Pagosa Springs San Juan River Primer
The San Juan River through Pagosa Springs has had an interesting history of change caused both by nature and man. The mountains were formed by volcanic activity. Volcano cones collapsed, forming jagged peaks around their edges. Over time, volcano edges overlapped each other and a rugged landscape developed. Later, during the last ice age the ice pushed huge valleys into existence and even later water from rain and melting snow, along with wind, eroded and widened the valleys. One such erosion path became the San Juan River.
Countless rivers formed this way. A unique set of circumstances occurred millions of years ago that caused the San Juan to be different from most rivers. The underground water tables and a deep fracture in the earth’s crust allowed a hot spring of enormous flow to form. Over millions of years, the spring brought a variety of minerals to the surface. These deposits, along with soil erosion from Reservoir Hill, formed a landmass slowly diverting the river to the west.
Starting around 10,000 years ago, Indians were living in lower elevation lands to the south of Pagosa Country. They wandered up into the mountains in summer to hunt. The hot spring was first discovered by man during this time. The spring offered an advantage to the Indians and Pagosa became a crossroads. Welch Nossaman, the first settler, recalled that when he arrived, the trails were well worn; the Indians used the hot spring and they used the area that is now Pagosa’s Town Park as a place to butcher wild game and tan hides. The fur, he reported, got a foot deep at times.
As white man settled around the spring, more land was needed for living space
and fill dirt was added along the area of Hermosa Street and town park. This pushed the river south up against the steep slope of Reservoir Hill and made the river a straight channel in this area. Fill was also added across from main street in order to make the street wide enough to turn around horse drawn wagons and to add space. This area is now the parking area. After the 1911 flood large boulders were removed from the river to ease flooding problems.
The river became a shallow waterway with a level bed. The river project of 1994 was an effort to return the river to a more natural state. Dave Rosgen, river hydrologist and founder of Wildland Hydrology, designed and directed the work. Large boulders were obtained when part of Wolf Creek Pass was being rebuilt. These boulders, along with naturally occurring river rock, were used to make deflectors along the river banks. These deflectors, according to their positions, either pinch the river or swirl it, causing areas of fast and slow water. What is not as obvious is that the bed of the river was modified. Once shallow and level, the river bed now is punctuated with many deep holes that enhance water flow and fish habitat.
In spring of 2005 a section of the river in front of the Chamber of Commerce and The Springs Resort was modified for better kayaking and boat use. The river’s banks were covered with huge boulders to enhance stability and to allow public walking and places to sit.
Be cautious and observe all safety standards for river use.