Area: 7,725 square miles
County Seat: Monticello
Where it got its name: after the San Juan River (named by the Dominguez-Escalante party)
Main cities/towns: Blanding, Monticello
Economy: livestock, agriculture, mining, tourism
Interesting places: Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, and Hovenweep National Monuments, Lake Powell, Canyonlands National Park, Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, St. Christopher's Episcopal Indian Mission in Bluff, Navajo Indian Reservation
Ancestral Pueblo petroglyphs near Natural Bridges National Monument, taken during the 1930s.
The stark and beautiful Monument Valley, on the Navajo Indian reservation. Many western movies have been filmed here.
San Juan County, in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, is a big country of mesas, gorges, canyons, cliffs, high desert plains, and astonishing rock formations. The mighty Colorado and San Juan rivers as well as smaller streams have carved deep canyons and unusual erosional forms in the colorful sedimentary rock. Many people find the area spectacularly beautiful on a grand scale.
A sandal found in Westwater Ruin, near Blanding.
The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in this area for hundreds of years, until about A.D. 1300. At first they built pithouse structures; later they built rock structures on the ground and high up in the cliffs. Their cliff houses, pictographs, and petroglyphs continue to baffle and fascinate visitors.
Archaeologists first identified and studied the earliest Ancestral Pueblo culture in Grand Gulch, a side canyon to the San Juan River that has hundreds of prehistoric sites. They called these early people Basketmakers (now they’re called the Pueblo 1 culture).
Nez Bit Suey, a Navajo medicine man, and Harry Goulding, who opened a trading post in Monument Valley in 1923.
The Navajo Indians, who came relatively late to the area, now have part of their reservation in San Juan County, from the San Juan River to the Arizona border.
A few white residents lived along the San Juan River before 1879. In that year, Mormon scouts who were exploring a route for the famous Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition began the full-scale settlement of San Juan County. The 180 pioneers who left Escalante in the fall of that year arrived at the present site of Bluff on April 6, 1880—after harrowing months on what may have been the roughest emigrant trail in the West.
But farming along the San Juan River was a chancy proposition, for the treacherous river either flooded or went dry too often for dependable irrigation. Early cattlemen, like the brothers Al and Jim Scorup, did better in the rough canyon country than the farmers did. Their cows could scour the canyons for the sparse vegetation.
The ferry crossing the Colorado River at Hite, in 1946. The ferry burned in 1947. This site is now under the waters of Lake Powell.
After a decade of fighting the elements many of the Bluff settlers discovered that life was somewhat easier in higher country around the Abajo Mountains, and the towns of Blanding and Monticello replaced Bluff as San Juan's main focal points.
Hispanic migrants first came to Utah as sheep herders in Monticello. The town developed a thriving Hispanic population.
Navajos, too, raised sheep, developing huge herds and selling the rugs they made from the wool to trading posts.
A Navajo woman and her rug at the Oljato Trading Post.
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government forced them to kill many of their sheep in order to reduce the herd sizes and raise prices on sheep. This was a huge blow economically and emotionally to the Navajos.
Mining has been an inconsistent but exciting part of the economy of the county. A gold rush on the San Juan River in the early 1890s didn’t last long, but miners in Glen Canyon of the Colorado had better luck eking out a living from deposits along the river bars.
Oil and gas exploration around the turn of the century located some productive wells. You can still see some working oil wells along the San Juan River.
Archaeologist Julian Seward and Jack Shoemaker in Glen Canyon in 1932. (Glen Canyon is now beneath the waters of Lake Powell.)
The uranium boom of the early 1950s brought large numbers of people into the area and created a few large fortunes.
Right now, most residents see tourism as their most promising economic resource, particularly since the creation of Lake Powell in the early 1960s. Of all the county’s marvels, Rainbow Bridge attracts the most tourists. Marinas at Hite, Hall's Crossing, and Piute Farms also draw large numbers of visitors, and lots of groups take river trips through Cataract Canyon and on the San Juan.