My brother-in-law Kenny and his wife orchestrated another unforgettable float trip down the San Juan River in southeastern Utah. This year we did the "lower half," putting in at Mexican Hat and floating almost all the way to where the river feeds into Lake Powell at Clay Hill Crossing.
Above: rigging the boats at Mexican Hat.
Below: highway bridge at Mexican Hat.
In the 1800s there was a major but short lived gold boom on the San Juan. There is gold in the sand bars but it is extremely fine and hard to separate from the sand and silt. Many prospectors gave it ago but all of them eventually failed. One such prospector was Walter Mendenhall, who staked a claim on sand bars along one of the goosenecks not far from Mexican Hat. In 1894, with hopes of striking it rich, Walter built a substantial stone cabin just above the river. You can still find his cabin today, but gravity is slowly but surely bringing it down.
Below: I found some great old photos from Northern Arizona University (NAU) from a 1955 movie-making expedition down the river. This is what Mendenhall's cabin looked like then:
Above: gold mining operation on San Juan sand bar near Mexican Hat around 1900. Photo from the Utah Historical Society.
Below: gold dredging along the river in the late 1800s. Photo from the Utah Historical Society.
Above: just a few miles downstream from Mexican Hat, the canyon walls begin to soar as the river begins to cut into the heart of the Monument Upwarp, a large regional dome-shaped fold in the Earth's crust. Progressively older rocks are exposed as you near the axis of the fold. Here we begin to see the Pennsylvanian-age Paradox limestone at river level - the oldest geologic unit we'll see this trip.
I was hoping to camp at Honaker Trail Camp, but all 3 campsites were occupied forcing us to set up camp a mile or so further downstream.
This meant an additional mile of bushwhacking back upstream just to get to the trailhead. With a 5:30 AM start and camera in hand, I was off...
Honaker Trail: once inside the deep goosenecks section of the San Juan, this is only one way out to the rim by foot. The Honaker Trail was built back in in the 1890s to provide overland access to gold claims down on the river. It was originally designed for pack animals, but the first attempt to lead a burro down the trail ended disastrously when the animal lost its footing and plummeted to its death. It's pretty much just been a foot trail since.
Above: look closely to see the trail zig-zagging amongst the cliffs. They had to blast through cliffs in some places, and in others pile thousands of rocks on top of one another in order to ramp the trail up to the top of the next ledge.
Above: running out onto a stone peninsula about half way up.
Below: brachiopods encased in Pennsylvanian muddy limestone of the Honaker Formation.
Below: reaching the rim just in time for sunrise.
Day 2: on the river again somewhere in the labrynth known as the goosenecks.
Above: the goosenecks from space. Image from NASA.
The San Juan is an antecedent stream. That means the river had established it's twisty course millions of years ago when southeastern Utah was nearly flat and featureless. As the Colorado Plateau began to slowly rise relative to sea level, the river maintained its sinuous path as it has cut through 1000s of feet of strata.
Above: Camp #2 near Slickhorn Gulch.
Above and below: a few scattered remains of oil-rig machinery dating back to the 1920s. Oilmen spent years constructing a road down from the rim for oil exploration. They got this rig down within a few 100 yards of the bottom when everything tipped and tumbled down the mountainside. The equipment was a total loss and so the oil boom at Slickhorn Gulch ended before it really began.
Above: The same equipment as it appeared in 1955 (photo from NAU).
History aside, the real attraction at Slickhorn is the hike up to the clear, cold, swimming holes.
Below: taking the plunge.
Above: Camp #3 - this camp is on a massive debris flow and is littered with large rock fall. The geologic hazard level here is off the charts - but you don't want to think about that when your trying to get a good nights rest.
Above and below: day four brings the Permian-age Cedar Mesa Sandstone to river level creating shear red cliffs.
Below: the NAU photo archive has these rare photos of the lower San Juan/Glen Canyon confluence prior to being covered by Lake Powell.
The slot of long-forgotten Twilight Canyon. Now buried by silt, sand, and water of Lake Powell.
Now that that's over, who's ready for the SWELL?!
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