The Salt River is popularly known to river recreation enthusiasts in two sections; the upper salt river and the lower. The upper Salt River section is defined by true whitewater paddling, and it’s not uncommon for permits to be secured months in advance for multi-day trips downriver. A few technical sections demand preparation, technique and a skillful boat captain to get you through it. In contrast, the lower Salt River requires far less skill and preparation, and allows for a more leisurely float downriver compared to it’s more treacherous counterpart. The lower section of the Salt River is frequented by recreational tubers, paddleboarders, kayakers, anglers and wildlife viewers that have made access routine access a bit easier.
The rate at which the water flows through the Salt is governed by the Stewart Mountain Dam. This hydroelectric dam operates primarily in the Summer months, allowing more water through from Saguaro Lake, increasing the flow rate downriver and encouraging outdoor recreation from May all the way to October. During these Summer months, the river flows between 400-1000 cubic feet per second (CFS). Alternatively, from November to early May, The Salt River flows consistently low at an average CFS between 10-30. Although this seems like a dramatic increase in water flow and overall speed, the increased flow actually makes the float more enjoyable, flowing over rocks and other obstacles that might otherwise be too exposed to pass. In low water these sections might even require you to get out and drag your boat over shallow sandbars and narrow banks.
Most kayakers and paddleboarders do their best to avoid the “tubers” because they tend to get rowdy. The best put in locations are Coon Bluff Campground or Phon D Sutton Recreation Area. The difference between these two put-in locations has to do with another river that flows into the Salt called the Verde River. The greatest challenge when planning a downriver day of kayaking is the fact that you need a to arrange some way to shuttle yourself from the start of your route back to the finish.
When the water flow from the Stewart Mountain dam is high during the summer months, starting from Coon Bluff is more enjoyable. However, when the flow is less intense, beginning at Coon Bluff can be shallow and slow-moving.
Less than a mile down the road, Phon D Sutton is a good choice for beginning your journey at any point throughout the year because of the added flow provided by the confluence of the Verde River. The ideal route for kayakers to minimize headaches and ensure your trip runs smoothly is to put in at Phon D Sutton Recreation Area and plan to pull your kayaks out at the Granite Reef Dam Recreation Area. This provides about 4 river miles of paddling and is typically accomplished in about 2-3 hours.
Just about four miles downriver from Phon D Sutton Recreation Area is the Granite Reef Dam. Here, the water from the Salt is diverted into the Arizona Canal, and the South Canal to provide water to Phoenix and surrounding cities. Kayakers cannot continue to paddle past Granite Reef Dam. The last quarter mile before the Granite Reef Dam flows particularly slow and widens considerably, creating more of a lake than a flowing river. Some kayakers enjoy putting their craft in at the Granite Reef Access Area and paddling upriver in the mostly flat water to create an out-and-back adventure.
Many local Phoenicians enjoy spending time floating the river during the summer months with Salt River Tubing. A shuttle brings tubers from the rental location to the top of the river and back to your car at the end of the day means hundreds of people flock daily, causing some crowding and a sometimes rowdy atmosphere associated with this “party” on the river. The crowds are known to disturb the wildlife and disrupt the calm experience that kayakers typically crave but there are plenty of options for avoiding the busiest sections of the river when tubers are out. When tubing the Salt users typically get on the water at a point called Water Users Recreation Area, and get off the river at an area called Point 4. This section can be avoided (note that it’s not included in the recommended list above) but it can also be enjoyed during early morning explorations before the wilder crowds venture out. Salt River Tubing is only something you’ll want to think about from May – September.