Upper San Juan River – School Program

Outdoor educational river trip through human history, ecology, rapids, and more!

The Upper San Juan River provides an ideal outdoor classroom setting for students to learn. Steep canyon walls, serene nature, and stunning archaeological sites stoke imagination and create unique learning outcomes. Throughout the trip, youth participate in all aspects of multi-day wilderness expeditions through field studies, river skills, navigation, camp life, and hiking. This section of river is ideal for middle and high school groups hoping to build community, respect, and understanding within the natural world. The San Juan river is divided into two sections: the Upper San Juan and Lower San Juan. These stretches can be done independently or strung together for an epic expedition.

Human History come to life!

Showcasing some of the Southwest’s most abundant archaeological wonders, the upper San Juan River provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the region’s human history. This stretch also features wildlife sightings, fossil sites, and whitewater rapids.

Whitewater rapids emerge!

As the canyon walls tighten and the water gets faster, rapids emerge! “All Forward!” Your guide will shout commands while students work as a team to navigate rapids up to class 3.

Looking for more adventure?

Extend this trip by continuing through the Lower San Juan
Packaged price is $925 for a 7 day 6 night trip.

The San Juan River: Bluff, UT to Mexican Hat UT
Call 435 259-7750 for availability
3 days and 2 nights, or 4 days and 3 nights
Group Size:
15 – 25 participants
Age Range:
6th Grade and older
2 nights: $550 per student. 3 nights: $725 per student

This is how we rate the challenges you might face on a CFI trip.

Level 1 - Easy

  • Low level of physical activity, minimal movement required
  • 0 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking or walking 0-2 miles per day

Level 2 - Moderate

  • Medium level of physical activity, some movement required
  • 1-4 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking up to 4 miles per day
  • Flatwater or mild whitewater rapids

Level 3 - Active

  • Medium or high level of physical activity
  • 1-5 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking up to 5 miles per day
  • Class I - III whitewater rapids

Level 4 - Challenging

  • High level of physical activity
  • 1-6 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking 5 or more miles per day
  • Class IV whitewater rapids
CFI's Essential Eligibility Criteria outlines specific challenges that you may face on CFI trips. Please consult the EEC for information on responsibilities of participants.
  • Price includes BLM Special Area Fee of $10
  • Price includes a Navajo Parks and Recreation Department fee of $15 per night
  • The Upper and Lower Sections can be combined into an epic trip through Canyon Country. Packaged Price: $925 for 7 day 6 night trip.
  • Program fee does not include gratuity. Our educators work extremely hard and appreciate getting tipped.

See other trips in these categories:

Trip Narrative

The Upper San Juan River runs from Bluff, Utah to Mexican Hat, Utah. Your students will be exposed to geology, archeology, and unique desert biology. The river passes alongside the Navajo Nation, and Canyonlands Field Institute has a special educational permit that allows us to camp on and explore this breathtaking area.

Right off the bat, the Sand Island Boat Ramp is home to a panel of ancient rock images. Your guide might take you to see these petroglyphs while the rest of the CFI guide staff is finishing up the packing. If your group misses these, though, don’t worry. Soon after launching, you will pass by Butler Wash. The petroglyphs here are large enough to see from the river. You will pass by River House, a massive habitation site with multiple rooms, granaries, rock art, and other archeological resources.

After a full day of boating, we will pull over on a beach camp and set up the kitchen, create our campsite, cook a tasty meal, and enjoy the night under the stars. 

Before the canyon walls tighten up, you will also pass by Chinle Wash, the Mule Ear Diatreme, San Juan Hill, and other geologic and archeological wonders. During the second half of this trip, you will start to encounter some rapids! While they will not exceed class 3 in difficulty, rapids such as 4 foot, 8 foot, and Ledges rapid will be sure to provide some splashy thrills to your trip.

As you continue making your way down river, you flow backwards in time and encounter the Honaker Trail limestone formation. These sedimentary rocks are filled with fossils of crinoids, bivalves, and other ancient and alien creatures. Eventually, the Mexican Hat rock formation marks the end of this diverse experience. If you wish to extend your journey, you can continue on through the Lower San Juan!


Some people say food is the most important part of the adventure. On all our overnight trips, CFI will provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a morning and afternoon snack, and an appetizer before dinner. If you have a dietary restriction or food allergy, note it on your medical form so we can best prepare.

Depends on the trip. As a general rule, CFI provides all group gear related to fully outfitting your trip. Specialized gear like PFDs, wetsuits, dry bags, educational materials are all provided by CFI. Additionally, we take care of all kitchen and dishware needs. 

Find out more about trip specific packing.

Most importantly, a willingness to slow down, connect to your surroundings, and experience the moment. Additionally, participants are required to bring a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, personal clothing, medication, and other essential personal items. Many gear items are available for rent. Reach out to us if you are interested in seeing a trip specific packing list, or learn more about trip specific packing here.

CFI provides options to rent gear:

  • Two person tent: $30 / trip
  • Sleeping bag: $20 / trip
  • Kid sleeping pad: $7 / trip
  • Adult sleeping pad (paco pad): $15 / trip
  • Package deal: Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and one tent per two people: $40 / trip

For any CFI summer camp, gear rentals are free!

Every CFI guide has either a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder certification. Your trip leader will have a Wilderness First Responder certification. Anyone working with youth has passed a background check, and shuttle drivers are insured with clean driving records. Backcountry trips carry In-Reach satellite communication devices for emergencies. All guides have been evaluated by Canyonlands Field Institute as possessing the judgement, skills, and disposition required for mitigating risk in the field. 

As technology grows more and more invasive by the day, CFI promotes connection to what matters. To achieve this, all school and youth programs are unplugged and students are not permitted to bring electronic devices. Not only is there rarely cell service, devices are a distraction to our ability to connect to the present moment. On Private Group Trips or Adult Seminars, the use of devices is permitted but discouraged.

CFI works hard to ensure a positive experience for all guides and participants. Because of the unpredictable nature of outfitting, we have created a series of policies so maintain our ability to manage risk in the outdoors.

For critical information regarding cancellations, deposits, and other participant responsibilities, please view our trip policies page or contact us with any questions.

Thanks for asking...We know this can be an awkward subject. The fact is, our guides work extremely hard and appreciate getting tipped! 

On school trips tips are not expected but greatly appreciated. 

On an adult or private trip, an industry suggested tip is about 10% if your program fee, depending on your experience.

If you wish to include a gratuity, cash is preferred, but sending a check or a payment to CFI's Venmo: @canyonlandsfieldinstitute is also a great way to thank your guides for their hard work.  Tips are always pooled and distributed.

Need to Know

  • CFI staff are trained educators and guides with first aid and CPR certifications. Back-country trips carry satellite communications devices.  
  • All cook and dishware, meals, snacks, and river gear are provided by CFI.

CFI is a non-profit organization and fees are not taxed. By choosing CFI, you are supporting our efforts to provide lifechanging outdoor experiences for hundreds of children per year.  Scholarships are available on an as needed basis.