Warm weather brings a peculiar creature to the wilds just outside of suburbia: the tuber. Hordes of them flock to the Lower Salt River Recreation Area northeast of Mesa this time of year, clamoring to float down the scenic desert waterway in a rubber inner tube.
But that isn’t the only way to see the Salt.
You can also kayak or canoe it.
My husband and I made the trip by kayak the last weekend in April, starting early to beat the heat and the bus loads of tubers, which commercial outfitter Salt River Tubing (SRT) begins shuttling at 9 a.m.
We put in at Water Users Recreation Site, also known as Point One on SRT’s maps, which you can see on the company’s website. This was after parking a second vehicle downriver, where we planned to take out.
At Water Users, the Salt was wide and placid — and only a few feet deep. We could make out husky fish (trout, perhaps?) zipping beneath us as clearly as we could see the saguaro-studded hills ahead of us.
Before long, the current picked up, and we paddled easily past reedy islands full of chattering birds. Along the way, there was much to see, from honeycombs and birds’ nests clinging to cliffs, to storybook-ish trees with enormous, twining root systems.
We saw a dozen or more Great Blue Herons and nearly as many startlingly vibrant red-winged blackbirds. Cormorants — blackish-brown birds that look like homely, unfortunate ducks — were abundant. We thought we spied a phainopepla, and an impressively large bird of prey soared too high to identify without binoculars.
At one point, a terrible smell foreshadowed the National Geographic-style scene ahead: turkey vultures hunched over a decomposing nag, presumably one of the feral horses that roam the riparian zone.
Fishermen, positioned mostly near the bridge between Pebble Beach and Blue Point recreation sites, were our only human company.
As we floated, the river varied between tranquil flat water and just enough riffles to be fun, but that could change given water flow. The day we did it, the Salt was running at 1,022 cubic feet per second, according to SRP’s daily water report. (See the sidebar for information on accessing the report.) High water flow yields a faster, stronger current; low flow could mean more obstacles in the river and a greater chance of scraping bottom or having to get out and carry your boat over too-shallow water.
Our trip ended at Goldfield Recreation Area, or Point Four — mainly because SRT has posted giant “Point Four” and “Exit Here” signs on the river. While the signs gave us a feeling of security for our first trip (we didn’t want to overshoot our parked car), Goldfield’s main drawback is a long, steep ramp from the river to the parking lot — where, coincidentally, we had our last wildlife encounters of the day: a Western Diamondback rattlesnake and a lone brown pony crossing the pavement. Hauling boats up the ramp from the river bottom is do-able, but strenuous.
Another downside to the route we took is that you might run into day traffic — at least in the parking lots — if you don’t get an early enough start. Although Water Users was empty when we started out, by the time we returned two hours later, we found teenagers sitting on our truck in a tailgating party.
To avoid that, we’ll begin next time farther upstream at Saguaro Lake Ranch. The guest ranch charges $5 to park and $5 per boat to launch, but starting there gives you 20 more minutes on the water and the opportunity to linger a while under majestic cliffs, where spotting eagles isn’t uncommon.
To skip the climb up the ramp at Goldfield, we’ll take out about 5 miles downstream at Granite Reef Recreation Area, the last stop before Granite Reef Diversion Dam, where Bush Highway becomes Power Road and heads south back into Mesa.
The route is longer, but takes paddlers past the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers. It also avoids steep exits at earlier recreation sites Coon Bluff and Phon D Sutton.
Our trip from Water Users/Point One to Goldfield/Point Four took about 90 minutes; going from Saguaro Lake Ranch to Granite Reef Recreation Area is estimated at four to five hours.
You’ll need one Tonto Pass ($6) for each vehicle you park at day use sites along the river; they’re available at most convenience and drug stores near the river, and online at www.fs.usda.gov/tonto. A watercraft sticker is not required for kayaks in the Lower Salt River Recreation Area.
Plan your trip
• For information about the Lower Salt River Recreation Area, contact the Tonto National Forest’s Mesa Ranger District Office, 5140 E. Ingram St., at (480) 610-3300.
• To check the river’s water flow rate, go to www.srpwater.com/dwr, click on the day in question, and look at the first number after Stewart Mountain Dam in the Reservoir Release table. You can also call the Mesa Ranger District office.
• Salt River Tubing has a map of Points One through Four — the route described here — on its website, www.saltrivertubing.com; click on “Float Trips” to see the image.
• Saguaro Lake Ranch offers year-round kayak rentals and transportation to and from the river or Saguaro Lake. Call (480) 984-2194 for reservations and pricing.