San Juan River

The San Juan River snakes in steep curves through deep canyons of red sandstone.


The San Juan River is a spectacular waterway where many values of the BLM – maintaining wildlife habitat, preserving cultural resources, and providing world-class recreation experiences – intersect. As boaters paddle down these mighty waters, they pass through deep canyons that contain geologic history, culturally significant Ancestral Puebloan sites, desert bighorn sheep habitat, historical mining structures, and much more. The American Southwest’s history, present, and future are on full display during any trip down the winding waters of the San Juan. Continue reading for more information on how to have the best experience on the San Juan.


Before you launch

Start planning.

The best plan for the San Juan River is one made in advance. In order to apply for a permit, you’ll need to answer important questions like:

  • What segment of river are you rafting?
  • When is your trip taking place?
  • What kind of watercraft are you bringing?
  • How many people are coming?

These questions are best answered by coordinating with other members of your group and making sure you have the details straightened out together. In addition to knowing how many people are planning to join your trip, it’s good to know if a service animal will be accompanying anyone and get up to speed on service animal regulations on the San Juan.

Obtain permits for your trip.

In order to float on the San Juan in any type of watercraft, you’ll need a permit. Depending on the time of year your trip is taking place, you may need to apply to the San Juan River Permit Lottery. Visit our San Juan Permits page to find out how to obtain your permit.

Keep in mind that to hike, visit archeological sites, or camp on the south side of the San Juan (river left), you’ll need a permit from the Navajo Nation. Contact Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation in Window Rock, AZ at 928-871-6647 for more information.

Packrafters may need to obtain additional permits for the land-based portion of their trips. Packrafters planning to enter or exit the San Juan via Slickhorn will need a Cedar Mesa backpacking permit if any of their trip will involve overnighting in Slickhorn Canyon. As of fall 2022, accessing Grand Gulch via the San Juan (and vice versa) is no longer possible due to flash flood damage. 

If you require a service animal in order to raft on the San Juan, please visit our San Juan Service Animals page to learn more about obtaining authorization for your animal.

Watch the weather and river flow forecasts.

Arrive for your trip on the San Juan knowing what to expect. Check the weather forecast for your launch location (either Sand Island or Mexican Hat) in the weeks before your trip and pack accordingly. The best resource for recent flows on the San Juan can be found by visiting the United States Geological Survey San Juan Streamflow Data site. While river flows can be unpredictable, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, which provides estimates of future flows on the San Juan. Whatever the weather and flow forecasts show, be prepared for the possibility of change on your trip.

Pack thoroughly.

It is important to be thorough when packing for a trip on the San Juan. See our suggested packing list  for a sense of what to bring along. Whatever you choose to bring, you must include a fire pan and portable toilet. These requirements are in effect year-round, even if you are not planning on having a fire (or using the restroom!). 

Decide if you're camping at Sand Island.

The Sand Island Campground is a great place to stay the night before your trip on the San Juan, especially if you are launching from Sand Island. 23  of the sites at the campground are first-come first-served sites that can sometimes fill in the busy season. Be sure to download the app before your arrival to use the “Scan and Pay” feature to pay with a credit card on your mobile device. Otherwise, fill out a fee envelope and enclose your payment within. If you are coming with a group of 15 or more, consider reserving one of the two Sand Island Group Sites through in advance.

Prepare for parking at Sand Island.

With the San Juan as popular as ever, more and more people are visiting Sand Island to embark on river trips. Although the popularity of the river has grown, the amount of parking at Sand Island has stayed the same. If you are able to carpool with your group, please do so. If not, please be courteous of other parked cars and be willing to work with river rangers to figure out what parking solution is best for you.

Create your plan for shuttles.

You’ll need to have a plan for shuttling back to your put-in location after your trip. Some groups may plan their own shuttles and opt to leave a car at their take-out location before beginning their trip. Otherwise, you may need to hire a commercial operator to shuttle your vehicle while your trip is in progress. Contact the San Juan River Permits Desk for a list of current shuttle operators in our area at 435-587-1544.


During your trip

Visit with respect.

One important set of outdoor ethics is known as Visit with Respect. These principles, developed by the Bears Ears Partnership and designed specifically for visiting archeological sites, help to preserve and protect cultural resources. While you should be familiar with all aspects of visiting with respect before your visit, keep these tips in mind:

  • Don't touch rock imagery or make your own: Natural oils on your hands damage these delicate images. Vandalism of petroglyphs and pictographs erases stories of ancient people and destroys the experience for future visitors.
  • Steer clear of walls: Structures are easily damaged. Please refrain from touching, leaning, standing, or climbing on any structures, no matter how solid they look.
  • Leave all artifacts: Artifacts are sacred to modern Indigenous peoples, and scientists can learn valuable lessons about the past when objects stay where they are. Artifacts include pottery pieces, stone tools, rock flakes, and corn cobs. It’s illegal to remove any artifact, including historic trash, from public lands.
  • Guide children through sites: Archaeological sites are not playgrounds. Teach children to respect these places. Keep a close eye on them, so they don’t get hurt or accidentally damage cultural resources.
Respect wildlife.

The San Juan River is an extremely important habitat for local wildlife and is home to numerous sensitive species. Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons nest on the cliff walls of these canyons while Desert Bighorn Sheep expertly navigate the steep slopes below. Be mindful of camping and hiking closures meant to protect these animals by providing solitude during nesting and lambing seasons. Bring binoculars and expect to view wildlife from afar; if an animal notices you, it is a sign that you are too close. Packing out everything you take with you will also help to provide pristine habitat for these iconic species of the American Southwest.

Be courteous of other users.

You will likely encounter other boaters during your trip on the San Juan. Please approach other users with optimism and kindness, even if they have taken a campsite you were hoping for or are otherwise affecting your plans. Likewise, if another group approaches you with a request such as lowering your noise levels or sharing boat ramp space, be courteous and accommodating.

Leave no trace.

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a set of outdoor ethics asking you to leave wild spaces as you find them:

Specific to the San Juan, please ensure that you are packing out all of your human waste by bringing and using a portable toilet. This is a requirement on the San Juan River. 


After your trip

Use social media responsibly.

One important tip for Visiting with Respect from the Bears Ears Partnership: GPS reveals too much. GPS points often lead uneducated visitors to sensitive sites. When posting online about your trip, remove all references to location.

Many of the archaeological sites on the San Juan are not ready for high visitation. Before sharing photos of your trip on social media, please take a moment to consider how your post might increase visitation to the site you visited. High visitation could adversely affect sites in the future. Geotag responsibly to protect these fragile sites. Do your part to help preserve and protect these special places for future generations.

Visit other parts of Bears Ears National Monument.

Bears Ears National Monument extends beyond the Juan! There are plenty of other opportunities for recreation in this area once your river trip wraps up. Consider hiking or backpacking on Cedar Mesa, where many trails include astonishing scenery, ancient archeology, and diverse wildlife. Indian Creek is also worth a visit for its scenic drive on Highway 211, abundant camping options, and world-class crack climbing routes. 


Adventure is at Your Fingertips


Geographic Coordinates

37.2622, -109.61207


The Sand Island boat ramp and campground is located about 3 miles west of Bluff just off State Highway 191. The Mexican Hat boat ramp is located on the east end of Mexican Hat just off State Highway 163. The Clay Hills take-out is accessed by taking State Highway 276 to San Juan County Road 278, an 11 mile dirt road that may become impassable by 2WD vehicles when wet. Vehicles with moderate ground clearance are recommended.