A friend from Durango called up one day and asked if our family would like to go on a river trip with her family. This is not something that we’d ever done before. But, we’re also not ones to pass up a new and exciting adventure with good friends. Plus, what better way of having a socially distanced vacation than a river camping trip?! The plan would be to start in Bluff, Utah and float three days/ two nights down the San Juan river on a raft, duckie and stand up paddle board, hauling all of our camping gear along.
So, first let me tell you about Bluff, Utah. It is located near some of the most stunning parks and monuments in the U.S.: Monument Valley, Four Corners, Valley of the Gods, Natural Bridges National Monument, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Zion National Park and Goosenecks State Park. It is on the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway with views of dramatic landscapes.
I love that the town gives homage to the Ancestral Puebloans who originally settled the area with their tag line, “Established 650 AD, settled 1880. This area of the country offers a glimpse into ancient life with archeological sites containing cliff homes and petroglyphs. Some of these can be accessed via road, and other just from the river.
Mormon pioneers settled Bluff in 1880. Bluff Fort and a couple of other historic buildings in town are on the National Register of Historic Places and offer a glimpse into life as a white settler of this area.
Bluff Utah Hotels
There are a few campsites and RV parks in Bluff, in addition to a handful of inns and hotels.
We chose to stay at the new Bluff Dwellings Resort. Originally we booked their Tower Suite Pueblo with two bedroom and a pull out couch. But when we called to add our friends onto the reservation they upgraded us for a small fee to one of their large dwellings. These have full kitchens and a private patio with a gas fireplace, gas grill and spectacular views of the stars in the night sky beyond the cliff. This meant that we could bring along dinner to cook and enjoy an evening out on the patio.
The pool here is also a lot of fun with a slide that is a perfect size for almost anyone. Not too small for the big kids, and not too scary for the little kids. The decor of the entire property is in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural environment. And, the staff couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful starting with the warm greeting from Mr. Incredible. I’d be tempted to come back just to spend more time at the resort and of course, explore this tiny town.
Bluff Utah Activities
River Rafting, Hiking & Canyoneering
The sister company to Bluff Dwellings Resort is Wild Expeditions. They offer all kinds of adventures from river rafting the San Juan River and Bears Ears National Monument, to hiking, canyoneering and scenic tours.
Insider Tip: When we booked an excursion with Wild Expeditions they offered us a discount to Bluff Dwellings Resort, making for a great deal.
Art and Jewelry Shopping
Twin Rocks Trading Post has the most beautiful Native American jewelry that I have seen. Not only that but they also have the kindest staff and sweetest rescue dog.We stopped in while waiting for to-go food at the restaurant next door. Kids and adults both felt so welcome even though I am sure they could tell we weren’t going to be their big sales of the day.
Bluff Utah Dining
Bluff may be a tiny town, but it is not short on good dining options. The cafe at Bluff Dwellings Resort has pizzas and breakfast items. The Twin Rocks Cafe has breakfast burritos the size of your head. I’d highly recommend sharing one or planning on the other half as left overs. And, though we didn’t get to try it out we heard great things about the Cottonwood Steak House.
Bluff Fort offers the white settler history of the area packed into one block of the town. Original settler structures are available to explore as you experience the local history up close.
River Rafting the San Juan River
This is why we were in Bluff and was the adventure we anticipated. We went with friends who have rafted this stretch of the river many times. They had a raft and duckie and we brought along a duckie and paddleboard. By August when we went it is more of a float trip than a whitewater rafting trip but an adventure either way.
Insider Tip: Don’t forget your sunglasses. We love our Maui Jims for any water activities.
We loaded the raft and put in the river in Bluff at Sand Island. Whew, it is a lot of stuff to load on boats and duckies for three days and two nights of river camping. We probably got on the river around 11 am, an hour past our target.
Butler Gulch Petroglyphs
We made a brief stop at Butler Gulch and a very short hike to check out the petroglyphs. Pretty cool!
River House Camp
Several rafting groups head out on the same day and campsites are first-come, first-served basis. But we were lucky the first day. Everyone else tried to get further down the river. But going against the wind was challenging and early afternoon we settled on the River House Camp. It was large and beautiful. We got off the river with plenty of time to set up camp and relax.
We hadn’t really thought of all the work that goes into a river camping trip. But every morning you break down camp and load up the boats. And every evening you unload the boats and set up camp. All of that after paddling, possibly against the wind, in the hot sun on the river all day long. Oh there are some rapids that you spend energy navigating through rather than paddling. But it is all work. I do think this was good for our family. The kids had to put a little elbow grease into the trip, and they came away with a ton of confidence and conquering of fears.
So, back to the San Juan River. The camp River House Camp is beautiful with shade and is about a half mile to the River House, which is a very cool ancestral Puebloan ruin about a half mile walk from camp.
Our friends brought the kitchen and dinner, so we were treated to the most delicious chicken noodle soup while nursing our sunburns and sore muscles.
What is a groover? You may wonder.
It was here that our friends introduced us to the groover. You may be wondering, what is a groover? Well, in regular camping you can just dig a hole in the ground to go to the bathroom. But not on the river. On the river you bring along a groover, basically a box with bags where you poop then seal up the bag, storing it in a metal box to dispose of at the end of the trip. Groovers these days come with a seat but according to our hosts it got a name from the groove it used to leave on your bottom.
River Running Day Two
We made day two of our river trip the big one, trying to get as far as we could before the wind kicked in. It was a lot of work but it was a really fun stretch of river. This is where we navigated the most rapids, got stuck on rocks and took swim hole breaks to cool off.
Campsites are first come, first served. Since we were one of the last to put in on the day of our permit, and went the shortest distance the first day we had last pick of campsites on day two. But there really is no bad campsite. Hungry and tired we decided on a small site that had a sandy spot just large enough to pitch our large tent up high. We set up the kitchen just below it, and chairs just below that on the river bank. What a place to take in the stars!
River Running Day Three
By this point we were ready to get home to our own beds, showers and bathrooms. Up early, camp broken down, raft loaded up and off we went. By this point our kids’ confidence had grown. The girls deftly maneuvered the SUP through rapids all on their own. Mom and son took the lead in the duckie as our hosts rowed the raft.
We quickly learned why Mexican Hat is named such. A huge rock formation strongly resembles a head with a sombrero perched upon it. A couple of hours later we were taking out the boats and packing up our vehicles.
What a trip! Would we do it again? Maybe after we’ve fully recovered. I’d certainly say it surpassed our expectations of adventure and rare sights seen.
What to Know Before Rafting the San Juan
If you are going to raft this stretch of the Sun Juan River, or even down further, we recommend the San Juan River guide by Duwaln Whitis and Tom Martin. It will show you campsites, interesting stops and more.
Most importantly, if you go it on your own, you will need to enter the lottery for San Juan River permits. Should you go with a guide, they will have it taken care of.