navigation bar

Salt River, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord

Morman Flat Dam to Saguaro Lake
~ 10 Miles

navigation bar River descriptions categorized by state First Aid and general safety information Southwest Paddler on-line store Southwest Paddler Yellow Pages listings Environmental issues and concerns Photos of rivers and surrounding areas Trip reports with photos How to advertise on Southwest Paddler Advertiser Index Internet links to related information and services Southwest Paddler visitor comments General disclaimer Product Reviews Federal and state navigation laws Credits for contributors Web Campfire

SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Middle Salt River begins immediately below Roosevelt Dam at a pocket park operated by the U.S. Forest Service and continues downriver to Apache Lake, then from Horse Mesa Dam down to Canyon Lake, below Morman Flats Dam down to Stewart Mountain Dam on Saguaro Lake. The section from Roosevelt Dam down to Apache Lake is the only section between the lakes where paddlers can put in upriver, then paddle downriver. The other sections require putting in on one of the lakes, then paddling upriver, turning around and paddling back down river. There are no access points below Apache Lake other than at USFS parks located on the lakes.

The section from Morman Flat Dam on Canyon Lake down to Saguaro Lake in Maricopa County is very beautiful, but flatter than the Arizona desert. It features an abundance of water for paddling almost all the time, and is vested with beautiful, rough-cut mountains in the Sierra Ancha Range where the river has cut a deep channel. Arizonans refer to the Middle Salt River as the "Mini Grand Canyon". Paddling here will let you know why. The current is gentle, with lake effect waves that can get rough if the wind is up. The only real hazards to navigation are the powerboats that frequently make their way up or down the river carrying fishermen, skiiers and others just out for a great time on a gorgeous section of river. Along the path of the Middle Salt River you will see Saguaro cactus, many birds of prey and occasionally a few small animals. There are larger animals that live here, but they are seldom seen. There are also several species of poisonous snakes, but they are also a rare sight. However, it is advisable to exercise caution when walking away from your campsite at night, if you should camp along the river - walk heavily, make a lot of noise and vibration, carry a bright light and a long pole or stick, and follow the rules about hiking in snake country. The author has made numerous trips on the Salt River, and has yet to actually see any snakes, though they are there.

The section from Canyon Lake to Saguaro Lake is definitely one for taking photos. The mountains are not quite as tall as upriver, but still quite awesome, and depending upon the time of day, sunlight and shadows make for some very interesting shots. There are no public or private services of any kind along this section of the Salt River, but numerous natural campsites are available, including some that have been developed by the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). There is a small fee ($4 per day per car or $6 per day per car with a boat) that you will pay at the self-serve pay stations at each of the USFS parks on the lakes. There are no fees for use of campsites along the river, though USFS permits may be required, depending upon the time of year.

SH 82, the road leading from Phoenix to Saguaro Lake, is a hard-surface, four-lane concrete running through the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation on its way north. The drive from Phoenix takes about 30-40 minutes, depending upon traffic conditions in Phoenix. Saguaro Lake is the closest and easiest of the mountain lakes to access from the Phoenix area.


Located in Maricopa County, the section from Canyon Lake to Saguaro Lake is in the Mazatzal Mountains of Tonto National Forest. Nearby cities include Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and the rest of the Phoenix metro area to the southwest. The road to the put-in (from Phoenix) passes through Apache Junction and Tortilla Flat. US Highway 89 runs north-to-south just a few miles to the west, and IH 10 enters Phoenix from the south before turning west, also just a few miles away.

Distance from major cities

Phoenix 40 miles; Tucson 160 miles; Flagstaff 180 miles; Salt Lake City 680 miles; Albuquerque 500 miles; Denver 850 miles; Dallas 1,030 miles; Austin 1,020 miles; San Antonio 1,040 miles; Houston 1,200 miles; Oklahoma City 1,020 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Middle Salt River flows clean and clear from its dam release 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, though it may have a slightly stagnant odor that is typical of impounded bodies of water.

Best time to go

Generally, the Middle Salt River is navigable year round, though the current will be slower when no dam releases are occurring. Because of the need for hydroelectric generation there is almost always adequate water for paddling.

Hazards to Navigation

The only real hazards on any section of the Middle Salt River are headwinds and occasionally powerboats, which are more prevalent on weekends. There are no rapids or waterfalls on the section from Canyon Lake to Saguaro Lake.

River Access Points

The only access points on this section of the Salt River are any of the NPS parks located on Saguaro Lake. Several parks Saguaro Lake offer excellent launch points for trips up and back down the river. There are self-serve pay stations at all the pocket parks on Salt River lakes for day-use parking. There is no access from the top of this section.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no public or private campgrounds located along the Middle Salt River. Natural campgrounds are abundant all along the river, but most of this section requires a permit from the U.S. Forest Service (Tonto National Forest office in Phoenix.) Be sure to inquire about available campsites when applying for permits.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no liveries or outfitters located along the Lower Salt River. Take everything you need, and arrange to run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The Middle Salt River is a trip that anybody can enjoy regardless of paddling skills or experience. The flow is usually slow and there are no natural hazards except occasionally strong headwinds. While powerboats do frequent the river, it is plenty wide and avoiding boats and their wake turbulence is generally easy. You will be rocked by wake turbulence, but there is plenty of room for avoiding the worst of it. The scenery along the Lower Salt River is just awesome. Sometimes, it is hard to realize that you are paddling a boat through the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Be sure to take a camera and plenty of film or digital media, because the topography is simply spectacular. It is easy to see why locals call this place the "Mini Grand Canyon", because you are definitely paddling through a mountain canyon and it is definitely grand (though not as much so as its cousin to the north.)

Technical Data
Class Rating I
Length 10 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in any USFS park on Canyon Lake
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out any USFS park on Canyon Lake
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits USFS permits are required March through May. Camping fees may apply and access (parking) fees are required at all times.

Canoeman River Guide Services - guided trips on the rivers of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Approaching Saguaro Lake on the Lower Salt River

Canoe & Kayak Magazine - The premiere paddlesports industry publication

Looking at the entrance to the Lower Salt River from Saguaro Lake

Central Arizona Paddlers Club

Looking across Saguaro Lake from the north

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Salt River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Salt River Homepage ] [ US Highway 60 to Roosevelt Lake ] [ Roosevelt Lake to Apache Lake ] [ Apache Lake to Canyon Lake ]
[ Saguaro Lake to Granite Reef Dam ] [ Big Bonito River ] [ Black River ] [ Canyon Creek ] [ Tonto Creek ]

Southwest Paddler
Click to return to the Southwest Paddler Homepage
Home Page
Southwest Paddler

Arizona Rivers Index
Canoeman River

Guide Services
Return to the homepage
Home Page

CobraGraphics - Web Designs with a Bite!

Send E-mail This web page designed, created and maintained by
Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics
© March 4, 2003. All rights reserved.
Last updated December 30, 2014

Copyright © 1997-2015, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.