Recreational Guide: The Salt River

Mar 7


Ryan Hutchings

Ryan Hutchings

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Like all rivers across the US, the Salt River is unique. It's beauty and grandeur are partly a result of it's location on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau in Arizona. The Salt River is home to a large number of plants, animals and birdlife. It offers an outstanding adventure opportunity with world class rapids and stunning scenery. The Salt River Canyon is truly one of the southwest's hidden treasures.

Salt River Geography

The natural flow of the Salt is 86.1 m³/s (3040 ft³/s) at its mouth, Recreational Guide: The Salt River Articles almost four times that of the Rio Grande River. The Salt River flows northwest through Salt River Canyon, then southwest and west through the Tonto National Forest.  The river is formed in eastern Arizona, by the confluence (or coming together) of the White and Black rivers. The river acts as a natural boundary between the Fort Apache Indian Reservation to the north and the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation to the south.

The Salt River passes through a large valley between the Mazatzal Mountains and Superstition Mountains.  The river drains into several reservoirs: Lake Roosevelt (formed by Roosevelt Dam), Apache Lake (Horse Mesa Dam), Canyon Lake (Mormon Flat Dam), and Saguaro Lake (Stewart Mountain Dam). The Verde river joins with the Salt river just south of this point. About five miles downstream, the Granite Reef Diversion Dam diverts all the remaining reservoir water into the Arizona and South canals.   The water that comes from these reservoirs provide drinking and irrigations water for the Phoenix area.

The Salt Riverbed leaves the mountains and runs through various cities in Arizona: Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale, south of downtown Phoenix and then passing north of South Mountain Park. Keep in mind that is only the riverbed- and it stays dry during most of the year.  Only when heavy rains and torrential downpours occur in Arizona will the Salt River run in these areas.   When this happens, Stewart Mountain Dam will release extra water causing a rise in the water levels along the river. Flash floods occasionally occur in these areas during monsoon storms in late July and early August.

Salt River History

The river was originally used for irrigation by Native Americans.  In 1929 Omar Turney did research work on the Salt River and the system as it was used anciently.  According to Omar, the irrigation system “encompassed the largest single body of land irrigated in prehistoric times in North or South America, and perhaps the world.  As seen by the map recreation on the left, the Salt River provided extensive drainage far inland for a large area of land.   Mesa Grande is the modern day area of Mesa, AZ, with the river running down toward the Phoenix region.

 It is currently still used as a primary irrigation source. Phoenix and surrounding areas use the river for their needs through the Salt River Irrigation Project.

The river's water is currently distributed over more than 1,000 mi (1,609 km) of irrigation canals.  These canals are used primarily for agriculture: the growing of cotton, alfalfa, fruit, and vegetables.

The regions that surround the Salt River are victim to occasional flash floods from heavy rainfall.  The dry, hot desert geography of Arizona gives way to perfect flooding conditions.   These floods can rise in a matter of minutes, without warning.  They can cause damage to roads, bridges, parks, commercial and residential lands. The most notable flash floods that caused damage were in 1980, 1993 and 2005. However, except during floods, the Salt is dry below Granite Reef Dam. Previously you could navigate the Salt Rive in its entirety throughout the southern course by small raft. The river is still navigable in the majority of the area where it still carries a significant flow, but some areas now do not have high enough water levels.

Salt RiverWhiteWaterRiver Rafting and Recreation

The huge volume and rocky underground provide ideal conditions for recreational and adventure activities on the Salt River.   The most popular of which is white water rafting.  Many companies operate seasonal trips on the Salt River.  Rafting trips vary depending on the section of river you choose to navigate and the time of year you go.

The Salt River is a class III and IV whitewater river that drops an average 25 feet per mile for over 50 miles through rocky, inaccessible canyons. It flows through oak and juniper woodlands down into striking Lower Sonoran desert. Amazing vegetation, giant multi-armed saguaro cactus and profusions of cactus of everywhere adorn the whitewater trip down the river. Several side canyons reveal oasis-like microhabitats that are a moist reprieve from the prickly cactus environment. Excellent scenic riverside campsites are abundant and accessible only by raft.

The Salt River white water rafting season goes from early March to late May.  Because of the exciting and intense rapids during early run-off, whitewater rafting and kayaking are the main forms of recreation on the river.  You can find outfitter information, rafting trips and contact info at Rafting America.