Back to Utah- The San Juan River in July

25 June 2013

Yes, the San Juan River in July- something new for us. Usually our river trips happen in late August, but we have a free couple of weeks and were able to get a permit for July 2nd. We have allotted 6 days to cover the 30 miles from Sand Island to Mexican Hat, more than enough time to float it twice! This part of the river is usually floated in 3 days, depending on the flows. The river in the last week has fluctuated from a low of about 350 CFS to a high of about 650 CFS. “They say” that you need at least 500 CFS to float the river. But that takes into account the mud that you will encounter down river near the Clay Hills takeout. The mud can be a problem in low water, and can cause some dragging at the end. We are taking out in Mexican Hat and don’t expect any problems at all. We will be floating in our two-person inflatable kayak that does well in low water.

San Juan River, Mexican Hat

Ah, the San Juan- slow and silty, calm and relaxing.

There do not appear to be any fire bans in effect at the moment for the San Juan, but that could change at any time. There are two fires in the area- one in Dark Canyon and one in Arches National Park. Both were caused by lightning. We always check utahfireinfo.gov for current conditions throughout the state. They have a map of ban areas, current fires, as well as complete ban information for all the national and state parks and recreation areas. The site can be very useful in planning a trip.

For complete information on floating the San Juan river, visit the San Juan River page of the BLM’s Monticello Field Office. There you will find pages to answer all your questions, as well as launch calendars that are updated daily, information on restrictions, and a downloadable permit application. The permit process is quick- just fill it out, fax it back, and call them to pay for you slot.

For more on our San Juan River floats and all our desert adventures visit the Desert Explorer website. You can also follow our nightly camps and discoveries on our SPOT messenger page.

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Trip Report, June 2013- Jones Canyon

17 June 2013

After many, many years I finally managed to get back into the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness along the border of Colorado and Utah. I spent four days in the area, walking the many drainages of Jones Canyon. Jones Canyon is accessible from the trailhead at the end of BS Road, although it is a long drive and the road can truly be impassable when it is wet. (See our Colorado Canyons page for more information on how to get there.) It was never clear to me whether Jones Canyon was accessible from above or not. The trailhead is there, the head of Jones Canyon is there, but I never found any data on getting into the canyon. So to make sure that I could get into the canyon I came in from below.

Jones Canyon Utah backpacking

Cattle trail leading into Jones Canyon. I counted 14 head up one canyon. They can only get so far up and then the Canyon is untouched.

I started out on a Monday morning by swimming across the Colorado River just above the Westwater ranger station, where I left my truck parked. I walked up river about 1 1/2 kilometers, to a point where the river was narrower, the bank on the south side was not completely overgrown, and to where I thought I was on public land. I am still not sure that I was on public land- there is clearly a working ranch on that side of the river- but how far down their land reaches is still unclear to me. Either way, I crossed, skirted around the irrigated fields, and made my way up and over the ridge to finally drop into Jones Canyon.

A point of note here- the river was flowing at 10,000 CFS. I wore a full wetsuit (my $20 Goodwill, 2 mil canyoneering wetsuit served me well) and my PFD- just to be safe. On the swim over I really pushed it and made the crossing in about 500 meters downstream distance. On the swim back across, which I did at about 7 in the morning, I was happy to have the wetsuit. It took about ten minutes to travel the kilometer downstream to the take out while casually swimming across from where I waded in. That was enough time to cause a chill even with the wetsuit in the early morning. So remember- safety first, especially when you are alone. For both crossings my backpack, boots, and clothing was in two drybags that I had lashed together and towed with a long piece of one inch webbing.

The Canyons
The many drainages of Jones Canyon run the gamut of canyon possibilities- from wet to absolutely dry; from narrow, near-slots to flat, wide canyon bottoms; from shallow with easy exits to deep with no way out except the way you came in. I did manage on day three to climb out one drainage and back in the one next to it. The route out was easy, taking no more than 15 minutes. Getting back in was another story- it took a full hour of downclimbing, route finding, and pack-lowering to get back in. In hindsight it wasn’t the best entrance, but it wasn’t the toughest I have ever encountered.

Jones Canyon backpacking

View north from the mesa top after an easy climb out at the head of one of the Jones Canyon drainages.

The vegetation in the canyon bottoms is just as varied, changing from sage brush, bunch grass, and tamarisk, to willows, river cane, cottonwoods, and poison ivy. I saw peregrines and other raptors, lots of little grey birds, and very old sign from elk and bear up every drainage.  There were also endless reptiles and amphibians- the usual array of lizards, Woodhouse toads, and a variety of water snakes. There was very little in the way of cultural remains, aside from a couple of hole-in-top cans and one petroglyph.

Jones Canyon snake

Small snake in the clear water of a running spring in one of the Jones Canyon drainages.

As I noted above, water was available in most of the drainages, nearly all of it in springs.  There were a few potholes with remnants of spring runoff still in them. The water was definitely drying up though, and based on that I would recommend earlier in spring or fall for a visit. Chances are that summer is very dry in nearly all the drainages.

The best part of Jones Canyon was its feeling of isolation. It is not a popular destination for backpackers. I found only two sets of boot tracks in different drainages, both possibly months old and signs of a fire with some bits of trash that was even older, nothing more. If quiet isolation is what you are looking for, then Jones Canyon is the place.

For more on our desert adventures, see the Desert Explorer website. Look for another post soon- we are off to Grand Gulch and points south in another week for more backpacking and exploration. You can follow our progress while we are out on our SPOT Messenger page.