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Salt River, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord
with significant contributions by Helen Howard

Stewart Mountain Dam to Granite Reef Dam
~ 14 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Lower Salt River begins immediately below Stewart Mountain Dam and continues down to Tempe Town Lake. Below Granite Reef Dam the river is usually not navigable, and may in fact be dry. Tempe Town Lake is supplied with water from a diversion channel.

The section from Stewart Mountain Dam on Saguaro Lake down to Granite Reef Dam in Maricopa County is a run of about 12.5 miles through mostly flat Sonoran Desert. The mountains are gone and the presence of anything except sand, dirt, rocks and small, crawling creatures is almost non-existent. The area begins to take on a look of civilization, though it still starts away from settled areas. There is an abundance of water for paddling almost all the time. The current is gentle on this flatwater section of river.

Along the path of the Lower Salt River you will see Saguaro cactus, many birds of prey and occasionally a few small animals. The are is home to nesting bald eagles, ospreys, herons and egrets. There are larger animals that live here, but they are seldom seen. These may include coyotes, foxes and mountain lions, as well as herds of horses from the Fort McDowell Reservation. There are also several species of poisonous snakes, rattlesnakes being the most prevalent, but they are also a rare sight. Camping is minimal, if at all, along this very short section of the Lower Salt River. Most adjoining land is privately owned or part of the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation. Do not camp along this section without first obtaining permission.

SH 82, the road leading from Phoenix to Saguaro Lake, is a hard-surface, four-lane concrete road 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 Stewart Mountain dam on Saguaro Lake to Granite Reef Dam 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 30 miles; Tucson 140 miles; Flagstaff 170 miles; Salt Lake City 690 miles; Albuquerque 480 miles; Denver 830 miles; Dallas 1,050 miles; Austin 1,040 miles; San Antonio 1,060 miles; Houston 1,220 miles; Oklahoma City 1,040 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Lower 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 whenever flows are low.

Best time to go

Generally, the Lower 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. March 16 through October 14 is limited to day use only, and camping along the river is not allowed. Between October 15 and March 15, camping is allowed in designated areas (fees will apply.)

Hazards to navigation

The only real hazard on this section of the Lower Salt River is seasonally strong headwinds. There are no major rapids and no waterfalls on this Class I to II section from Saguaro Lake to Granite Reef Dam, where the Salt River terminates into the desert floor. NOTE: Due to much higher than normal rainfall in 2005, area lakes are far above normal and dam releases are much greater than usual. Be sure to check gauges and expect higher flows on this reach of the Salt River that is normal.

River Access Points

Put in just below Stewart Mountain Dam near the end of the dam access road off Bush Highway at Water Users Park (USFS) on river right at 0.0 miles; Blue Point Bridge Picnic Area off Bush Highway (access from 3 parking lots) at about 3.0 miles miles; Goldffield recreation Site on river left at about 7.0 miles; Jeep Trail near Coon Bluff Forest Camp on river left at about 8.5 miles; Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area near Verde River confluence on river left at about 9.5 miles; Take out at Granite Reef Dam on river left at about 12.5 miles. This section can be run from the top down. Parking is available at all access points for $4.00 per vehicle per day. Parking fees can be paid in cash or by credit card at the electronic pay stations located at each parking lot.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no public or private campgrounds located along this section of the Lower Salt River. The area is not ideally suited for camping, and is better accessed as a day trip.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are at least two known liveries or outfitters located along the Lower Salt River. Take everything you need, and arrange to run your own shuttles if not contracting from one of them.

Reviewer's comments

The Lower 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. 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. This reach of the Salt River flows through the southern edge of Tonto national Forest and the Salt River Indian Reservation near Fort McDowell. It is just a few miles north of the Greater Phoenix area and is easily accessible as a day trip for paddlers in canoes, kayaks and rafts.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 14 miles
Minimum Flow 300 cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Dam access road off Bush Hwy.
Lat. / Long. 33.5667 / -111.5350037
Last Take-out Granite Reef Dam
Lat. / Long. 33.5161018 / -111.6905975
Elevation 1,400 feet msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits Access (parking) fees are required at all times.

Central Arizona Paddlers Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

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 ]
[ Canyon Lake to Saguaro Lake ] [ Big Bonito River ] [ Black River ] [ Canyon Creek ] [ Tonto Creek ]

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