San Juan County

County Profile

Founded in 1880, San Juan County is located on the southeastern corner of the state. It encompasses an area of 7,725 square miles with a population of approximately 15,308 (U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates Program, V2019). Monticello is the county seat.

A Brief History of San Juan County*

San Juan County is a part of the Colorado Plateau, a geologic region formed mostly of sandstone and limestone and including two-thirds of the state of Utah as well as parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Mighty rivers like the Colorado and the San Juan have carved deep canyons and unusual erosional forms through the colorful sedimentary rock, and many people find the area spectacularly beautiful on a grand scale.

In prehistoric times the San Juan country was the home of the Anasazi until about 1300 A.D. Their cliff houses, pictographs, and petroglyphs continue to baffle and fascinate visitors. The Basketmakers, the earliest phase of the Anasazi Culture, were first identified and studied in Grand Gulch. The Navajo Indians, who were latecomers to the area, now occupy a large part of San Juan County from the San Juan River to the Arizona border.

Although there were a few white residents along the San Juan River before 1879, the Mormon scouts who planned the famous Hole-in-the-Rock Trail that year 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.

Farming along the San Juan River bottoms 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. After a decade of fighting the elements many settlers discovered that life was somewhat easier in the high country around the Abajo Mountains, and the towns of Blanding and Monticello replaced Bluff as San Juan's main focal points.

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 l890s was short-lived, but miners in Glen Canyon of the Colorado eked a better living from deposits along the river bars. Oil and gas exploration around the turn of the century was productive, and one can still see wells operating along the San Juan River. The uranium boom of the early l950s brought large numbers of people into the area and created a few large fortunes.

At present most residents see tourism as their most promising economic resource, particularly since the creation of Lake Powell in the early 1960s. Rainbow Bridge is the most popular tourist attraction in the county, but the marinas at Hite, Hall's Crossing, and Piute Farms draw large numbers of visitors, and river trips through Cataract Canyon and on the San Juan are also popular.

*Used by permission. Beehive History 14: Utah Counties. 1988. Utah State Historical Society, 300 Rio Grande, Salt Lake City, UT 84101-1182.