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Average Gradient
?
Days
4
Most difficult rapid
IV
Distance
52.00 mi (83.69 km)
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The Salt River offers a remarkable, multi-day wilderness whitewater trip through the unlikely setting of desert mountains in Arizona. This is the same river that waters the Phoenix Valley, but it’s only visible in the city as a dried-up wash or in stagnant impoundments. It flows through the Superstition Mountains in short sections, but even there it is confined mostly to a series of reservoirs. To find the Salt River in its natural state, you must venture farther and higher to the foothills of the White Mountains, where it tumbles through undammed canyons and empties into the saguaro-studded Sonoran Desert. This is the Upper Salt, and it's one of the finest whitewater rivers in the Southwest. The multi-day trip is 52 miles, from U.S. Highway 60 on White Mountain Apache Reservation through the Salt River Canyon Wilderness of Tonto National Forest, to state Highway 288 near Globe.

The Salt River Canyon is often called Arizona's other Grand Canyon, not so much for similarity of landscapes but for overall quality and prestige of the river. Though not as famous as the Grand, the Salt is also coveted by Southwest boaters, and a trip can be even harder to score. Like the Grand, Salt permits are awarded through a lottery that's highly competitive. What makes the Salt even more frustrating, however, is that its season is short and somewhat unpredictable. Whereas the dam-controlled Grand Canyon is boatable on any day of the year, the Salt River's flow is entirely natural and dependent on snowmelt from the White Mountains.

Permits

A multi-day trip on the Upper Salt typically requires two separate permits, the lottery-entry permit from U.S. Forest Service and a day-use permit from White Mountain Apache Tribe.

The Forest Service lottery entry period is December 1 to January 31, but the permit season is March 1 to May 15, so you must apply for dates in hopes that you not only win, but also that there will actually be water when it's time for you to launch. The snowpack can vary greatly. Some years the river runs reliably through the entire permit season, and other years it runs hardly at all. There is always some water, but base flow is not enough for an enjoyable multi-day trip. One major plus side of the Salt, however, is that no permit from the Forest Service is required outside of the March to May dates, so if the river happens to run early or late, you can hop on with minimal hassle. All other rules still apply, however, and you may still get checked by a ranger at the put-in. Regulations like required gear, campfire and camping restrictions, and group size limits can be found along with permit information at Recreation.gov.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe controls the put-in and the first few miles of the run, and they require a permit at all times, regardless of the Forest Service permit season. This is the same permit you would buy if doing the Upper Salt Daily Section, but for any multi-day trip you must buy two days' worth of permits from the tribe. Apache rangers are usually at the put-in to check, and permits are not available on site. If you don't purchase and print your permit online ahead of time, you will have to drive more than 20 miles to a tribal office to purchase one (no cell service at the put-in).

Flow

The Upper Salt is a wild river that runs entirely on natural flow. In the desert, that flow can be scarce and unpredictable. It's impossible to know what the level will be when applying for your permit. The best you can do is watch the USGS Chrysotile gage in the days leading up to your trip and pack your craft accordingly. Rafts will want at least 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs), but hard-shell and inflatable kayaks can get by with as little as 400 cfs. Diehards may run levels even lower, however. Keep in mind that you'll want that minimum for the duration of your trip, not just the day you put in. Around 4,000 cfs, the rapids in the upper gorges become very continuous and the features quite large, with portages difficult to impossible. Hazards and difficulty generally increase with more water, and spikes of more than 10,000 cfs are not unheard of. Inexperienced boaters should stay away if high water seems a possibility. At ideal levels (approximately 1,000 to 3,000 cfs) the river is Class III pool-drop with a few Class IVs.

Rapids

The Upper Salt can be described in a few distinct sections with their own characteristics of rapids and scenery. The first 9 miles are what’s commonly run as the Day Section. Rapids here fairly continuous and a lot of fun. At lower levels, a few of them can be "scrape-y" and hard for rafts to navigate, however. Most are Class II to III at normal water levels. This section makes a great introduction for the rest of the run.

Beyond the Day Section, the canyon grows even wider and taller on all sides. Light-colored granite and many saguaros begin to appear at water level. White Rock Rapid (Class III) is one of several fun drops in the White Gorge, where the water moves very quickly and eddies are few.

The White Gorge empties suddenly into open desert in a broad valley. The water slows down considerably for the next few miles, but still has a few riffles and Class II rapids. Eye of the Needle Rapid marks the entrance to the Black Gorge, where the river tumbles over a few sharp drops between dark volcanic rock. One of the these is Black Rock Rapid, a Class IV. The action keeps coming with several lesser rapids in quick succession for the next few miles.

Next comes the Quartz Gorge, one of the most impressive geological features of the canyon. Here, upturned ledges of white quartzite scrape the sky on both sides. The river cuts straight through, but not so cleanly. Quartzite Falls and Corkscrew are two back-to-back Class IVs with steep ledge drops. You should definitely stop to scout these, both for the benefit of seeing the line and for the stunning scenery that surrounds.

The remaining rapids are all Class II, and the river slows to a meander through entrenched horseshoe bends and over shoals for the remaining miles to the takeout. The canyon is wide here, but no less impressive. Sheer cliffs and rock towers line the river, and high mountains form the horizon. One final narrows between granite cliffs mark the last bend before the takeout, where the road bridge appears against a beautiful backdrop of the Superstition Mountains in the distance.

Camps

Most trips spend 3 to 5 nights on the river. Camps are not designated on the permit, so you are free to select your own sites as you go, but you should plan ahead. Good spots are not always easy to come by, and tend to be clustered in short sections of river. Many stretches that would have good camps are closed because of Apache regulations or bald eagle habitat on Forest Service land. Consult guidebook maps to find camps and avoid closures. No information is posted along the river.

Great camps do exist, though. A few have sandy beaches, some have soft grass, others have fine gravel, and the scenery is always superb. They are not always obvious because you may have to pull through some vegetation to reach them. You may find suitable sites that aren’t marked in the guidebook as well. Keep a close eye out so you don’t miss your ideal spot. When the river is busy, you should consider sharing with another group because it can be quite far to the next good camp.

Weather

This is the Sonoran Desert, but at fairly high elevation and surrounded by snowy mountains. Large temperature fluctuations are normal in the spring, and the water is always very cold. Expect warm days and cold nights, maybe below freezing. Be prepared for the possibility of wind and rain as well. Some sections of canyon stay shady and chilly even on hot days, and other sections with zero shade can get oppressively hot even on the water.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Spring

Parking Pass

Other

Motors Allowed

No

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Sonoran Desert whitewater. Quality rapids. Nice camps.

Cons

Short and unpredictable season. Permit hard to obtain.

Pets allowed

Allowed with Restrictions

Put-in location (lat, long coordinates)

33.802097, -110.509202

Take-out location (lat, long coordinates)

33.619213, -110.923299

Address

Primitive Rd
Whiteriver, AZ 85941
United States

Features

Boat ramp(s)
Backcountry camping
Native artifacts
Big vistas
Wildflowers
Wildlife
Fishing
Geologically significant

Access

Vehicle

Typically multi-day

Yes

Shuttle required

Yes

Overall difficulty

IV

Route Characteristics: Character

Remote
River
Pool Drop

Suitable for

Kayaks
Inflatable Kayaks
Rafts

Permit required

Yes

Permit self-issue on site

No

Prone to wood

Rarely

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Adventures

White Mountain Apache Reservation, Arizona

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