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San Juan River
The San Juan River begins high in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado near Wolf Creek Pass and the town of Silverton. From there, the river flows south and east through northwest New Mexico and southeast Utah before it terminates at what is now Lake Powell. The San Juan River watershed encompasses about 650,000 square kilometers of land. From headwaters to its lowest reaches, the river's watershed spans some 11,000 vertical feet and includes ecological systems from alpine tundra to the most arid desert scrub.
The river reach we run, between Bluff and Clay Hills, is a swift flowing river with an average gradient of 8 feet per mile. Owing to this swift flow and the vast and easily eroded sedimentary rock layers exposed throughout the watershed, the San Juan River is among the siltiest in North America, transporting 11 million cubic meters of sediment into Lake Powell each year. That's about 400,000 large dump truck loads. Although the river is swift, its rapids are mild. Class 2 and 3 rapids liven the run but are quite tame by whitewater standards.
As western rivers go, the San Juan remains relatively wild. With only one major impoundment near Farmington at Navajo Reservoir, other downstream tributaries are primarily free flowing. As a result, river flows often reflect regional rain events, with the river rising and falling with the coming and going of precipitation. During the monsoon season in late summer, the river assumes different colors based on the geologic strata of the sub-watersheds in which flash floods occur upstream. When McElmo canyon floods, the river turns gray-green, the color of Mancos Shale. The river turns bright red, the color of Halgaito Shale, when Chinle Wash floods. For those interested in natural systems, watching the river rise, fall and switch colors can be a real treat.
The archaeological record along the San Juan River between Bluff and Mexican Hat is unsurpassed. World-class rock art panels and myriad surface sites and cliff dwellings tell the story of the rise and fall of the region's Ancestral Puebloan civilization. The river corridor harbors a remarkable diversity of life that includes an abundance of songbirds, waterfowl, reptiles, mule deer and desert bighorn sheep. Textbook geology abounds throughout the river's course, from 300 million year old sea beds to dramatic landforms such as Comb Ridge, the Monument Upwarp and the famously meandering canyon through Goosenecks State Park.