ilanarama: me in my raft (rafting)
[personal profile] ilanarama
Prime season for boating in the southwest is already over, but our rainy May and June did not inspire us to get our boats out until just recently. All that rain has kept the rivers relatively high, though, and our little "kitten rafts" don't need a lot of water to float, especially when we are just doing day trips and aren't loaded down with camping gear. As long as the rocks are smooth rather than pointy, we don't need much clearance to make it over - just a bit more than a "happy enchilada."

(If you're furrowing your brow at that reference, it's a famous mondegreen from the John Prine song "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round" - in concert, he tells the story of the woman who asked him to play the "happy enchilada" song, and he suggested she might be thinking of some other songwriter, because he certainly didn't have any songs about enchiladas, and she shook her head and sang for him: "It's a happy enchilada and you think you're gonna drown..." The actual lyrics, of course, are "It's a half an inch of water and...")

(Spoiler alert: we didn't drown.)

We started out on the Friday holiday with a run down the section of our own Animas River south of town, putting in at Santa Rita Park just past Smelter Rapid (which still had enough water to be scary high, flipping boats with regularity), and running the three miles to Dallabetta Park. This is a rocky stretch that can only be run with a decent water level, but it was a good re-introduction to my boat, which I had only been in once so far this year, on the stretch through the center of town. It was still high enough for the commercial trips to run, and we waved to a lot of tourists who looked happy to be on the water on a sunny day.

It was so much fun that I impulsively suggested to Britt: "I know we had talked about going backpacking this weekend, but what about going to Pagosa Springs instead and running the upper San Juan?" (We have run several sections of the San Juan in Utah, but our only experience with this part of the river far upstream from there was just looking out of our car windows as we crossed it on the Hwy 160 bridge.) I should know better than to open my mouth. A few hours after we got home, Britt had our river guidebooks spread out in front of him and browser windows open to the USGS river gauge website and Google Earth, and not long after, we had a plan to float not just the San Juan, but the nearby Piedra river as well.

On Saturday morning we loaded up our van with camping gear - the truck still had the rafts in the bed - and drove both vehicles out to Pagosa Springs. We were a bit delayed by our perfectly crap timing that had us arriving just as their Independence Day parade closed the streets, but eventually we got close enough that we could wind through the back streets and get to the road for the take-out, where we left the van, changed into our river clothes, and took the truck back to town and the put-in for the town section.

Which was a total zoo. Everyone in Pagosa Springs was either on the water or in the water, tubing, fishing, swimming, splashing, playing. There were even a few other little rafts. What a scene! (Alas not very well captured by our photos, which were taken on a camera phone from a little too far away.)

Pagosa party-time

The town run has been made into a series of pools and drops, with low rock weirs separating the pools, and in fact, we encountered this type of 'rapid' frequently throughout both this river and the Piedra, which we did the next day. Weirs are intimidating from above because all you see is a horizon line at first, like you're going to go over a waterfall, but these weren't bad. The trick is to not aim for the smooth water below, because that's likely where the water trickles only thinly around the rocks, but for the froth, which is caused by the main tongue of water sliding in a smooth sheet across them. The curl at the bottom looks scary, but there's not much water so it's easy to punch through. Here is a weir (actually, a double weir, a small one above and a large one below) on the Piedra:

Piedra weir Piedra weir

Just past the hot springs resort, which was oddly full of people despite the warm, sunny day, a man stood next to his inner tube under the hot-water runoff taking a shower. He asked us where we were going and we said there was a take-out sixteen miles down the river. We bumped down a few more weirs, passed a few condos with people waving from their balconies, went around the corner, and abruptly we were in apparent wilderness. The sudden quiet was very pleasant!

We stopped for lunch after a few miles, and while we were eating, who should come around the curve of the river but the guy from the hot springs resort! We were impressed by his stupidity bravery in taking off down an unknown river in just an inner tube. He introduced himself as Dave - he was from Phoenix, but had a summer home near Pagosa Springs - and explained that he had his phone in a waterproof case and he'd just call his family for a pickup when he got to a road. We warned him that we hadn't had cell service at the take-out, and that we were only a short ways in to the long float! He took off before we did, and a short while later we were relieved to see him at the side of the river under a bridge, climbing up to the road.

Along the San Juan

The Mesa Canyon section was really nice, through ponderosa pine and rock cliffs, and it reminded me of the upper stretches of Northern New Mexico's Chama River - not unsurprising, since we weren't far from there. It was very different from the red rock scenery of the lower sections of the San Juan in Utah!

And we had it mostly to ourselves. After we left Dave the Crazy Tuber, we didn't see anyone else until an hour or so from the take-out, when we caught up with and then passed a couple of families from Gunnison. There were four adults and three children, spread out across one ducky (inflatable kayak) and one surprisingly large oar-rigged raft - I was surprised they could make it down over the shallow rocky sections. I'm sure they scraped bottom a few times - heck, I did. We got caught by the building thunderstorms in the afternoon and finished our run in the rain, but we were almost to the take-out by then, so it wasn't too bad. Since our truck was at the put-in, we had to disassemble our boats, deflating the tubes and rolling them up so they would fit in the back of the van.

We had dinner at a nice restaurant, then drove to meet some friends of ours for the fireworks show over the high school sports fields. Afterward, the traffic jam to get out of the parking lot was so intense we decided to just spend the night there! (Fortunately we have a bed under the pop-top, since most of the van was filled with boat...)

The following morning we scouted out our next float. The Piedra River is a tributary of the San Juan, though they actually join at Navajo Lake (reservoir), and we'd crossed it on our way to Pagosa Springs. The popular run on the Piedra is actually relatively hard, but Britt wanted to put in somewhere below that run, and take out somewhere downriver. These 'somewheres', though, had to be determined.

For the take-out, the problem was that much of the land was on the Southern Ute reservation, and big signs by the road pull-outs warned that it was illegal to use these river accesses for anything other than fishing - with a Southern Ute fishing permit, which we didn't have. Not that it mattered, as most of the river accesses were terribly overgrown and not very good for actually getting to or from the water. We finally found a decent dirt road that was - at least on our map - on National Forest land, though a Southern Ute fishing warning sign was posted nearby. And it ended in an open spot by a flat, rocky beach, so we could leave the truck where we could see it from the river, and easily bring the boats back up.

We then headed up to the Piedra campground, where Britt had thought the take-out for the upper run might be, which we could use as a put-in. There were no obvious spots, but from the farthest north campsite - fortunately unoccupied - a narrow path crossed the twenty feet or so to the water. Luckily, our boats are also narrow, so we unpacked, inflated, and assembled them at the camp site, moved the van to an out-of-the-way parking spot, and then carried the boats to the river and were soon underway. Once we passed the campground (and the informal camp site across the river), with kids playing in the edges of the river and on inner tubes, we saw nobody.

This stretch of the Piedra was really quite similar to the bit of the San Juan we'd just run, with shallow rock weirs and small rapids. Sometimes a bit of maneuvering was required, but with the water slow and low it was not hard to make the boat go where I wanted it. The scenery was also similar, though there were more homesteads visible from the river. We did get a nice view of Chimney Rock - the pillar formation that the Piedra (Spanish for 'rock') is named for.

Little boats and Chimney Rock

We also floated under an old bridge that looked so interesting, we had to stop the boats and scramble up for a closer view. On Britt's phone, which we were using as a GPS as well as a camera, we could see that we were exactly at the point on the map where 'Old Gallegos Road' dead-ends at the river; this must have once been a going concern, a route over the Piedra, but now it was only a relic.

IMG_20150705_154208 Old bridge

The weather stayed decent for us, and eventually we rounded a curve in the river and saw our red pickup truck. We beached our boats and stacked them on the truck bed, drove back up to the campground to retrieve the van, and headed home after a satisfying long weekend of boating.

For those of you who are thinking of doing this yourself, here's the basic beta: both rivers were running about 400 cfs, and both were about class II in difficulty at this level. The put-in for the San Juan is behind the Malt Shoppe just past the second in-town bridge over the river, and the take-out is on Trujillo Road at a spot where the road comes close to the river - there's parking there, and a couple of informal dirt ramps. The run is about 16 miles. The Piedra put-in we used was the path behind the farthest northeast campsite at the Piedra Forest Service campground, and the takeout was off an unmarked dirt road on Forest Service land close to the Southern Ute boundary line. The run is about 10 miles.

Just these photos plus a few more - 12 in all - at Flickr

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-09 01:03 am (UTC)
traveller42: (Default)
From: [personal profile] traveller42
Thanks for the report.

Great fun, as always!

Love the old bridge.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-09 03:12 am (UTC)
riverlight: A rainbow and birds. (Default)
From: [personal profile] riverlight
Oh, that looks GORGEOUS.


ilanarama: me, The Other Half, Moab UT 2009 (Default)

August 2017

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My running PRs:

5K: 21:03 (downhill) 21:43 (loop)
10K: 43:06 (downhill)
10M: 1:12:59
13.1M: 1:35:55
26.2M: 3:23:31

You can reach me by email at heyheyilana @


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