The historic Fort Apache Indian Reservation, ancestral home to brave Native Americans such as Geronimo and Cochise, is the source of Arizona's Salt River, a seasonal stream that is usually navigable from March through May, depending upon snowpack in the mountains and rainfall within the drainage basin. The headwaters are located within the boundries of Fort Apache National Forest in Graham County, east-northeast of Phoenix.
The Upper Salt River is generally described as that section from the headwaters down to Roosevelt Lake in the Sierra Ancha Mountains of southcentral Arizona. The desert environment offers spectacular vistas seldom seen where most people paddle and camp. The primary attraction of the Upper Salt River is its exciting Class II to IV whitewater rapids that can be challenging for canoeists, kayakers and rafters. A major rapid, Apache Falls, is located just above the US Highway 60 crossing, but running it is strictly prohibited by ancient Apache Nation laws. Please respect the ancient customs of the indigenous people and do not attempt to run this drop. The penalty for getting caught, and you probably will, is stiff fines and probably some time in jail!
Paddling the Upper Salt is like stepping back in time by at least 150 years. Natural beauty abounds, and you will find few signs of civilization or modernization. However, you may find snakes, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, hawks, falcons, mountains standing 500 to 1,000 feet above the river and Sonoran Desert flora and fauna as far as the eye can see. Because of the short season and the relative scarcity of navigable rivers in Arizona you may encounter crowds of boaters (especially on weekends - Easter weekend is the most crowded) seeking a wilderness paddle trip under big, blue skies and amid giant Saguaro cactus everywhere you look. There is a "no-stop" zone starting at 41.3 miles and continuing for about 1 mile between December 1 and June 30, in a nesting area for Bald Eagles.
The navigable section of the Upper Salt River is about 52 miles with numerous Class II to IV (mostly Class III) rapids and small waterfalls. These drops are not particularly challenging for boaters having intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. Plan on taking 3-5 days for this trip. However, a shorter run can be made from US Highway 60 down to Mescal Road (about 7 miles of Class III to IV whitewater). Setting up a shuttles on the Upper Salt River can eat up one day, so be prepared for the total time it will take to prepare and run this river. The first 50 miles drops at a gradient of about 26 feet per mile (fpm), then flattens a little as the river approaches Roosevelt Lake. The Upper Salt River is a permit-regulated river (see "Permit Requirements" below.)
The section of the Upper Salt that is legal to run begins at the US Highway 60 crossing in Gila County and runs to Rosevelt Lake in the Sierra Ancha Mountains of Tonto National Forest.
Phoenix 135 miles; Tucson 170 miles; Flagstaff 185 miles; Salt Lake City 700 miles; Albuquerque 330 miles; Denver 690 miles; Dallas 950 miles; Austin 1,070 miles; San Antonio 1,050 miles; Houston 1,250 miles; Oklahoma City 880 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The Upper Salt River flows clean, clear and usually cold because of its snowmelt source waters. There is very little to cause pollution, contamination or litter, so the water quality is usually very high during periods of sustainable flow.
Generally, the optimum season is a short two or three months in March through May, though the season may be extended or reduced according to the depth of the snow pack and/or recent local rains. The river will run very low in dry winter years.
Running the Upper Salt River requires permits. For sections above Tonto National Forest (US Highway 60 to Gleason Flat RAP) permits are obtainable from the White Mountain Apaches at the store on US Highway 60 at the river. A Daily Rafting Permit and a signed waiver is required for each person for each day they are rafting or floating (using rafts, kayaks, or boats) either entering or exiting the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. All rafting trips going beyond the Hoodoo camp area are required to purchase a 2-day permit for each individual boater. Boaters starting their trip from Gleason Flat need to have a Daily Rafting Permit covering them for the entire time (days) they will be on the Reservation. Important reminder, all individuals holding a valid Daily Rafting Permit are allowed one night of camping. Permit fees are $25 per person per day. For complete information on Fort Apache river use regulations please visit White Montain Apache Tribe Game and Fish web page.
For paddlers entering Tonto National Forest between March 1 and May 15, permits must be obtained from the forest office in Phoenix. Maximum group size is limited to 15 persons. Applications for permits MUST arrive at the forest office between November 15 and January 31. Following the January random drawing for permits, successful applicants will be notified by email. To secure the permit, successful applicants must send all requested information, along with an additional non-refundablefee of $125 at least 21 days prior to their reserved launch date. You may contact the Tonto National Forest office at:River Permits and Information
There are numerous rapids and small waterfalls in the Class II to IV category, any of which can be a danger to paddlers and gear if not executed properly. Paddlers in rafts will have little difficulty, especially if guided by an experienced river guide, but canoeists and kayakers should have solid intermediate or higher level whitewater skills and be swiftwater rescue trained. The White Mountain Apache Tribe prohibits open canoes and rubber duckies between US Highway 60 and the Gleason Flat RAP at the western boundary of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Due to the remote nature of this trip it is recommended that a fully-equipped First Aid kit be carried on the Upper Salt River. DO NOT attempt to run the river between the SH 288 RAP and Roosevelt Lake! For a full description of the many rapids along this reach of the river click HERE.
US Highway 60 Bridge River Access Point (RAP) on river right at 0.0 miles; Mule Hoof RAP on river right at about 0.5 miles; Exhibition RAP on river right at about 6.0 miles; Cibecue Creek RAP on river right at about 6.9 miles; Sandy Beach RAP on river right at about 9.4 miles; Hoodoo RAP on river right at about 9.8 miles (last take-out above Gleason Flats); Upper Gleason Flat RAP (4WD recommended) on river left at about 19.5 miles; Gleason Flat RAP (4WD recommended) on river left at about 19.7 miles; Gleason Flat RAP (4WD recommended) on river right at about 19.7 miles; Horseshoe Bend RAP ( on private land - use for emergencies only) on river left at about 39.0 miles; Highway 288 RAP (LAST TAKE-OUT POINT) on river right at about 51.9 miles.
NOTES: Mileage is calculated from the uppermost access about 0.2 miles above US Highway 60. ALL access points above Gleason Flat are along Road # 1 on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and require a permit from the Apache Nation for access or camping. Permits can be obtained during daylight hours ONLY at the store located at the intersection of US Highway 60 and the Salt River. Access points at the Gleason Flat sites are along very primitive roads where 4-wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended. The road to Horseshoe Bend was washed out by a flood in September, 2003, and probably is not passable, but this access is on private land, through a locked gate, and should be used for emergencies ONLY. Do NOT leave vehicles parked at the access points, which are for unloading and loading only. Use parking lots nearby so that others can have access to the river.
There are no public or private campgrounds located along the Upper Salt River. Natural campgrounds are abundant all along the river, but most of this section requires a permit from the White Mountain Apaches, US Forest Service, or both. Be sure to inquire about available campsites when applying for permits.
There are several commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles, guided raft trips and/or river information for the Upper Salt River.
If you are attracted to unadulterated natural beauty, then you would be hard pressed to find a more idyllic place to paddle - that is, if you like Class III and IV whitewater! The Upper Salt offers remoteness, wilderness, desert topography and Saguaro cactus everywhere you look. The water flows clean and clear most of the time, but its season is very limited because of the desert setting and dependence upon winter snowpack and spring rainfall. Unfortunately, Arizona is not blessed with many rivers or long seasons, so you can expect to paddle with crowds of others, especially on weekends. Avoid Easter weekend unless you can handle big crowds and severe limitations on available riverside campsites. Do NOT forget to obtain your necessary permits for the reach you intend to paddle, and do NOT run any part of the river above US Highway 60 - it is a violation of law that will net you heavy fines and possibly a few days in jail.