Utah’s San Juan River   1 comment

The San Juan River flows through southeastern Utah near the town of Bluff.

The San Juan River surprised me. Never having traveled through the Beehive State’s southeastern corner, I had no idea it was such a significant and beautiful river basin. Rising in Colorado’s mountains of the same name (which I posted on recently), the San Juan enters canyon country in Utah and flows for hundreds of twisted, lonely miles, finally winding up in Lake Powell. This is the reservoir that, sadly, covers both Glen Canyon and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.

Just west of the town of Bluff, Utah I stopped at a boat launch/campground called Sand Island. Here there is an enormous petroglyph panel, hundreds of feet long, with a dizzying variety of Native American rock art. Wandering down to the riverside, I was floored when I saw how much water the San Juan was carrying. This is the driest part of the year, after all. The sun approached the horizon, the light grew golden, and I took the opportunity for a great little photo walk along the river.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

The San Juan cuts some truly spectacular canyons on its way west, including the famous Goosenecks. This series of what geologists call entrenched meanders can be viewed from a state park off Hwy. 163. If you’ve never seen pictures of the Goosenecks, try to imagine a lazy river meandering across a broad river valley. Then imagine that pattern cut deeply into layered sandstone to form a rugged meandering canyon.

The sun rises behind a cottonwood tree in one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

This is the layer-cake geology of the Colorado Plateau, a stacked geological movie through the Paleozoic Era.  Frozen in time are huge sand seas, big river basins, seaside salt pans (as in the Middle East), coral reefs and muddy ocean bottoms.  The canyons of this region cut into this record.  The rivers had no choice as the entire region was lifted straight up during formation of the Rocky Mountains.

Ship Rock in northern New Mexico is formed from a spectacular dike that runs for miles across the desert.

I camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern New Mexico.  Although I was a bit nervous about this, being visible for miles in the flat and treeless sage plain, I wanted to get moonlight and dawn pictures of Ship Rock.  For some reason I got little sleep, dreaming of my van being invaded by a group of angry natives.  I suppose it is all those old western movies to blame, when the wagon circle was attacked by the “savages”.  But there was a bright side to this; I got pictures of the stars after the moon had set – beautiful!

Ship Rock stands under a glowing moon in the northeastern New Mexico desert.

Ship Rock is an enormous volcanic plug sticking out of the desert.  The monolith trails out on either end (but more obviously on the south) into a spectacular dike.  A dike, in the geological sense that is, is a tabular sheet of magma that invades upward into a fissure or fault in the earth’s crust.  It hardens when it cools, just like lava.  Then, many millions of years later, when (if) the area is uplifted and eroded, the dike is left standing up because of its superior hardness compared to surrounding rocks.  It then resembles the natural version of a dike built to hold back water.  The one that Ship Rock is connected to is a classic “textbook example” of a dike.

Melting ice forms patterns on sandstone in a spring found while hiking one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

A cottonwood tree frames one of the rock ramparts in Valley of the Gods, Utah.


I also visited an area that seems to be known mostly to locals: Valley of the Gods.  This is a beautiful area of canyons and monoliths that is quite similar to the better-known Monument Valley to the south.  You need to drive a gravel loop road 16+ miles long to get in here.  It’s a wilderness study area, and is connected to an equally wild and huge area called Cedar Mesa to the north.

I camped along the gravel road, then in the morning took a hike up a canyon.  Quite a few vehicles were driving the loop, it being a weekend.  But nobody else was hiking, that is unless you count a horseman I ran into.  He was a nice fella, smoking a cigar as he rode.  As I scratched his horse behind the ears, I thought of my own horse back home.  Could she handle this rugged country?  It might take some getting used to.  I miss her and Khallie (the filly) both.

I traveled south from Valley of the Gods, past the Goosenecks (that I had visited in moonlight the night before) and on towards Monument Valley.  I came upon a just-completed wedding ceremony at riverside in the town of Mexican Hat.  Guess what the town is named for.  You got it, a rocky pinnacle with a sombrero-shaped top.

The happy couple were rafting down the river when I stopped and joined the wedding party in watching them float down the San Juan through town.  I didn’t take any pictures, feeling the wedding photographer might not like it.  But I did feel a bit sad and lonely, as I always do when I see weddings.  Not for long though.  It was a gorgeous day and Monument Valley at sunset was waiting not far away.  That will be the subject of my next post.

By the way, if you’re interested in downloading any of these copyrighted photos, please click on one and you’ll be taken to my website.  There you can browse my photos and order any of them, for download or as beautifully made prints (framed or unframed).  These particular photos will be up soon, but if you want one right away, just email me.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation in not trying to download any illegally.




Along the San Juan River in SE Utah, fall holds on in late October under a nearly full moon.

One response to “Utah’s San Juan River

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  1. Another beautiful place we toured with you. Thanks.

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