Way more than just a river ride

ALONG THE SAN JUAN RIVER, Utah -- After floating six miles down the silty river, across from alcoves perched in a red rock bluff, we row to shore and tie off the rafts.
A short hike through a tamarisk thicket and sandy flats leads us to ruins of an Indian cliff dwelling, known as "River House." There, ancient paintings, or pictographs, of bighorn sheep, human hands and snakelike figures fill the walls. Petroglyphs are etched into the stone along a ledge near the ruins.
It's just one of many stops we'll make along our recent 84-mile journey down the lower San Juan River in southeastern Utah. The trip offers something for nearly everyone -- rock art, ancient Indian ruins, canyonland scenery and hikes, including a trail that zigzags to the top of the canyon 1,200 feet above the river.
Commercial rafting companies provide plenty of opportunities for multi-day trips down the river. Our group of private boaters launched at Sand Island, just downstream from the community of Bluff, and pulled off the water six days later at Clay Hills Crossing.
Calm waters
The usually lazy river ran high and swift in May, fed by snowmelt from mountains far upstream in Colorado.
For river runners, the allure of the San Juan isn't the heart-thumping thrill of whitewater. The river's few rapids are mild; the most difficult rated as Class III and trickiest at lower water when it becomes necessary to navigate through exposed rocks.
This river soothes and calms the soul. The canyon delights the eyes with tan and red sandstone, stained bluish-black with "desert varnish."
And there are the sand waves. They appear without notice, often in mid-river. They're small at first and then swell as they move upstream.
A few backstrokes, a pivot on the oar and my cataraft -- an inflatable boat on pontoons -- rides up and over the crest of the leading wave. It's a roller coaster ride -- up and then down into the trough. Up, then down, up, down. Then the waves are gone and the river again flows smooth.
Sand waves are a rafter's treat on the San Juan. The waves, uncommon on most rivers, form because of the high silt load and the river's steep gradient. Sand ripples form on the bottom of the river and waves build in response.
With this year's high water, sand waves popped up frequently. There were few during a trip down the river in 2004, when water levels were much lower.
Sights along the way
Among the highlights of the San Juan are a hike up Chinle Wash, where one can find Anasazi ruins; a large rock panel filled with petroglyphs, including a reclining flute player, called a Kokepelli; and a brilliant red and white pictograph of human figures.
The Goosenecks, where the river twists and meanders through the canyon, are a visual and geologic delight.
The Honaker Trail -- named after a gold prospector who built the trail to access a mining claim -- provides stunning views for hikers willing to climb to the canyon rim.
Slickhorn Gulch offers a series of pools -- one almost 10 feet deep. A swim or soak in the cool water provides welcome relief from the heat and a hike up from the river. Ferns thrive beneath ledges where water trickles over and the lush green seems almost out of place in contrast to the red and gray desert hues.
One of our party -- a veteran of several rafting trips through the Grand Canyon -- rates the San Juan as among his favorite rivers.
"I love it. I always have," says David Salm of Graton, Calif. "The whole Colorado Plateau is breathtaking."
So much so, he and others in our group snag another rafting permit and head back to float the San Juan again -- just a few days after our trip ended.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.