6 Things to Know about Rafting the Salt River
By Kim Cassels • March 7, 2023
6 Things to Know about Rafting the Salt River
Looking for things to know about rafting the Salt River? Welp, we got the know-how you need! The Salt River is one of the most elusive whitewater rafting trips in the United States. Unlike its real big sister canyon up north, you the one— the Salt still manages to flow under the radar, which makes it all the more awesome.
Not to be confused with the popular and relaxing tubing sections rippling around Phoenix, the Upper Salt River Canyon is a 2,000 foot deep portal to a truly untamed place. Here, the river roars, the wildlife thrives, and the scenery is unapologetically grandiose. Come springtime, this stretch of the Salt River is one of the coolest places to find yourself in Arizona.
So if you wanna be cool like the rest of the Salt River cult following, and you’re looking to explore this rare oasis with a paddle in hand, check out this list of things to know about rafting the Salt River. And then don’t wait to get yourself out there! No pressure, but, you kinda need to do this.
#1. It’s Remote
But not too remote. The whitewater rafting section of the Salt River is 2 hours east of Phoenix on the Fort Apache Reservation. The put-in is about 40 miles to the closest town of Globe, or 48 miles to Show Low. So while it’s not wayyy out there, it is a true wilderness area where cell service is null and electricity void.
With that, be sure to have your directions to the meet location saved, and enough fuel, water and snacks for this mini-road trip into the boonies! Get ready to fully embrace a revived desert that comes dressed to impress and ready to party. Or more plainly, the rapids will be spittin’, the wildlife wildin’, and Saguaros bloomin’ with the poppies.
#2. The Season is Short but Super Sweet
The Salt River boasts the earliest rafting season in the country, with trips usually running from March to May. Every once in a while, you can raft the Salt River as early as late February when temperatures and precipitation allow. However, the Salt doesn’t always have enough juice to float a boat, making the years it does have a boating season all the more special.
This is because the upper canyon for whitewater rafting is above Roosevelt Reservoir, where the river is undammed and completely dependent on snowmelt from the White Mountains. And since Arizona’s sun is wonderfully relentless, most of the snow cries itself off the peaks within 2 months time.
So if you’ve been thinking about rafting the Salt River, it’s probably best to go sooner rather than later.
#3. The Rapids are Aplenty
Not only does the Salt River turn out for the earliest rafting season, but it also turns up for the most rapids per mile in Arizona. So if you don’t want to get thoroughly soaked and repeatedly splashed to the ol’ phizog, this might not be the trip for you!
On full day-rafting trips, paddlers take on 12 class III rapid sections in 12 miles. Multi-day rafting trips can have up to 30 rapid sections (with plenty of class IVs sprinkled in) if you run the full 50-mile stretch.
Not sure what a Class III or IV rapid even looks like? Check out this Salt River video!
The biggest rapids on the Salt River include:
- Mescal Falls (class III or IV) — The last rapid on Full Day Trips
Multi-Day Trips (2 Days)
- Ledges (III or IV)
- Rat Trap (III or IV)
Multi-Day Trips (3+ Days)
- Pinball (IV)
- The Maze (IV)
- Quartzite (IV)
- Corkscrew (IV)
#4. Peak Flows usually Hit Around Late March
Speaking of rapids, if you want ‘em big and bad to the bone, around the late March or early April is *usually* when you’re going to get the most suds.
The Salt has been known to brim over 6,000 CFS some years, but the usual big swells are around 2,500 CFS. For reference, the average levels hang around 800 – 1,300 CFS after the first big runoff.
This is just based on average weather patterns though, as the Salt River can change by the hour the entire season. So if you’re a froth-fanatic, keep your eyes on the forecast for both warm weather and rain in the White Mountains.
#5. It’s Usually 10 Degrees Cooler than Phoenix
Phoenix’s elevation sits around 1,200 ft. while the Salt River Wilderness climbs between 2,200 to 4,200 ft. On top of that, canyons always have more weather on account of creating their own precipitation, or the nearby mountains doing it for them.
So dress accordingly! Early spring rafting trips will require wetsuits depending on the air and water temperatures, which are always available for free. We recommend bringing a fleece, beanie, and wool socks March – April. Also, the Salt tends to get overcast, which also makes it a bit chillier!
Average Season Temperatures on the Salt River:
March: Low 49° / High 75°
April: Low 58° / High 83°
May: Low 69° / High 90°
#6. All Rafting Trips Come With a Permit to Camp
An added perk of rafting the Salt River is the opportunity to stay a night at one of its amazing campgrounds. The permit is included in the trip cost for every participant, and is a great way to make the most of your visit to the canyon! You are free to use it the night after your rafting trip.
These are the campgrounds available with a Salt River rafting permit:
This scenic spot is right by the boat launch and close to the turn off from the bridge. It’s a dry campground with no bathrooms, so plan accordingly for that sort of business!
The road (affirmatively named Primitive Road) to get here is a bit rough, so bring the high clearance vehicle for this spot! It’s about 3 miles downstream from the Salt River boat launch, and close to the Cibecue Creek trail that leads to a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. If you want to hike the Cibecue trail, you’ll need a permit from the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Salt Bank Campground
This rugged spot is about 7 and half miles from the Salt River put-in down Primitive Road. Bring the high clearance whip and be prepared to spend about an hour getting to and from the campground.
Raft the Salt River
There you have it, the top need-to-knows about rafting the Salt River! And not a pinch of Salt puns to be had… whoopsie. If you’re ready to bump and grind on these rapids (also a Salt specific pun, sorry) check out the impressive menu of daily and overnight trips on the Salt River Rafting page.
And if you still need more info, we have a handy dandy Salt First Timer’s Guide that goes more in depth about each trip offering, along with some insider travel tips from our beloved river guides.
Fresh on the Salt — A Guide’s First Time with Arizona Whitewater