Kayaking the Salt River
On summer weekends, the Lower Salt River can resemble a drunken party scene. Hoards of inner-tubers converge on the river to cool off and have some summer fun. Beer cans, bikinis, loud music, and general shenanigans are easy to find, along with plenty of police officers and DUI checkpoints, too.
But that doesn’t mean that the Salt River isn’t a worthy kayaking destination. Indeed, it’s a favorite of the metro Phoenix crowd.
Ideal cfs: 500-1500
Experience level: Novice
Rapids: mostly Class I
River Miles: ~11
Vehicle shuttle required
Parking fee: $8 (Tonto Pass)
What time of year can you kayak the Salt River?
This stretch of the Salt River depends on periodic water releases from the Stewart Mountain Dam. The most consistent of these releases occur between mid-May and mid-October. Luckily, there’s a river gauge just below the dam where you can check the streamflow. The ideal flow for kayaking is between about 500-1500 cfs. The bare minimum flow you’d need is about 300cfs, though you’d probably have to get out and drag your kayak through some shallows at that level.
Even when the gauge looks too low for a full run, you might be able to kayak further down the river. The Verde River joins the Salt River near the Phon D Sutton Recreation Area, often adding just enough water to allow for a run downstream. The last mile or so of calm water approaching Granite Reef Dam features enough water to paddle year round, though it’s more lake-like in that stretch. If you’re desperate for a paddle but the Salt River isn’t cooperating, you can just as easily continue up the road to Saguaro Lake.
What time of day should you kayak?
The key to enjoying your time on the river is to either start very early, or to arrive well after the party has dissipated, or to find yourself there mid-week. My favorite time of day to kayak the Salt River is early in the morning. You’ll avoid both the worst of the summer heat and the worst of the tubers. It’s remarkably peaceful first thing in the morning, and you’ll also see more wildlife by paddling early. I recommend getting on the water no later than 7am, which means arriving closer to 6am to unload your boat and set up the car shuttle (more on that below). Salt River Recreation begins busing tubers to the river at 9am sharp, so you’ll want to be downstream well before then.
If mornings aren’t your thing and you’d rather paddle at sunset, be sure to check out the sunset and moonrise times when you’re planning your trip. Take note that it’ll still be hot out even after the sun sets, and you still might encounter the tail end of the party-goers (while the shuttle buses end at 6pm, the party often lingers later). If it’s July or August, you’ll also want to keep your eye on any monsoon storms—it’s a good idea to avoid the river during or immediately after one of these storms.
How long does it take to kayak the Salt River?
The main stretch from Water Users to Granite Reef Dam is about 11 river miles and requires a 7 mile car shuttle. On average, it takes roughly 4 hours to paddle the whole stretch, though that depends on how fast you paddle and how fast the river is running.
How difficult or technical is it to paddle?
Generally this is a beginner/novice trip with only Class I rapids, two of which approach Class II during certain flow rates. At the 0.5 mile mark from Water Users, you’ll encounter Snaggletooth Rapid. Later, at mile 3.0, you’ll encounter a rapid known as either Pinball Alley, Bulldog, Rattlesnake, or Rocky Road, depending on who you’re paddling with. This is the fiercest of the entire Lower Salt River, but shouldn’t give you much trouble. Under some flow rates, you’ll also encounter another wave near Coon Bluff Rec Area around mile 7.0.
If you do fall in…
In many areas, the river is shallow enough to simply stand up in if you manage to tip over. If you do fall in, don’t panic! Your pfd should keep you safe. Alert others (a great reason to attach a whistle to your pfd) and swim your boat over to the shoreline. Don’t try to swim after any items that may be floating downstream—have your friends paddle ahead to retrieve them instead. Once you’re to the shoreline, collect yourself and your gear and find a good spot to re-launch from.
Renting a kayak for the Salt River
What kind of kayak should you rent?
Just about any kayak will do on this easy stretch of the Salt River. Sit-on-tops seem to be the most common, followed by sit-ins, followed by inflatables. Overall, I’d say that’s in line with my personal preferences for this stretch of river. But don’t get me wrong, if I only had an inflatable available, I wouldn’t hesitate using it.
Sit-on-tops are great because they’re very stable and they don’t make some new paddlers as nervous as the enclosed cockpit of sit-ins. But sit-ins perform the best, even if they require a bit more skill to keep upright. Inflatables are the easiest to transport—no doubt about that—and are very stable but don’t perform as well, especially when it comes to tracking a straight line at slower speeds. Luckily, performance isn’t much of a concern on a river like this. You’ll have fun whatever you paddle.
Where to rent kayaks?
I recommend renting kayaks from the Arizona Hiking Shack, which is near 32nd Street & Thomas in east Phoenix. They have both sit-on-top kayaks and inflatable kayaks available for rent as either single-person or doubles. Single-person kayaks run $35/day while doubles are $45/day. All of their kayaks come with paddle and personal floatation devices (pfd), and inflatables also come with a manual pump. They’ve always provided me the necessary river straps to transport rental boats on my vehicle. You can also rent a variety of other accessories, or purchase something new from their shop.
There are a handful of other places you can rent from, including both individuals or other non-storefront locations; you can often find these advertising on craigslist and elsewhere. You can also rent kayaks from Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch by booking one of their unguided tours.
What to bring kayaking
The basic items you’ll want to bring kayaking the Salt River
- Kayak and Paddle – duh.
- PFD – it’s Arizona law to have a personal floatation device for each person onboard, and it just makes sense to wear it.
- Hat or visor – unless you’re paddling at night, you’ll want a hat or visor
- Sunglasses – trust me, you’ll want to bring these. If you have prescription glasses or sunglasses, you might want to bring a croakies-style glasses strap to keep them secured to your noggin.
- Sunscreen – you’ll need to reapply it when you stop. Better yet, wear long sleeved UV protection. Remember to add sunscreen to your legs and feet, which may be exposed during your paddle.
- Clothes that are comfortable while wet (eg, not your standard cotton t-shirt). I usually wear a swimsuit and a long-sleeved synthetic shirt with UV protection.
- Towel – you’ll want to dry off if you go for an unexpected swim, and it’s also useful to keep a dry one in your car, too.
- Dry bag – these are particularly handy for keeping everything dry in case you tip over. Be sure to clip your bag to the boat so that it doesn’t float away if you capsize.
- Sandals or water shoes – you’ll likely get your feet wet at some point during the trip, so I recommend wearing sandals (not flip flops that could float away) or water shoes.
- Water – always bring (and drink) water, even if you’ve brought other beverages. This is the desert.
- Snack – most groups take a break halfway through the paddle, which makes for a perfect time for a quick snack.
- If you bring adult beverages, remember to leave the glass at home. Also keep in mind that the Bush Highway is heavily patrolled by sheriff deputies who regularly deploy DUI checkpoints. Play it safe and find a designated driver.
- Optional items I also bring:
- Kayaking gloves, but most people kayaking down the Salt River don’t seem to use them.
- A change of clothes for the car – especially useful if you plan on grabbing a post-paddle beer or lunch with your paddling friends.
- Cold drinks for the car – trust me, it’s great to have a cold beverage on hand while you load your kayak and gear after a paddle.
- Whistle – you may not need a signal device, but I find it useful to have, especially to communicate with friends ahead or behind me on the river. Just be sure to let everyone know what the signal code is prior to hitting the water.
- If you’re paddling near sunset or by moonlight, be sure to bring a headlamp. I also have everyone add a few glowsticks on the front and back of every boat so we can see where everyone is.
- Bug spray – I never seem to have any insect problems while I’m paddling the Salt—this is the Sonoran Desert, after all—but a number of paddlers I know always bring bug spray. If you seem especially tasty to mosquitoes, you might want to have it on hand.
You’ll need a Tonto Pass
In spite of what you’d expect—or may even have been told by a park ranger—the America the Beautiful pass (also known as the Interagency Annual Pass, or the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass) does not cover parking at any of the recreation areas along the Lower Salt River. Instead, you’ll need a Tonto Pass. Yes, you’re right, that is total bullshit.
Because of the obvious confusion over this, some folks risk it by displaying this interagency pass with the notion that they’ll be able to argue or feign ignorance out out of any ticket. I won’t comment on that strategy except to say that it’s stupid that USFS and Congress have created this problem.
Others instead try to carpool to the river to save on Tonto Passes. I highly encourage this, as it also reduces parking issues at the recreation sites. Paddling groups routinely meet in shopping center parking lots near Power and McDowell and leave vehicles there during their kayaking trips. As long as you park at the edges of the parking lots, you shouldn’t encounter any problems.
Note that you do not need an additional Watercraft Pass if you are using a non-motorized boat, like a kayak, packraft, or canoe.
Which Tonto Pass do you need?
There are two primary options for Tonto Passes: a $8 Daily Pass and a $80 Discovery Pass, which is good for one year. If you’re just starting out kayaking the Salt River, I’d recommend grabbing a daily pass. The daily pass requires you to scratch off the appropriate date and time before displaying it, so you can easily stock up on a few without “starting the clock,” so to speak. Side note: because these passes are only good for 24 hours from the time you validate it, you’ll need more than one to do an overnight trip on one of the Salt River lakes (no overnight dispersed camping is allowed along the Salt River itself).
If you recreate often along the Salt River, the annual Discovery Pass might be cheaper for you. If you’re a senior or disabled, you qualify for a discounted $60 annual Senior or Access Discovery Pass.
Where can you buy a Tonto Pass?
Tonto Daily Passes can be purchased from Tonto National Forest offices, online, by mail or by phone, or at a long list of local retailers (pdf). Here’s slightly-outdated google map showing all of the vendor locations; I suspect that most all of these locations are still active resellers, but you might want to call first to be sure. I usually buy mine at one of the gas stations near Power & McDowell on my way to the river.
The annual Discovery, Senior, and Access Passes are only sold at Tonto National Forest offices, and you’ll need to bring ID or proof of your disability. Each of these passes is issued to one individual who must sign the back of the pass. The pass then covers all occupants of a single, private noncommercial vehicle as along as long as the pass holder is present.
Salt River kayaking map
Below you’ll find a custom google map of some of the locations mentioned in this guide.
How to get to the Salt River
There are three ways to get to the Lower Salt River, which is accessible solely via the Bush Highway. The first is to drive north on Power Road from the Loop-101 freeway in northeast Mesa. Power Road heads north for a few miles before turns east and becomes Bush Highway, passing each of the river’s main recreation areas and roughly paralleling the river until reaching Saguaro Lake.
Alternatively, further east you can drive north on Ellsworth Road, which becomes Usery Pass Road and connects with the Bush Highway a few miles later. When arriving at Bush Highway via this route, Blue Ridge, Pebble Beach, Water Users and Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch will be to your right, whereas Coon Bluff, Phon D Sutton, and Granite Reef will be to your left. If you went straight, you’d arrive at Salt River Recreation, the outfit that runs the busy tubing rental and shuttle service for the river.
The other way to find the Lower Salt River is via Exit 199 from “The Beeline,” Hwy 87. This might be most convenient for those coming from the north valley via Shea Blvd and Fountain Hills. At the top of the off-ramp, turn south and follow the road past Saguaro Lake.
Where to launch from
There are a number of places you can launch from. I’ll take them in order, starting at the furthest upstream put-in. You’ll need a $8 Tonto Pass for each vehicle parked in each place mentioned below, except the privately-run Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch.
Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch
This is the furthest spot upstream to launch, just a bit down river from Stewart Mountain Dam. The longest trip you can do on the Lower Salt River starts here and ends about 13 river miles later at Granite Reef. The best part of launching from the ranch is the first 3 minutes: you almost immediately hit some fun rapids as the river turns hard right under some magnificent cliffs. After you clear the rapids, look up—you might see an eagle perched high above you. It’s my favorite stretch of the entire river, even though it’s just a few minutes upstream from the first public launching spot. The actual put-in here at the ranch is a bit more difficult than a sandy beach, but the views are worth it.
Because this launch starts at a private guest ranch, you’ll need to pay for the privilege. One option is to book what the ranch calls a “self-guided tour.” That basically covers your parking fee, boat and gear rental, and a shuttle back to the ranch. Roughly two-hour “tours” cost $40 while the longer 4.5 hour trips run $70. You’ll need a reservation for both of the tours. If you’re just looking to launch from the ranch, you can instead pay $10 per vehicle, plus $5 for each additional boat. You’ll need to check in with the front desk to pay and obtain a parking pass before you launch, and the ranch requires you to remove your vehicle by 3pm.
This large parking lot is where most tubers start, and it’s also the most common put-in for longer kayaking trips down the Salt River. Water Users is located just a few minutes downstream of Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch and requires a Tonto Pass to park at. This rec area is no frills—it’s really just a place to park while you paddle or float the river. There are pit toilets here, but no drinkable water. If you fail to arrive long before (or long after) the summer tubers, you’ll regret stopping here. This is also sometimes referred to as Stop 1 for the tubers.
There are two recreation areas on the immediate east side of the bridge over the Salt River. The downstream/north area is called Blue Point, while the more expansive area across the highway is called Pebble Beach. Both are popular areas to launch kayaks for shortened trips down the river.
This is also a great spot to launch for those who want to avoid the rapids of Bulldog Canyon (sometimes referred to as ‘Pinball Alley’), the most extensive set of rapids on the Lower Salt River. In spite of its smaller parking lot, Blue Point is a bit preferable as the shoreline is closer to the parking lot so you won’t have to carry your boat as far. Also, the river flattens out and is more shallow near the bridge, so it’s easier to start on the other side of the ripples, especially in low water.
There are pit toilets at both sites, but no running water. Don’t forget that you’ll need a Tonto Pass to park at both Pebble Beach and Blue Point. Pebble Beach is also known as Stop 2 by the tubers.
If you’re looking for more of a workout, you can also put-in at the Granite Reef Recreation Area—traditionally, the last take-out of the Lower Salt River stretch before the Granite Reef Dam. From here, you can only paddle upstream, against the slow flow of the river. However, this area is nearly always flat, slow-moving water that more closely resembles a lake than a fast flowing river. It’s also your best and easiest option for a quick paddle during low flow periods.
Where to take out
Phon D Sutton
Phon D Sutton is the most convenient and the most popular ending spot for Salt River kayaking trips. Finding the take-out is extremely easy; just aim for the small beachy area on the far left as you approach the large rock outcropping that sticks out into the river. This popular rock area will almost certainly be filled with various people fishing, sunbathing, or otherwise enjoying the river. Disembark here and carry your boat up the small hill to your left and you’ll find yourself at the parking lot.
Phon D Sutton has pit toilets, picnic shelters, and both a large parking lot and a secondary lot further back. Be sure to park your vehicles in the back half of the first parking lot area. The path you’ll later carry your boats up emerges between the two picnic shelters, so aim to park in a spot close by.
Granite Reef is the end of the line for kayaking trips on the Lower Salt River. Unfortunately, it’s also home to the fewest parking spaces of any of the main rec areas, so you may want to start a bit earlier than normal if you’re planning on parking several vehicles here. Alternatively, you can set up a “reverse” car shuttle—more on that below. Granite Reef is also home to the smallest landing, so it make take a few moments to empty a crowd off the river. In fact, the take-out can be a bit hard to find from the river. There are two small palm trees on the north bank—river right—that you should keep an eye out for. The take-out is nearly directly across the river from these two markers.
How to set up a car shuttle
The great thing about kayaking a river is that the water does half the work for you—whether or not you paddle, you’re heading downstream. The bad part of kayaking a river is that you’re heading downstream, so you’ll need to arrange a car shuttle.
The only exception for the Salt River is if you’re launching from Granite Reef. The water is more lake-like down near the dam, so it’s possible to paddle up river and float back down to your car. Unfortunately, that’s not really an option for the rest of the river. If you’ve paid for a tour from the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, then you’ll be receiving a ride back from the ranch and you can skip this section.
You’ll need at least two vehicles for the car shuttle, and each vehicle will require a Tonto Pass. It’s a bit easier if you have more than 2 cars and more than 2 people, as it allows you to have someone you know keep an eye on your boats.
- Drive the boats to the launch site. Drop off your boats and any gear that you want for the trip. You’ll probably want to leave at least one person here to watch your stuff.
- Drive the vehicles to the take-out where you’ll leave them for later. I like leaving a cold beverage and a towel in my vehicle so I have it when I finish the paddle.
- Using as few vehicles as possible, drive everyone back up to the take-out.
- Launch your boats and enjoy your paddle down the river.
- When you’re done kayaking, someone will need to drive the owner(s) of the vehicle(s) used in step 3 back to their vehicles parked at the put-in while everyone else loads their boats into their own vehicles.
You can also reverse this scenario and drop off a sufficient number of vehicles at the take-out first, on your way to the put-in. This adds a bit of difficulty in that you’ll need to transport all of the boats up to the put-in using fewer vehicles than they arrived in, but it’s one way to deal with the lack of parking spaces at Granite Reef.
A third alternative to dealing with Granite Reef’s limited parking is to follow the normal car shuttle routine but to leave one or more vehicles at Phon D Sutton or one of the pull-offs along the Bush Highway. At the end of the paddle, drivers can be shuttled back to their vehicles before heading back to the take-out to retrieve their boats. As you can imagine, I usually prefer to end at Phon D Sutton to avoid these logistical challenges.
Other things to consider
Feral horses along the Salt River
Yes, it’s common to see so-called “wild” horses during a paddle. No, they’re not actually “wild,” at least in the most accurate sense of the word. They’re domesticated horses that have been carelessly released or fled their owners and are now living as a herd in an ecosystem that didn’t evolve to support them. Nonetheless, many paddlers enjoy seeing them and you’re likely to see some if you paddle in the early morning. Feel free to take photos, but please don’t disturb them. They also often cross the Bush Highway, so be careful while driving.
Learning how to kayak
Arizona Hiking Shack, REI Paradise Valley, and REI Chandler locations offer short classes on kayaking and can help you choose the proper gear. Arizona Game and Fish Department also offers some education courses, as do a number of other groups.
Finding other people to kayak the Salt River with
The easiest way to find people to paddle with is by joining a Phoenix-area Meetup group. There are a few kayaking-focused groups, including my favorites Paddle Arizona and Desert Mountain Paddlers. You might also want to check out Phoenix Kayak Club and Kayak Arizona. Each of these groups offers nearly-weekly kayaking trips down the Salt River. A number of other meetup groups offer Salt River kayaking events, even if they aren’t primarily a paddling group. A quick search will likely yield several scheduled trips. There’s also a new Facebook group for Lower Salt River Kayakers where people more informally meet up for trips together. And if you’re still striking out, check out this post about ways to make more outdoor recreation friends.
Where to go for a post-paddle food or beverage
Red, White and Brew at Power/McDowell is a common post-paddle get together spot. I also recommend Desert Eagle Brewing’s Falcon Field location near McDowell and Higley. Both offer a selection of craft beers and decent food.
What other questions do you have?
I’ve tried to put together a comprehensive guide for kayaking the Salt River, but I may have missed something. Let me know what else you want to know about in the comments.