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Upper San Juan River Canoe Trips

Fun and Adventure on the Upper San Juan

A canoeing adventure on the San Juan River in Utah combines the rugged beauty of the desert canyons and a myriad of historical sites near the river’s edge. Truly a life vein to the native people of the area, the San Juan River features a multitude of excellent options for multi-day canoeing excursions.

A canoeing adventure on the San Juan River in Utah combines the rugged beauty of the desert canyons and a myriad of historical sites near the river’s edge. Truly a life vein to the native people of the area, the San Juan River features a multitude of excellent options for multi-day canoeing excursions. A trip encompassing the upper section of an otherwise 8-day canoe trip is an excellent option for those who have less time to spare and for paddlers wishing to spend more time on extensive side-hikes and trips to see some of the more seldom explored side-canyons and vistas.

Originating in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, melting snow in the spring provides a run-off that slowly makes its way towards southern Utah each year. Regulated, in part by Navajo Dam, upstream of our river trip, flows are generally quite standard each April. Our trips coincide with springtime in the Utah desert. Cacti and wildflower are often seen flowering and the weather is generally quite spectacular, with warm temperatures during the day and ample sunshine.

The upper section of the San Juan River is generally regarded as one of the premier historical canoe trips in the lower 48 in the sense that paddlers have the chance to visit some of the most cherished and well-preserved sites of the ancient people of the late Puebloan people. While inhabited for thousands of years prior, the most striking remnants including fascinating cliff paintings and dwellings carved into the sandstone are mostly attributed to these Pueblo people over nearly 1,300 years ago.

As our canoe trip descends downstream, it is easy to imagine why native people have called the San Juan River valley home for generation upon generation. It’s fertile and wide, gently sloping upper reaches that encompass this Upper San Juan River trip was a perfect home for the megafauna such as camels, sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and two species of elephant that actually evolved in the San Juan River valley after crossing land bridges from Eurasia and Africa. Hunted to extinction, the loss of these animals in North America caused the native people of the San Juan to move more towards a migratory gathering lifestyle.

Throughout the first few days of the San Juan canoe trip, we will able to spot several Toehold Routes high on the rocks above the river. Referred to as ‘Moki Steps’ they are amazing examples of the ingenuity of the ancient inhabitants of this river corridor. Our professional canoe guides will make sure to point out these and other sometimes difficult to spot landmarks on our trip downstream.

Moving downstream, we will take ample time for enjoyable and leisurely side-hikes to points of interest. Places with spectacular pictograph panels stretching from the river edge are excellent locations to explore the deep canyons that enter the San Juan River in this area.

Along the journey we will visit the most impressive ruin of Anasazi life found on the San Juan River canoe trip. Riverhouse Ruins, appearing to be almost built into the cliff wall is one of the largest and most well-preserved houses of its kind throughout the greater river valley. It’s dark red hues and perfectly constructed rooms is a haven for photographers and evidence of the activities that took place in these ruins is quite evident, including pieces of brightly colored and ornate pottery, as well as small husks of corn discarded thousands of years prior. Our professional canoe guides are well versed on the history of this area and are happy to pass along more information while on the canoe trip to enhance your understanding of this important ruin.

Throughout the duration of the trip, the San Juan River forms the boundary of the Navajo Reservation, where it is easy to see the cultural significance that the San Juan River corridor had on their people. Comb Ridge, over 80-miles in length from end-to-end, is formed by a large fold in the crust of the earth known as a monocline. When viewed from the panoramic view afforded by a canoe trip, it’s green, yellow, oranges, and reds, appearing striated in nature, are often attributed as giving inspiration to the Navajo people in the creation of their beautifully woven blankets typical of this part of the country.

From the beginning of the canoe trip, the river features speed and current, albeit with very few difficult sets of whitewater. This allows for ample time for canoe instruction and working on your paddling strokes to ensure proper technique upon reaching the larger whitewater on this trip. Formations of limestone is prominent throughout the San Juan River featuring beautiful red rock that lights up into majestic colors during sunrise and sunset. The picturesque scenery provides excellent wilderness photography options.

Above Medicine Hat we reach our larger sections of whitewater and they include locations such as 4-Foot Rapids and Ledge Rapids. As on all of Smoking Rivers canoe trips and expeditions, our professional canoe guides will assist your party in navigating these sections safely and adroitly. We will take time to scout these rapids and our staff will be happy to answer any questions before you take your turn down these exhilarating sets of whitewater.

At Mexican Hat, the location where the Upper San Juan River expedition is completed, there is an opportunity for an easy side-hike to one of the highest points of the river valley. A sunset hike here is a perfect opportunity for photographers and sightseers, as the vista extends completely throughout the river we have just paddled, the Mexican Hat formation, which gives the town of Mexican Hat its name, as well stunning and dramatic views towards the world famous Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods.

A 5-day canoe trip on the Upper San Juan River in southern Utah is perfect for those seeking to enjoy the desolation and splendor of the desert in April without the larger time commitment of 8+ days. Organized in a 5-day fashion, this river trip features the unique ability to spend almost as much time hiking as it does paddling and the river quickly immerses the canoeist in a wonderland of history, beautiful colors, and petroglyphs that make the San Juan River a true one-of-a-kind river trip in North America.

Upper San Juan River Canoe Trips

Trips Available: April
Trip Length: 5 Days
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Age Minimum: 10

50% Deposit required at time of reservation. Remainder due no later than (21) days prior to trip departure (non-refundable).
Cancellations & Refunds:
0-59 days prior to trip- deposit non-refundable
60-89 days prior to trip- 35% deposit refundable
90 days or more prior to trip- 75% refundable

Group and Youth rates available. Rates are based off a 4 person trip subject to change depending on group size and duration.

Contact Us For Pricing and Availability