Ask anyone in the East Valley about the Salt River, and they’ll tell you: It’s barely deep enough to tube northeast of Mesa and rarely more than a languid trickle percolating the sandy wash alongside Loop 202 in Tempe.
But far above the desert city, on the fringe of the Colorado Plateau, the lowly Salt is a beast. Between towering walls of limestone, the river swells with melted snow plummeting from Arizona’s White Mountains. This is the upper Salt, a biting chute of cold, fast water carving a 2,000-foot-deep scar through a gorge streaked with alabaster salt deposits and scrubby stands of juniper.
Here, the Salt is ample and brash, unconstrained by the five dams that choke it into submission downstream, diverting its volume to quench our need for water and power. Here, where foreboding and majestic Salt River Canyon bunches U.S. 60 like an accordion, Arizona’s earliest — and some say best — white-water rafting begins.
“This is no Disneyland ride,” warns river guide Justin Boyce, of Flagstaff-based Canyon Rio Rafting, at a pre-trip safety briefing. “There are no tracks under the water keeping your boat upright.”
My raft mates and I climb gingerly into our inflatable raft, practice a clumsy paddle stroke or two, and meet our first rapid: Class II Kiss and Tell, an easy slew of quick-moving riffles that sweep our boat hair-raisingly close to the sheer rock face of Mulehoof Bend.
Rapids are ranked on a scale of I to V. Class I is moving water; Class V promises dire consequences for even expert rafters. The Salt contains a good number of Class II to Class IV spots, giving rafters plenty of thrills without excessive risk.
“It’s a fun run from the standpoint of a client and a guide,” says Alex Mickel, president of Mild to Wild Rafting, an outfitter on the Salt. “There’s enough white water that it’s fun all day long, but as a guide, you’re not overly worried.”
Our guide, Boyce, doesn’t seem concerned as he aims our raft for what feels like the most insane path through the churning water.
“Get ready to lean in if I tell you!” he shouts as we approach a string of Class III rapids.
“There’s some real munchy spots in here that’ll throw us around if we don’t hit them just right!”
We stuff our feet farther into the boat’s puffy seams — the only way to brace ourselves for the tilt-a-whirl ahead — as we approach Maytag, Captain Crunch, Mother Rock and Overboard, four rapids with gaping drops and backward waves surging behind enormous boulders.
“Forward!” Boyce bellows, his voice tiny in the roaring turbulence. We lean to connect with the water, but our paddles don’t reach: The river is several feet below us. The next moment, it’s all over us: Enormous crests cascade from all sides, and we can hardly paddle for the knocking we’re taking. Finally, muscles sapped and bodies drenched, we shoot out of the washing machinelike rapids, brimful of hoots, hollers and adrenaline.
That’s how it works on the Salt: You power through thrilling bursts of frothy water, then float a relaxing few minutes on lazy, swirling flats. The breaks give you time to breathlessly recount the ride with your boat mates, admire the striking scenery and rest up for your next rapid.
It’s just around the bend.
Winter snows make for a great ride
“Hey! You’re using the guides’ shower!” jokes river guide Paul Worley as Abel Tejada, his children, nieces and nephews splash in icy water spilling from Forked Tongue Falls, a spring-fed waterfall that flows into the Salt River.
Tejada and his extended family have driven from Chandler for a day trip down the Salt River northeast of Globe. A quick hike along the stream bubbling from the falls’ shaded pools, and they’ll be back on the river, navigating one exciting rapid after another.
“It’s an exceptional year,” says Mike Whittington, coowner of Salt River Rafting, an outfitter based in Salida, Colo. “We only get water like this once or twice a decade.”
Heavy winter snowfall in Arizona’s White Mountains means the Salt’s headwaters are soaking up massive amounts of melting drifts. The resulting water flow is measured in cubic feet per second — cfs in river parlance.
At press time, the Salt was running around 2,300 cfs. Last year, it topped out at 1,800.
Adding to the thrill of rare high water is the Salt’s gradient, or downhill slope.
“The river drops about 32 feet per mile,” says Alex Mickel, president of Mild to Wild Rafting, another outfitter from Durango, Colo. “That’s much more than the gradient on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, and it adds up to a fast current and lots of wave trains — good, splashy fun.”
River outfitters expect to operate through at least mid-May, when water levels will drop.
Even then, says Whittington, the river offers cool respite and stunning views.
“People don’t realize we have such a great little gem of a white-water run this close to Phoenix. It’s so remote and scenic, you just kind of fall in love with the place.”
Before the day is out, Tejada and his siblings are contemplating a three-day, 50-mile rafting trip for next year.
“There’s never a guarantee we’ll get water like this,” says Justin Boyce, a river guide with Canyon Rio Rafting who lives in a tent on the bank from March through May. “You’ve got to hit it while it’s hot.”
Water that comes from melted snow can be chilly even on hot days. Outfitters provide wet suits and splash jackets; ask if they’re included or if you’ll need to pay a rental fee.
Here’s what you need to bring:
• Swimsuit to wear under wet suit
• Outdoor sandals with an ankle strap; or water shoes or booties; or nonslip sneakers with neoprene or wool socks (no flipflops or Crocs)
• Quick-drying top and shorts (no cotton or denim)
• Hat with brim and strap
• Sunglasses with strap
• Water bottle
• Waterproof sunscreen
• Lip balm
• Waterproof, disposable camera with strap
• Cash for tipping your guide
• Dry clothes for the drive home
Salt River rafting
Four outfitters offer a variety of half-day, full-day and multiday excursions. Costs vary, but plan to spend $100 to $140 per adult for a day trip. Contact outfitters for information on prices, age restrictions and reservations.
Canyon Rio Rafting: (800) 272-3353 or
Mild to Wild Rafting: (800) 567-6745 or
Salt River Rafting: (800) 425-5253 or
Wilderness Aware Rafting: (800) 231-7238 or