If you’ve always wanted to raft Grand Canyon but don’t have the time (trips run from three to 18 days) or the nerve and aren’t a fan of camping, a day spent rafting the San Juan River with Wild Rivers Expeditions is a great alternative. While the canyon walls we encountered on the 26-mile stretch south of Bluff, Utah aren’t nearly as imposing, they’re memorable. We shared the six-man raft with Marcus, our Navajo guide and raft master, and a German travel-writer couple who are working on a guidebook. During spring and summer when the river runs swiftly, the rafts are powered by oars. When the river is slower, small motors are used. Our late in the season voyage was mostly under motor with a bit of floating. We had a lot of miles to cover that day. We stopped twice for side trips and once for a pit stop on our eight-hour journey down the river. The rest of the time we floated and enjoyed the spectacular scenery engrossed in Marcus’ running commentary on the geology, culture and history of this portion of the river. His skill as waterman honed over 17 years, make him the ideal person to bring this beautiful river to life.
Our first stop was at Butler Wash to see a wall of petroglyphs. Marcus, our Navajo guide, who knew the river like the back of his hand, was a bit surprised at the steep bank we had to ascend from the raft to get to land. I didn’t think I’d make it but with the aid of rope and Marcus’ steady hand, I did. I felt like Queen of the World. We hiked a short distance to the cliff with the pictorial images carved into the rock by the Basketmaker II people, some carved as much as 1,500 years ago. Because the site is only accessible from the river or a one-track dirt road, we only encountered three other people there. The wall, with hundreds of glyphs carved into the rock wall is breath-taking, especially to petroglyph lovers like us. We took a lot of photos before heading back to the raft.
The second stop was at River House, an ancestral pueblo dating to about 900AD and occupied until the late 1200s), is located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The site, accessible only from the river or via a high-clearance four-wheel drive road, is very quiet. We got out of the beached raft, hung our life vests on a tree and set off for the site. The cliff that is home to the rock dwellings was a short walk. We also saw some rock art here. You can see pot shards as well. Leave them were you found them. It’s illegal to take artifacts off Federal lands.
After we returned to the beach from River House, Marcus set up a collapsible table and set out cold cuts, cut-up veggies, bread, chips and other goodies for an al fresco lunch. Being out on the river in the warm sun really gave me an appetite.
Rafting the San Juan River
While rafting the San Juan River we passed some waterfowl including a great blue heron. The river can get pretty crowded in during summer, but we were at the end of the season and the only other person we encountered on the river was a lone guy in a canoe. I’d expected to be miserable sitting on a raft seat for about eight hours but found it to be surprisingly comfortable and the trip was so engrossing I forgot to grouse.
As we passed the entrance to the Chinle Wash Marcus told us that popular author Tony Hillerman had gotten the inspiration for his book, A Thief in Time, part of the Joe Leaphorn series, when he spent time in this remote spot.
The peaceful surroundings combined with water sounds lulled me to sleep for a while. As we floated between canyon walls dating back about 300 million years, Marcus told us about how the rock was formed, its age and other interesting facts about what we were seeing, but the scenery was the star.
Here’s a bit of what we saw.
After a short pit stop we got back onto the raft. We noticed that Marcus had brought some willow branches onboard. While we motored down the river, Marcus kept us enthralled with his tales. What we didn’t know was that he as he talked he’d stripped the willow branches and created split-twig figures for us much like the ones the Basketmakers were known for. I had first encountered one of these, fashioned in sterling silver, when we moved to Colorado two decades ago and I’ve been wearing it on a chain around my neck since.
I didn’t know what it was until we visited the Tusayan Museum in Grand Canyon last year. The split-twig figures on display, dating from between 2,000 and 4,000 BC, had clearly inspired the one I’d been wearing all these years. I was so taken by this I bought a Grand Canyon baseball cap with one of these embroidered on it. I was wearing it to protect my head from the sun as we floated down the San Juan. How synchronistic! Marcus presented each of us with a stick animal as a souvenir of our day on the river.
Coming out of the canyon, as we neared the end of our wonderful river journey, we passed Mexican Hat Rock, a series of boulders perched one atop another. As we headed back to Bluff we encountered a rafting guide out of Flagstaff who was about to raft the San Juan for pleasure. He was thrilled to run into Marcus and told us our guide was a legend among guides. We’d spent the day with a rock star!
Our day rafting the San Juan River was a very special one; a memory we will always treasure. If you are in or around Bluff, we highly recommend this trip. Our hosts, Wild Rivers Expeditions, did a great job. Their website says their guides are all well-versed in both the history and geology of the area. Marcus sure was! If you have more time, you can take longer trip (up to 10 days). However you do it, enjoy rolling down the scenic San Juan River.
Author’s note: Our adventure rafting the San Juan River was hosted by the San Juan County Economic Development and Wild River Expeditions.