The San Juan River corridor: one of the most fascinating places in the Southwest.

Born in the Rocky Mountains, it flows 383 miles through desert to the Colorado River. A time warp into the Colorado plateau, it slices through hundreds of millions of years of the earth’s history and leaves a rich cultural story, one of man’s constant struggle, often with one another, in a brutal and demanding environment.


The San Juan River flows over an ancient sea that is now desert. A popular 26-mile recreational river stretch from Sand Island near Bluff, Utah, to the town of Mexican Hat, Utah, dives through layers of rock- deposits of sand, blankets of time. As the land rises and falls, the river cuts like a knife through soft Navajo sandstone: the Kayenta Formation, Wingate Sandstone, huge rock formations, uprises of land peak like crests of a wave. Comb Ridge, the Lime Ridge Anticline and the dazzling Raplee Anticline can all be seen.

In some places, fossils line the shores. Renowned bioherms, ancient corral reefs, form huge swaths of rock just above the water. Crinoids, long tubular plant-like animals, can be seen on the surface, hundreds of million of years old.


Evidence of human activity dates back more than 8,000 years with the Palaeo-Indian, small bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers whose huge spear points are still found throughout the area.

Brandon Mathis

For 5,000 years, archaic cultures occupied the area. By 500 B.C., early Ancestral Puebloans, the basket makers, began farming and weaving. By 700 A.D., they had became masons, linking homes together as Pueblos, a style that can still be seen today in New Mexico. Basket making gave way to ceramics, and a culture of pottery was born. By 900 A.D. civilizations were flourishing, and trade routes linked distant cultures. Skill sets were refined and art work became more intricate. By 1150, pueblos continued to grow, but the Puebloans had moved their homes to alcoves and under cliffs. The River House Ruin, easily found from the San Juan River, is from this period.

America’s pioneers moved through the area: Mormon settlers, gold rushers and oil boomers. They brought their hunt for natural resources with them, the by-products of which can be seen along the banks.


As the river creates a winding oasis of life, the biodiversity is strong, from the giant catfish of local lore to the colorful songbirds that call the canyon home, the spiny lizards that hunt waiting in the bushes to the collared lizard that dashes across the sand on its hind legs. On the cliffs are the desert bighorn sheep that can jump 20-foot gaps and climb incredibly steep rock faces.

It’s all here on the San Juan, an exploration through time.