Sand Island to Mexican Hat | San Juan River

Floating Sand Island to Mexican Hat - San Juan River Floating Sand Island to Mexican Hat

San Juan River

Overview

RATING: Class 2
CFS RANGE: 500 - 10,000
CURRENT CFS: Getting current CFS.... Full Details
MAPS: BLUFF, UT; SAN JUAN HILL, UT; MEXICAN HAT, UT; WHITE ROCK POINT, UT

Sat

Sunny, with a high near 82. Southwest wind 5 to 20 mph, with gusts as high as 35 mph.

82 | 54

Sun

Sunny, with a high near 84.

84 | 49

Mon

Sunny, with a high near 88.

88 | 52

Tue

Sunny, with a high near 91.

91 | 54

Wed

Sunny, with a high near 92.

92 | 56

View Full Weather Details
SEASON: Any
GEAR: Standard Rafting Gear
WATER: Bring all you need for drinking.

Sat

Sunny, with a high near 82. Southwest wind 5 to 20 mph, with gusts as high as 35 mph.

82 | 54

Sun

Sunny, with a high near 84.

84 | 49

Mon

Sunny, with a high near 88.

88 | 52

Tue

Sunny, with a high near 91.

91 | 54

Wed

Sunny, with a high near 92.

92 | 56

View Full Weather Details

San Juan River was one of my most sought after trips that took me a long time to actually do! The section described here, from Sand Island to Mexican Hat, is a 27-mile float through both geological wonder and Native American rock art and ruins that are absolutely stunning to behold. This is one of the finest floats in Utah and very family friendly.

Permit: The trip requires a permit. The permit system is a lottery that is drawn months in advance. For details on the lottery, or to enter, see the Recreation.gov site. I am never good at planning that far ahead, so have never entered the lottery.

Pro Trip: If you are flexible and patient, cancellations become available on the recreation.gov site as soon as a permit holder cancels them. We got our permit from someone else's cancellation about 3 weeks before our spring break trip. This can work particularly well if you have a small group.

When: This section is generally float-able year round. Spring and fall would be my preferred seasons for more moderate temperatures. Summer will be hot, but you have the river to cool off in.

Bugs can be a problem at the put-in during spring through fall, but typically don't seem to be a problem below the put-in. I would still bring bug spray just in case.

Trip Length: Some people float this section in one day, others take 4+ days. I believe there is a lot to see, so would recommend at least 3 days. We took 4 and didn't get all the side hikes in I had hoped to.

Water: The BLM recommends bringing all the water you will need for the trip. The San Juan is both silty, and possibly contaminated from mining in the area. Be sure, especially in hotter times of the year, to bring plenty. We brought a gallon per person per day, and it was more than enough for a cool spring trip, but in the heat of summer, I probably would have brought more.

Flows: The BLM recommends 500 CFS, though I saw a few reports of people who had floated it as low as 350 CFS. Our trip was between 500 and 600 CFS in a moderately loaded 16' cataraft. I would, personally, likely not want to go below 500 CFS in that size raft. Higher flows will be a faster float, at 500-600CFS, we averaged about 2.5 MPH with little rowing.

Some canoe this section, but if canoeing, remember it is class II. I, with a fair bit of class I and some class II canoe experience, was glad we had not tried to do it in a canoe. This is not a section I would recommend for those without at least a little Class II canoe experience first. Duckies would work great and be a lot of fun.

On the other end of the spectrum, reports as high as 7,000+ CFS seem to indicate it can be fast and pushy in very high water, but still do-able. For beginning rafters, I would probably recommend 2,000 or less CFS.

Shuttle Logistics: The float requires a shuttle from Mexican Hat to Sand Island. The route is paved and about 22 miles, all but a short dirt section to the Mexican Hat Ramp on pavement.

If you want help with the shuttle, Wild Expeditions in Bluff does them, as does Val's in Mexican Hat.

Navajo Permit: The left side of the river is Navajo Nation land. Stopping, hiking, or camping anywhere on the left side of the river requires a permit from the Navajo Nation gotten in advance. It usually takes a few weeks, so be sure to send in the information for one early. You can find information on obtaining one at the Navajo Nation Parks Website.

We got a permit for our trip and felt it was very worthwhile. There are many great campsites and side hikes on the Navajo side of the river.

River Miles and Camping: The map shows river miles, with the put-in, Sand Island boat ramp, being mile 0. Keep an eye on the map to make sure you don't miss any of the excellent side hikes, rock art, or ruins.

Camp sites shown on the map are the larger, more common sites. The ones shown on the map should all be able to hold medium groups. You can, however, camp outside these sites, anywhere that strikes your fancy. Smaller groups will have no shortage of small sites they can find that will be delightful.

We camped the first night at Upper River House Ruin, the second night at Midway, and the third at Fossil Stop, which seemed like a good mix of rafting and having time to explore along the way.

Note: Campsites are shown where they were in 2024. Floods and use can change sites, even completely eroding some over time. Remember, you need a permit to camp at any site on the river-left.

Getting There

Put-In
The put-in is at Sand Island Campground and boat ramp. This is about 4 miles west of Bluff on US-191 heading towards Mexican Hat.

Take-out
From Sand Island, continue heading west on US-191. It soon reaches a junction. Stay straight toward Mexican Hat. The road is now US-163. Just as you reach Mexican Hat, the boat ramp is down a dirt road on the left (south) side of the road. This is at mile marker 21.55, and just before the large gas station on the right. Follow the dirt road down to the river.

Route

Rock Art and Historic Site Etiquette
Rock art and historic sites are fragile, non-renewable cultural resources that, once damaged, can never be replaced. To ensure they are protected, please:
  • Avoid Touching the Petroglyphs: Look and observe, BUT DO NOT TOUCH!
  • Stay on the Trails: Stay on the most used trails when visiting sites, and don't create new trails or trample vegetation.
  • Photography and Sketching is Allowed: Do not introduce any foreign substance to enhance the carved and pecked images for photographic or drawing purposes. Altering, defacing, or damaging the petroglyphs is against the law -- even if the damage is unintentional.
  • Pets: Keep pets on a leash and clean up after them.
  • Artifacts: If you happen to come across sherds (broken pottery) or lithics (flakes of stone tools), leave them where you see them. Once they are moved or removed, a piece of the past is forever lost.

The description below mentions the sites that, we thought, were particularly noteworthy. Keep an eye on the map, especially the first 6-7 miles, there is a lot there to stop and see.


From the put-in, it is just a few minutes before the river goes under the highway bridge. Just after the bridge, the river comes close to the cliff on river right. There is supposed to be a rock art panel right here, visible from the river, but we didn't see it. Keep an eye out as you go by!

Tiger striped wall near mile 1.7

Tiger striped wall near mile 1.7

1.7 Mile Camp, on the right, is the first real camp after the put-in. The river goes by a stunning striped wall here on river left.

Crane Panel near Butler Camp

Crane Panel near Butler Camp

3 mile - Just after mile 3, the river goes close to a cliff on river right. There are some moki steps here, visible from the river with a close eye. Just down from here is Butler Camp. From Butler Camp there is a mix of social and animal trails that head north to the cliff where a fascinating rock art panel is. The small panel appears to be a hunter and several sandhill cranes. This can be difficult to find, GPS highly recommended, and it usually requires a bit of bushwhacking. I think it is well worth it.

Part of the panel near Butler Wash

Part of the panel near Butler Wash

Another part of the Butler Wash Panel

Another part of the Butler Wash Panel

Between mile 4 and 5 Butler Wash comes in on the right. This major drainage has an impressive rock art panel from its mouth that extends east for several hundred feet along the cliff band. There is also a petroglyph and ruin up lower Butler Wash proper. Follow the map and very well-worn social trails to visit.

The river splits just below Butler Wash. Stay in the right channel if it looks deep enough. There is a set of moki steps here that are harder to see from the left channel. Right where the two channels come back together is Kachina Panel stop.

Part of the Kachina Panel

Part of the Kachina Panel

Kachina Panel

Note: You are not allowed to camp at Kachina Panel.

The Kachina Panel is often considered one of the largest and most impressive panels in the area. There is a BLM information sign near the river and a social trail that goes up to, and along the cliff base to visit the panel.

Hike: To visit River House Ruin, most continue floating for about another 0.75 mile to a closer beach spot. Those wanting a hike can hike a trail that soon becomes a dirt road west to River House. The hike allows for seeing some additional rock art like Joe's Corral. If hiking this road, keep an eye out on the cliff face. There are a number of small petroglyphs between Joe's Corral and River House Ruin if you have a keen eye.  The dirt road crosses private property around Joe's Corral, so visit respectfully. As of 2024, access is allowed. Hopefully, people will continue to visit respectfully and access will continue to be allowed. 
River House Ruin

River House Ruin

A beautiful ruin just west of River House. I love the lines and way it fits in.

A beautiful ruin just west of River House. I love the lines and way it fits in.

The staircase heading up to River House Ruin

The staircase heading up to River House Ruin

From Kachina Panel, in the next 0.7 mile of river, there are two good camp sites called Upper River House Ruin and River House Camp. Both of these have trails that visit River House Ruin to the north of the river. Follow the most used trail from either campsite. River House Ruin is very easy to spot once close. There are additional ruins just a short distance west of the main ruin, so be sure to walk along the base of the cliff a couple of minutes to see them. 

Background Info: Situated along the banks of the San Juan River, the ruins are believed to date back to the ancestral Puebloan people, also known as the Anasazi, who inhabited the area from around 1200 BC to 1300 AD.

The exact purpose of the River House Ruin remains a subject of scholarly debate, but it is thought to have served as a residential complex, possibly housing several families. Its strategic location near the San Juan River suggests that the inhabitants may have relied on agriculture, fishing, and trade for sustenance and livelihood.
Rock art river left near River House Camp

Rock art river left near River House Camp

Just below River House Camp, keep an eye high on the left for a panel tucked up among the cliffs.  

View from up on the old wagon trail up Comb Ridge. Mule Ear visible in the distance.

View from up on the old wagon trail up Comb Ridge. Mule Ear visible in the distance.

Inscription from the wagon company.

Inscription from the wagon company.

What little remains of the old trading post.

What little remains of the old trading post.

Just a few minutes down from River House Camp, where the right bank becomes rock and dirt, is Barton Trading Post and San Juan Hill. This is another great spot to stop for a short hike. From the river hike up to visit the old trading post site. 

The Rincone (Old Trading Post)
The Rincone, aka Barton's Trading Post, is right next the road past San Juan Hill. From the information sign at the site:

"Rincone, Spanish for corner, was the name given this bench land which forms a right angle junction of Comb Ridge and the San Juan River. Being a popular site for the fording of the river, William Hyde established a trading post here in the early 1880s to trade with the Indians. In 1885 Hyde's son-in-law and partner, Amasa Barton, moved to the Rincone to run the enterprise. Barton built a log home, warehouse, blacksmith shop, corral and established a garden. For irrigation, water was brought up from the river by a water wheel.

Early one morning in June 1887, two Navajos came into the store and began arguing with Barton. In the heated confrontation that followed, one of the Navajo s pulled a gun and accidentally killed his companion and fatally wounded Amasa Barton. Tense hours and days followed the shooting for it was feared that it could lead to a major confrontation. Through the diplomacy of the settlers in Bluff and Navajo leaders, further bloodshed was prevented.

Following the Bartons, cowboys of the Elk Mountain Cattle Company moved in, making this the center of their operation throughout the late 1880s. Today the walls of the milk house and the platform for the water well (east of here) are all that remain of the trading post.

-Hole-in-the-Rock Association."

San Juan Hill
From the trading post, follow the dirt road north, then west to a spur road that goes to the base of Comb Ridge. Follow the spur road to the fence, information sign, and old wagon trail.

The trail, leading up Comb Ridge behind the fence, is not nearly as well-defined as I expected, but with a close eye, can be followed up. There are occasional historic trail markers along the way as well. We followed it up about 0.4 mile, then stepped off the old trail to the west for nice views. En route there is a short side trail and marker and what, I assume, is an original pioneer inscription: We Thank Thee O God.

Views while hiking in Chinle Creek

Views while hiking in Chinle Creek

Below the trading post area, the nature of the float begins to change. Sandstone cliffs begin to diminish as the geology changes.  About mile 9, Chinle Creek comes in on river left. If you have a permit, this is a fantastic drainage to hike up. Stopping at the Lower Chinle Camp allows for easy access to Chinle Creek. Lower Chinle Camp is a large, sandy camp with a few cottonwood trees. It would make a great spot for a layover day if you are interested in hiking. 

Heading into the canyon about mile 10.

Heading into the canyon about mile 10.

About mile 10, the river begins cutting into the Honaker formation and the canyon deeps dramatically.  Be on the lookout for bighorn sheep throughout the next canyon section. They blend in well, but we spotted quite a few on our trip. 

Just before mile 12 is the first named rapid of the trip, Four Foot Rapid. This is an easy read-and-run rapid. 

About mile 12.75 Perched Meander comes in on river right.  This old abandoned meander can be hiked around. About a 3-mile off trail hike. 

Sunrise at Midway camp.

Sunrise at Midway camp.

Just past mile 13 is Midway Camp on river right. A side canyon comes in here that makes a great side hike. The social trail goes up the bottom of the canyon. Just a few minutes up, a large dry fall is encountered. Most turn around here, we did; however, you can continue up via the steep, loose social trail that bypasses the falls on the right. Above are several more similar falls, though with persistence you can reach the very to of the canyon. 

Midway Camp, as well as many of the camps in this canyon section, has a lot of fossils in the limestone rock layer if you keep an eye out. 

Eight Foot Rapid from the bottom. You can see the big boulder you need to go river right of.

Eight Foot Rapid from the bottom. You can see the big boulder you need to go river right of.

From Midway Camp, it is about 4 miles to mile 17. Just after mile 17 is Eight Foot Rapid, the most difficult on this stretch. The rapid can be scouted from river left. In general, stay on the right as you go around the bend to go between a large boulder and the right side of the river bank, then pull left back into the center of the channel. Fun little rapid and was bumpy for us in the 500-CFS range. 

Old stone chimney in Soda Basin.

Old stone chimney in Soda Basin.

Below Eight Food Rapid is the narrowest section of the canyon.  It is less than 2 miles to Soda Basin, a wider section of the canyon that had oil and gas exploration done in the early 1900's on river right. Some old artifacts are still visible here and worth the stop. An old road links Soda Basin to Lime Creek and makes a great evening hike if camping along this section on river right. I stays close to the river but high enough to get excellent views. 

History: In 1907 Emery Goodridge began drilling for oil along the San Juan. His highly successful drilling started an oil boom to the region and gave rise to the town of Mexican Hat. The remnants of exploratory oil wells and the primitive road to Lime Creek here were built in 1928 by the Utah Southern Oil Company. Like many oil prospectors, they found no oil and abandoned their machinery.
Ledge Rapid from above.

Ledge Rapid from above.

The last named rapid of this stretch, Ledge Rapid, is on the bend at the end of Soda Basin. This is about mile 19.5. The rapid is generally read-and-run. You have to stay relatively right to avoid the shallow, rocky shoal on the left, but pull back from the right enough to avoid being pushed under the overhang on river right. At least at our flows, this was very straightforward.

From the sulfur spring area of the river below.

From the sulfur spring area of the river below.

After Ledge Rapid, it is easy going. The canyon opens broadly at Fossil Stop Camp, about mile 20 and the scenery changes. At about mile 22, as the river makes a bend, there are several sulfur springs up on river right. We stopped to check them out, but most might not find them very interesting. From there, it is about 5 miles to the Mexican Hat Boat Ramp on river right. Be sure not to miss it! 


Maps

Printable Maps:
Sand Island Put-in

12S 623023mE 4124785mN

N37° 15' 41" W109° 36' 45"

1.7 Mile Camp (R)

12S 622362mE 4122544mN

N37° 14' 29" W109° 37' 14"

Goldmine Camp (R)

12S 622068mE 4122657mN

N37° 14' 33" W109° 37' 25"

2.2 Mile Camp (R)

12S 621746mE 4122765mN

N37° 14' 37" W109° 37' 38"

3 Mile Camp (L)

12S 620095mE 4122390mN

N37° 14' 25" W109° 38' 46"

Moki Steps

12S 619792mE 4122527mN

N37° 14' 30" W109° 38' 58"

Butler Wash Camp (R)

12S 619545mE 4122171mN

N37° 14' 18" W109° 39' 08"

Crane Hunter

12S 619381mE 4122388mN

N37° 14' 25" W109° 39' 15"

Ruin

12S 618424mE 4122279mN

N37° 14' 22" W109° 39' 53"

Petroglyph

12S 618362mE 4122071mN

N37° 14' 16" W109° 39' 56"

Panels

12S 618505mE 4121987mN

N37° 14' 13" W109° 39' 50"

Moki Step View

12S 618229mE 4121761mN

N37° 14' 06" W109° 40' 02"

Kachina Panel Stop (R)

12S 618040mE 4121583mN

N37° 13' 60" W109° 40' 09"

Desecration Camp (L)

12S 617866mE 4121023mN

N37° 13' 42" W109° 40' 17"

5.7 Upper River House Camp (R)

12S 617217mE 4120407mN

N37° 13' 22" W109° 40' 44"

River House Camp (R)

12S 616289mE 4120007mN

N37° 13' 10" W109° 41' 21"

Petroglyph High River Left

12S 616264mE 4119906mN

N37° 13' 06" W109° 41' 22"

River House Ruin

12S 616390mE 4120420mN

N37° 13' 23" W109° 41' 17"

Panel

12S 616514mE 4120466mN

N37° 13' 24" W109° 41' 12"

Joe's Corral

12S 617213mE 4120869mN

N37° 13' 37" W109° 40' 43"

Cottonwood Camp (L)

12S 616034mE 4119877mN

N37° 13' 05" W109° 41' 32"

Old Trading Post

12S 615799mE 4120033mN

N37° 13' 11" W109° 41' 41"

San Juan Hill Sign

12S 615557mE 4120296mN

N37° 13' 19" W109° 41' 51"

Pioneer Inscription

12S 615567mE 4120748mN

N37° 13' 34" W109° 41' 50"

Comb Ridge Camp (R)

12S 615446mE 4119916mN

N37° 13' 07" W109° 41' 56"

Lime Ridge Camp (R)

12S 614058mE 4119143mN

N37° 12' 43" W109° 42' 52"

Upper Chinle Camp (L)

12S 614164mE 4118689mN

N37° 12' 28" W109° 42' 48"

Chinle Camp (L)

12S 614128mE 4118378mN

N37° 12' 18" W109° 42' 50"

Big Stick Camp (R)

12S 613869mE 4118070mN

N37° 12' 08" W109° 43' 01"

Chinle Creek

12S 614118mE 4117778mN

N37° 11' 58" W109° 42' 51"

Lower Chinle Camp (L)

12S 613475mE 4117410mN

N37° 11' 47" W109° 43' 17"

Mule Ear Camp (L)

12S 613317mE 4117030mN

N37° 11' 34" W109° 43' 24"

10.3 Camp (Small) (R)

12S 612436mE 4117423mN

N37° 11' 47" W109° 43' 59"

10.4 Camp (L)

12S 612369mE 4117628mN

N37° 11' 54" W109° 44' 02"

Prospector Loop Camp (R)

12S 611632mE 4117698mN

N37° 11' 57" W109° 44' 32"

Perched Meander

12S 611211mE 4119565mN

N37° 12' 57" W109° 44' 48"

Midway Camp (R)

12S 610767mE 4118958mN

N37° 12' 38" W109° 45' 06"

14.9 Camp (L)

12S 609203mE 4117044mN

N37° 11' 37" W109° 46' 10"

15.5 Camp (R)

12S 609524mE 4116353mN

N37° 11' 14" W109° 45' 58"

Eight Foot Rapid

12S 607848mE 4115970mN

N37° 11' 02" W109° 47' 06"

Lower Eight Foot Camp (L)

12S 607818mE 4116258mN

N37° 11' 12" W109° 47' 07"

Below Lower Eight Foot Camp (L)

12S 607762mE 4116419mN

N37° 11' 17" W109° 47' 09"

Old Well

12S 605670mE 4116385mN

N37° 11' 17" W109° 48' 34"

Old Structure

12S 605603mE 4116383mN

N37° 11' 17" W109° 48' 37"

Rock Chimney and Foundation

12S 605660mE 4116485mN

N37° 11' 20" W109° 48' 34"

Ledge Rapid

12S 605437mE 4115838mN

N37° 10' 59" W109° 48' 44"

Ledge Camp (L)

12S 605386mE 4115761mN

N37° 10' 56" W109° 48' 46"

Lower Ledge Camp (L)

12S 605257mE 4115535mN

N37° 10' 49" W109° 48' 51"

Fossil Stop Camp (R)

12S 604121mE 4115526mN

N37° 10' 49" W109° 49' 37"

Stairmaster Camp (L)

12S 603824mE 4115447mN

N37° 10' 47" W109° 49' 49"

Lime Creek Camp (R)

12S 603075mE 4115888mN

N37° 11' 02" W109° 50' 20"

Sulfur Springs

12S 602182mE 4117162mN

N37° 11' 43" W109° 50' 55"

Pouroff Camp (R)

12S 601773mE 4116944mN

N37° 11' 36" W109° 51' 12"

Mexican Hat Camp (L)

12S 601905mE 4115677mN

N37° 10' 55" W109° 51' 07"

25 Mile Camp (L)

12S 603787mE 4113705mN

N37° 09' 50" W109° 49' 52"

Mexican Hat Takeout

12S 601798mE 4111808mN

N37° 08' 50" W109° 51' 13"

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