast. The 16 miles down to Trujillo runs through Mesa Canyon, class III whitewater great for the intermediate kayaker honing his skills. Rafts are perfect here for the less experienced.

Below the take-out/put-in at Trujillo Bridge, the SanJuan is gentler. The 27 miles down to Navajo Reservoir drop only 540 feet. A couple of class I and II rapids provide some breaks from what is mostly flatwater paddling. A road runs along the river for the better part of this section, with many opportunities for access.

Below the Navajo Reservoir, the river is powerful but gentle, with only an ocassional class III rapids. It meanders through the corners of New Mexico and Utah for over 180 miles. This is a fabulous area to take up river-running. A multi-day trip from either Farmington, New Mexico to Bluff, Utah (100 miles) or from Bluff to Lake Powell yields a float through canyon country and plenty of opportunity for side trips to explore isolated Anasazi communities. Below Mexican Hat, the river winds through the Great Goosenecks. Here the river twists and turns in a thousand foot chasm. Its convoluted route flows 6 miles to cover only a mile and a half point to point. Goosenecks State Park on the north rim offers a magnificent view of the Goosenecks' graceful curves.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 18 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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