San Juan Hill and the River House Ruins

Bluff, UT

Bluff is a very small town (pop. 320) in the southeast corner of Utah.  Like most communities in Utah it was settled by members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons).  We have visited Bluff twice before and each time we are here we learn more about the story of the first settlers, a group of about 230 Mormons on expedition to start a farming community.  The story of their crossing of the Colorado River and climbing over the nearby San Juan Hill is one of the most impressive tales of perseverance found in American history.  Last year we took our Florida friends, David and Karen, to the San Juan site.  This year we shared the experience with our current travel friends, Dave and Sue.

To get to the site we drove seven miles to the south on Rte. 163.  At the bottom of a cut through Comb Ridge we left the highway and drove about four miles east on a dusty, one lane, dirt road.  The road has many areas of deep sand that required the use of four wheel drive.  In other areas the path was very rocky  requiring a high clearance vehicle.

The road had a bit more water than we experienced in previous visits

After a bumpy, dusty four miles we came to our destination.  The pioneers who made the almost impossible climb up this hill named it San Juan Hill.  Looking at the photo below, the pioneers drove their wagons on to the rocks right up to the blue arrow.  They then turned right and went diagonally up to the red arrow.

In many places you can still see the marks in rocks left by the wheels of the wagons.


Once back at the Jeep we continued on the dirt road another mile or so for a visit to the River House Ruins.  The stone dwellings were occupied by Ancestral Puebloans between 900 and the late 1200s.

This little guy was difficult to spot on the rocks

Like many historical sites in the area there is an old metal ammunition box that contains information about the ruins.  Inside there is a picture of the River House taken in 1913.

Compare the photo above to the one below.  The ruins appear to be in almost the same condition today as they were a hundred years ago.

Lunch with a view

The walls near the ruins have many examples of ancient artwork.

As we visited the remains of an old trading post on the drive back along the San Juan River, we enjoyed watching a group of rafters floating along with the current.

Back at the motorhome we enjoyed happy hour with Dave and Sue.  While we chatted Dave enjoyed the company of his lap dog, Lewis.

The area around Bluff is filled with Pueblo ruins we plan to explore.  More on that later . . .

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47 Responses to San Juan Hill and the River House Ruins

  1. Sue says:

    Oh Lewis….what an idiot you are!

    Thanks again for such a great and thoughtful day.

  2. geogypsy2u says:

    The Mormon settlement history is amazing. Hard to imagine hauling wagons over that terrain. Nice ruin and petroglyphs. Look forward to seeing more.

  3. Debbie L says:

    ALL your pictures are so interesting! Lol
    Love the history lesson, too.

  4. Laurel says:

    We tried to get to River House last October but the road was washed out. The ruins are so beautiful and your photos are great — I love the petroglyph of the rabbit and roadrunner (that’s what it looks like to me :-)). More reasons to return to Bluff! (Plus I want to float the river.)

    • placestheygo says:

      Too bad the road was washed out. I couldn’t believe how bad the road was this time. Usually it was just deep sand. This time it was a lot of up and down. You could tell they had a lot water go through there.

      They have a Rafting Company here in Bluff now that we don’t remember seeing before, so you are all set!

  5. pmbweaver says:

    I am trying to image climbing that boulder hill with a long skirt and bonnet on carrying a little one. Not a pretty site nor would I have made it. They would have had to tie a rope around my waist and hoist me up.
    We didn’t know anything about the old metal ammunition box. What a cool idea.
    Great day. Your definition of a lap dog and ours is very different…hehe

    • placestheygo says:

      Sue and I were saying the same about the women on this journey. What a hardy group!

      Many sites on BLM land seem to have ammo boxes with information. We found another yesterday at Monarch Cave ruins. I enjoy have answers to my questions while I’m looking around.

  6. Mary says:

    Oddly i have only passed through Bluff. It’s always been on my list though. You should go up to Natural Bridges. Great hiking and ruins there.

    • placestheygo says:

      Mary we did the loop hike at Natural Bridges on our first visit to this area. What a great way to enjoy the size of those bridges. Bluff needs to be on your radar next time you pass through here:)

  7. heyduke50 says:

    nest spot… now on our list to see

  8. I can’t believe how nice the weather is. Just another thing to put on our Utah list. Thanks.

    • placestheygo says:

      Pam, we have had a lot of wind this year on our visit, but it looks like we will only lose a day for showers. We were here about the same time last year and it was beautiful. I like 60’s for hiking:)

  9. Jim and Barb says:

    The ruins are amazing. Hard to believe that they have lasted this long. We have never been in that area but it looks like there is a lot to discover over there!

  10. montanaclarks says:

    I too find the history in the Bluff, Utah area fascinating. We are heading that way again about mid-April with some friends who’ve not been there before.

  11. Jeff says:

    When our son lived in CO we’d try to find different routes thru the southwest to visit him. Monument Valley to Bluff is our favorite. Thanks for bringing it all back to life, and adding new reasons to repeat this route.

  12. I am so glad I can visit this place vicariously through you…that road seems like too much for our big truck that must tow our home!

    As always, I am loving visiting UT along with you!

  13. Gay says:

    The ruins are amazing. Bluff is always an overnighter for us…we need to change that!

  14. The history of that Mormon expedition is amazing.
    Love the photo of Lewis the lap dog!

  15. Jodee Gravel says:

    Looks like another fun “road” with lots of rewards to enjoy along the way. Can’t imagine imagine getting those wagons through that pass – but evidence says they did! Encouraging to see the ruins have suffered little impact over the last century, and they are beautiful. Great lunch view!! And Lewis….well, and Dave for that matter :-))))

  16. If we survived the road to Pahrea ghost town, will we survived this road? like those Mormon wagons? I sure would like to visit if not, I will just enjoy and learn thru your post.

    • placestheygo says:

      Sorry, MonaLiza, but I wouldn’t take your car back there (Dave wouldn’t even take his 4WD Grand Jeep Cherokee. He said he would have lost his front and back bumper). The drop offs into the number of washes were very short and steep and could take off a fender. The rock area going up the last hill is rough. We actually hit coming down, but we have a skid plate. So…this is one you will miss this time:(

  17. girlonahike says:

    My friend was just there from, I’m sure he will be posting his adventure there too! Looks awesome, Pining this for another trip. – Alicia @

  18. wasatchwill says:

    A mutual friend, Alicia Baker, referred me to this post. Was this visit on Friday? If so, I think we may have passed you in the white Jeep at the Rincon. We were in an old white Montero passing by on our way to River House. That sure was some drive. I wish we had time to continue that last final mile up to the Butler Wash panel at the confluence with the river, but it was already late and we were in a hurry to get back out of there. I had my little boy down for a father-son trip doing a bit of recon on some road conditions and campsites in the area for our upcoming spring break trip with the family in addition to checking out a few of other points of interest.

    • placestheygo says:

      Alicia mentioned that you were out there when she commented on our blog. Yes, we were out there Friday. I remember seeing you go by. The road out to San Juan Hill sure has deteriorated since last year. We tried to find the petroglyph panel a couple years ago and couldn’t locate it. Must have been the wrong light. Sure is a small world:)

  19. Allison says:

    Great blog entry! So glad you enjoy our area and keep coming back! 😉

  20. Sherry says:

    I am so impressed that those ruins have not been vandalized and look just like they did. That is just wonderful. I think we’ll have to have you as our guides as well unless we get a new different. What a great place. Love your “view”. LOL at the lap dog! Seriously out loud! Shout out to Lewis and to Dave for providing the lap.

  21. Kim Nowell says:

    That was so interesting. Another great spot to bookmark. The dog was so hilarious. Looked very comfortable!! Thanks for sharing and look forward to driving this with our jeep also.

  22. Debbie says:

    Those were hardy people both in the wagons and living in the ruins.

  23. Upriverdavid says:

    Hi, I love the places you go…..and the pictures you share…..
    Just thought I’d let you know I’m watching…….and enjoying…

  24. LuAnn says:

    I can’t believe we have spent so little time in Utah. I know whose blog will be essential when we finally head that direction. 😉 We love to visit ruins and these look wonderful. Great photos!

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