Arizona's Floating Party
The Lower Salt River stretches 12 miles from the Stewart Mountain Dam on Saguaro Lake to the Granite Reef Dam. This stretch of river is extremely popular with water users, and kayakers and canoers can be found here year round. A portion of this stretch of river is used by Salt River Recreation under permit from the Forest Service for recreational tubing. From Memorial Day to Labor Day--especially on weekends--the first 7 miles can be quite crowded. The lower 5 miles of river is generally limited to kayakers except for Coon Bluff and Phon D. Sutton recreation areas where there is shoreline access to the river.
The entry to the river is at the large parking area just downstream of Saguaro Lake known as "Water Users Recreation Site". This site, and all other river access points described here have restroom facilities. It's a short walk from the parking lot down to the river on a wide, graded gravel path. The flow of the river here is light, but not calm, so you'll have to be ready to hop in your boat once you hit the water!
The first decision will occur about five minutes into your journey, at mile 0.4. You can choose to stay left of an island, or right! Right is the more popular route and the main flow of the river. This may be the most treacherous riffle of the entire day, a short class-2 stretch with a sharp left turn that can overturn dozens of tubers and makes an excellent opportunity to pick up a few free beers from overturned coolers! The left route is shallower (and may be too shallow to float depending on water level) and doesn't feature the troublesome turn. Some may choose this route because it can be easier, but it's certainly less popular and less fun than staying right!
After the island split, the two forks come together again and the river meanders quite placidly for a good while. This is where it's nice to have paddles rather than floating in a tube, relying on current alone.
The next island option comes up at mile 1.2, and the best choice is to stay left following the primary flow of the river. The right fork is a viable alternative and the two forks come together at mile 2.0. By taking the left fork however, you will encounter a fun riffle at mile 1.5, followed by a stretch of fast water from mile 1.8 to where the right fork joins at mile 2.0.
On the right will be Pebble Beach, and the next half mile brings you to Blue Point Bridge. Passing the area before and after the bridge, you are likely to see plenty of shoreline picnickers and swimmers. Under the bridge, the river picks up speed and heads for a sharp left turn before flowing west along the cliffs below Blue Point.
There's a small island at mile 3.4 that can be passed on either side without problems. After that, the next three miles of river feature some placid sections and a couple of easy riffles and minor bends, all easily navigated with no forks or islands to choose between.
Mile 6.5 brings you past the Goldfield Rec Site (where most tubers exit the river, at stop #4).
At mile 7.0, the river widens, but the left side is shallow. Possibly too shallow. Stay to the right here and try to follow the main current which cuts a deeper channel. At about mile 7.7 the deeper channel switches to the left side of the river.
At river mile 8.0, the river splits again, and the main flow goes left. You should too. Coon Bluffs is on your left, providing some scenic rocks and cliffs. After passing Coon Bluffs, at mile 8.4 you reach some high cliffs on the left. There's a rope swing tied to an overhanging rock that might make for a fun place to jump.
At mile 8.8 you have a choice to pass another small island on the left or right. Both sides work equally well. Immediately thereafter, you will reach Phon D. Sutton, a high-use recreation area with neat rock formations and a narrow channel to paddle through. As you make a sharp left turn around the rock outcropping, note the Verde River flowing in on the right at mile 9.1.
A small rock island at mile 10.0 can be passed on either side followed immediately by a much bigger split just before the power lines cross the river. Stay left at this split. At mile 10.4 the two forks come together again, and you will notice a large concrete structure on the right bank. I have no idea what it's for!
The final mile and a half of river more resembles a lake. There is little to no current, and paddling is your friend. There are areas of grass and other underwater foliage you may have to navigate through. Pick your best line.
The exit at the Granite Reef Rec Site is not marked or easily seen from the river. Tall reeds hide the shore. The lack of river current makes it easy to paddle upstream here should you pass it. But keep an eye out for it once you see traffic on the adjacent Bush Highway.
There is a flow gauge at the Blue Point Bridge. You can see the current and historical water flow by checking this link . Flow rates from April to November are normally adequate. Winter flow rates may be too low in some sections of the river as SRP closes Stewart Mountain dam to capture winter precipitation in the upstream lakes. Look for 500cfs as a minimum. 1000cfs is desired.
Paddling a hard-shell kayak or canoe can easily be completed in 4 hours or less for the full 12 miles during normal water flow (500-1000 cfs). It can be faster in higher flow, and slower with less flow. Without paddling, floating in a tube can take 4-5 hours just to get the first 6.5 miles to the Goldfield Rec Site (exit #4). Going beyond Goldfield with no self-propelling option will slow significantly near the end due to slower current. If you wish to paddle a shorter segment due to the numerous river access points, a good rule of thumb is to figure 3-3.5mph for downstream travel.
River Access Points:
You may begin or exit your river travel at any of the following points. Parking is available at each. All have signs posted indicating day use only.
Water Users Rec Site: Mile 0
Pebble Beach Rec Site: Mile 2.0
Blue Point Rec Site: Mile 2.5
Goldfield Rec Site: Mile 6.5
Coon Bluff Rec Site: Mile 8.1
Phon D. Sutton Rec Site: Mile 8.9
Granite Reef Rec Site: Mile 12.0
Permit and Regulations
The Lower Salt River is a designated recreation area in the Tonto National Forest. To park your shuttle vehicles you will need a Tonto Pass (link in Permit section on this page). Non-motorized boats such as kayaks do not require the additional watercraft tag.
No glass is permitted in the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. Please leave glass bottles at home! Please pack out all trash.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.