Rafting the San Juan River II 17-Jun-2021

DAY 2: Lower Eight Foot Camp to Mendenhall Camp

River Flow: 1,340 cfs (37.9 m3/s)
Air Temperature: 105°F (40°C) high / 72°F (22°C) low

Despite being fully exposed (figuratively) to Nature, we slept soundly – only having to brush-off some multi-legged creature once during the night. We soon found that activities like a little exploring, packing-up, and having a light breakfast were way easier to accomplish in the cool and shade of the early morning than when the sun arrived. So turning in around 2100 and getting up around 0500 became the norm for us for the rest of the trip.

Today we floated about 14 miles (22 km) through the Raplee Anticline, past the little town of Mexican Hat, to a camp at the start of the Goosenecks (large, looping meanders in the river).

Loading the rafts at Lower Eight Foot Camp
Toward The Narrows near RM 18
The Narrows
Clear, sunny, and relentlessly hot
Ledge Rapid broaches the Raplee Anticline (RM 19.8)
On the river

As noted previously, the San Juan is not a river for those fixated on rapids, as it has only a few. What impressed us were the immense walls of stacked sedimentary rock, in a variety of textures and in a complex palette of oranges, browns, and grays. It may seem monotonous but there was always something different to catch our attention and to marvel at.

On the river
Leaving the Anticline
Approaching Pourover Camp (RM 22.9)

We stopped for lunch at Pourover Camp (Pour Off Camp), which offered a little shade and the opportunity of a short (but refreshing) free float in the river. The water wasn’t that cold but it was at least 30°F cooler than the air, so it felt great. Then it was on to Mexican Hat.

The Pourover
Floating for coolness
Desert Spiny Lizard
Mexican Hat Rock
Colorful and convoluted Raplee Ridge
Sandstone and clouds
A side channel in the San Juan
The water intake structure and the Highway 163 bridge at Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat got its start as an oil boom town in the early 1900s. But, as is often the case, mineral wealth proved illusory and the town has been fading ever since. It would be our last brush with civilization until we reached the take-out at Clay Hills Crossing. The stretch of the San Juan between Bluff and Mexican Hat has several off-river hiking opportunities to see petroglyphs, ancient dwellings, Moki steps, and vistas. Unfortunately, the daytime heat we experienced on this trip put any long hikes out of the question. As irony would have it, when Wayne and Diane did this same trip a month earlier about three years ago they got cold, rain, and high winds. 🙄

Entering the Goosenecks
Just a riffle in the river

Below Mexican Hat, the river writhes through a series of meanders known as the Goosenecks. At the second of these – the Mendenhall Loop – we passed the remains of an old stone cabin at river level.

Remains of a stone cabin (arrow) at Mendenhall Loop (RM 30.5)

We then went around the loop to Mendenhall Camp on its north side. This is a very tight meander, so, while it’s about a river mile from this old cabin to the camp, it’s only a few hundred feet if you climb over the neck of the meander. Had we done that, we would have passed the remains of Walter Mendenhall’s Cabin, a stone edifice built in the early 1890s. Walter intended to mine for gold here but his equipment washed away after a few days and he abandoned the area soon after. The cabin was visited in 1929 by Norman Nevills, a pioneer of commercial river-running in the American Southwest. He got his start in the 1930s running commercial trips on the San Juan from Mexican Hat to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado – in the glory days before Lake Powell.

Norm Nevills at Medenhall’s Cabin in 1929 [University of Utah archive]
Rounding the meander; Mendenhall’s Cabin is on the ridge to the right

There are no reserved campsites on this section of the San Juan (those would come later), so we were lucky to reach the big campsite at Mendenhall suitable for our group of 25 (permitted maximum) ahead of an equally large group of adults and kids (they found an acceptable spot a little farther downstream). Mendenhall offered just enough shady spots to give us some relief until the sun fell below the ridge – or you could just sit in the river until then. We were also lucky in that some clouds rolled in early – effective cutting off the emanations from the burning orb a little ahead of schedule. 😅

Cooling our heels at Mendenhall Camp
Clouds shaded us before the sun finally set
Moonrise (arrow) over Mendenhall
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