Rafting the San Juan River in Utah from Bluff to Mexican Hat

Rafting the San Juan River in Utah from Bluff to Mexican Hat

Ah, the beautiful, sandy, lovely San Juan. 

The San Juan is a river that flows over 383 miles starting in southwestern Colorado and flows west into Utah, eventually flowing and ending into Lake Powell. 

There are multiple different areas of the river that you can raft, fish or enjoy to your hearts content! For this post, we will be focusing on the section of river which starts in Bluff, Utah (Sand Island Put in) and continues 27 miles to the take out at Meixcan Hat, Utah. 

Sand Island Put in for Rafting in Utah for the San Juan River

The put in at Sand Island is roughly 3 miles west of Bluff Utah on Hwy 191. When you turn onto the Sand Island turn off, you will see that there are campsites to the right and left, and then the river put in as you continue straight. We have camped out the night before on almost every trip, and it makes it so easy to be able to rig your raft the next morning. Also, there is a beautiful Petroglyph Panel at the campsite that you can walk to and enjoy. 

The Sand Island Campground has 23 campsites and is 15$ per night and is open year round. We have found that the campsites closer to the rocks on the left side of the campground are better in the winter and the ones to the right on the bigger camp circle are best for the summer. Either way, all the campsites have the ability to fit up to 2 cars, 8 people and have a fire pit. *Make sure to look at the campground signs for fire restrictions, etc. 

San Juan River at Bluff, Utah at the Sand Island Put in
The Sand Island Put in during a summer trip (Yes, it can get very busy here)

Permit information: This is an extremely family friendly trip, and can be hard to come by due to it being a permitted river trip. To obtain permits and to check for cancelations of permits, look at the requirements needed for rafting trips and more, check out: Recreation.Gov 

Once you have obtained a permit for your trip, or you have been invited on a another groups permit, you are ready to get planning for your San Juan River trip! Most trips complete this top section (Sand Island to Mexican Hat) within 2-3 days, but you can take longer if you wish and do a layover day and hike some beautiful trails, take in the rich history and enjoy the desert life. 

Pro Tips: From our experience, the best time to float this river is during spring and fall. During the summer, the area can reach 100 degrees and more, and it can make for very hot summer nights, and extremely hot summer days. However, you can cool off in the river, and no matter the time of year, this is one of our top rivers to raft.

Another tip is to get your self a river map! Check out the San Juan River Montezuma Creek to Clay Hills Crossing, Utah Third Edition By: Duwain Whitis and Tom Martin.  This one is for purchase from NRS.com, but you can also head to your local rafting store or outdoor store and you might be able to grab one too. I know if you are passing through Durango, Colorado then you can head over to Four Corners River Sports an grab one on your way! Having a map helps so much with knowing where you are, gives you tons of information about side hikes and petroglyphs and also lays out all the campsites that are typically used. This book also talks about the three rapids (class 2/3) and other river features that you will pass by. This map is waterproof and lays out the entire section for the Goosenecks as well, so if you are going for the extended trip (7 days or more) then all the information is in there!

Also, our last pro tip is to get yourself a shuttle! Yes, if you and your group can run your own shuttle, but we have been using a shuttle service for the past few trips on the San Juan and it has saved alot of time, and also rearranging at the end of the trip. We love using Val's San Juan Shuttles.  She was extremely easy to work with, give her a call and set up all the details of your trip. It is so nice to have your car ready to go at the take out when you get off the river. 

Timeline: From the start of your trip at Sand Island, there are lots of special things to view, or walk to along the way that are worth it to pull over (or slow down) and enjoy. A very popular one is actually at the Sand Island Camp area, the Petroglyph panel. Follow signs at the campsite to view. 

However, once you have started your river journey make sure to check out the Moki steps, view the Tiger Wall (cannot miss this one!) and Riverhouse. There are multiple stops that allow easy access to Riverhouse, but we have found the easiest one to walk to is actually at the 'Riverhouse Campsite'. This allows for easy boatpull in and is the shortest walk. However, if people are camping at this spot, then you will need to continue and pull in just below it. Look at your handy map to show you where to pull off on river right. 


View looking into Riverhouse. (Be cautious where you step and stay on the dedicated path)

River House on the San Juan River

Sign at the beginning of the Riverhouse site. 

Personal Preference on Campsites:

 Depending on weather, how far you want to go each day and other raft groups will depict what campsite will be better for you and your group. Often, other raft groups will let people know where they are camping or how far they are planning to go that day. This can help you and your trip figure out which site to plan for, and have a back up in case it is full. On the San Juan, you can layover (spend the night in the same campsite) so there will be some groups that are already at the campsite you planned to go to.

On day one we try for about 8-11 river miles. The camp that we have been lucky to get almost each time is Big Stick camp. This camp is at mile 8.5 and is on river right. This camp has a nice huge open area and multiple cottonwood trees for shade. It has lots of areas for tents, so it is perfect for those larger group trips. 

Big Stick Campsite on the San Juan

View from Big Stick Campsite looking upsteam.

Other great options for day one:

  • Lime Ridge camp is just before mile 8. This camp is a sweet spot too! It also has great hiking from camp, and you can hike to see some spectacular views up river to Comb Wash, or if you wanted you could hike all the way to River House. 
  • Below Big Stick camp is also a good option if Lime Ridge and Big Stick are taken. This camp comes up pretty quick past Big Stick and has a steep embankment to the top of the camp. We have camped her quite a bit too, and it has beautiful sunset and sun rise views too.

For most of our trips we have camped before the start of the canyon (around the 8-11 mile mark) on day one, however we have done this trip once for just two days, and so ended up camping at Midway. It depends on the length of your trip and how many miles you want to do on each day. 

Canyon on the San Juan river, Bluff Utah

Entering the Canyon on day two on the San Juan River

For Day 2, we have typically camped around mile 19-23. There are multiple camps here that work for different sized groups, but our favorite is Ledge camp. You must get a Navajo permit for camping here, so make sure you call and purchase that before your trip.

Camps on river right that are other great options (no extra permit required)

  • Fossil Stop: This camp is just before mile 20.5. It is on river right and is just past a large rock that jets out into the river. It is a medium sized camp, and has about 4-5 spots for tents and a small area for kitchen set up. It also has access to the stone rock pathway which is the old road to the Soda Basin. 
  • Lime Creek Camp: This camp is much smaller, and has little to no shade at all. It is great in the winter since the sun hits it sooner and warms up quickly. 
Take Out info: At river mile 27, the BLM River access takeout/put in is located on river right. You will see the take out from upstream quite a bit, plus it is a very open area with trash and toilet facilities. This take out is always MUDDY. Especially in early spring, but most any time of the year it is a muddy take out. So just remember that it is great to have a bucket to clean you boat off a bit before loading up. 


Yes, the take out is always a hard thing to see when you love being on the river. The take out is better if you do not have to take out, and you can continue your journey!
If you want to go all the way down to Clay Hills Crossing which continues your trip by about 4-5 more days and extremely amazing hikes, waterfalls and more, then you can just stop at the take out for lunch, and continue on!
We will post another blog about the whole journey through the Goosenecks on the San Juan, but for now that is all. 
We hope you have a wonderful time on your 2-3 day San Juan Trip and happy boating! 


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