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Verde River, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord

Bartlett Reservoir to Salt River Confluence
~ 19 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Verde River forms at Sullivan Lake, where Big Chino Wash and Williamson Valley Wash merge south of Paulden in the Big Chino Valley of Yavapai County, then flows south by southeast about 170 miles to its Salt River confluence just northeast of Scottsdale and Phoenix. Along the way, it passes through parts of three national forests (Prescott, Cococino and Tonto), the cities of Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Camp Verde, and lands belonging to various tribes of the Apache Nation, private landowners and the State of Arizona. It is a perennial stream in a state known for its "dry" rivers, but it is not always boatable, and may have navigable flows in some reaches when others are too low to paddle. Its waters come from snowmelt in the mountains around the three forests, as well as seasonal monsoons. Surrounding lands are vastly disparate in nature, ranging from densely-forested upland plateaus to canyons to desert lowlands, each with its own diverse plantlife, animals, birds and fish. Beginning about 70 miles below the headwaters is a reach of 40.5 miles that is designated as "Wild and Scenic" by the US Congress, where the river and surrounding lands are perpetually protected against development and overuse.

The reach from Bartlett Reservoir Dam to the Salt River confluence is a run of about 19 miles on Class I to II water in northern Maricopa County along the southwestern part of Tonto National Forest. Runs begin at Riverside Campground just below Bartlett Dam, and continue to any access near Box Bar River Acess Point (RAP) above Fort McDowell Indian Reservation. Boating onto the Apache reservation is prohibited - talk to representatives of the Apache Nation at Fort McDowell for information and details about access near their reservation. The legally navigable reach is only about half the total distance between Bartlett Reservoir and the Salt River confluence. Primitive forest roads composed mostly of loose sand and small pebbles provide access to the put-in, and improved roads (some of them paved) provide access to the take-out near Box Bar RAP.

Now, here is the tricky part - the best water is usually during spring months, but the land area around the river is closed to access by foot or vehicle between December 1 and June 30, for the protection of endangered species of wildlife and birds that nest and breed in this area. Paddling the river is legal, but no noise is allowed, and since you cannot continue onto the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation that effectively blocks access to this reach of the river other than from July 1 through November 30. If paddling the river during the closure period, you are not allowed to stop, get out of your boat, make a landfall or otherwise disturb animals and birds nesting in the area. This run is scenic, flowing through an area of towering cliffs covered with verdant bushes and trees along the upper part of this reach, though it shows all the classic signs of leaving behind the beautiful green trees and forested mountains as the Verde River nears the desert floor of the Phoenix area. Flow is dependent upon dam releases at Bartlett Reservoir. Runs start less than an hour's drive from Phoenix and end less than 20 minutes away (as the crow flies, though the actual time will be much longer due to road conditions and routes available.) Paddlers can expect to take from 2-5 hours to complete the trip, depending upon paddling skills and flow. Campsites are available at Riverside Campground at the top of this reach, as well as at the Needle Rock RAP a few miles below Riverside. It is best to discuss trips on this reach with the Tonto National Forest Rangers and/or the Apache Nation before beginning a trip, just to make sure you know where you can and cannot go on land and on water.


Maricopa County of central Arizona. Prescott and Flagstaff lie to the northwest. Metropolitan Phoenix is to the southwest. Tonto National Forest is home to this reach of the Lower Verde River.

Distance from major cities

Flagstaff 135 miles; Phoenix 40 miles; Tucson 157 miles; Albuquerque 498 miles; Salt Lake City 657 miles; Durango 451 miles; Grand Junction 621 miles; Denver 790 miles; Oklahoma City 1,045 miles; Dallas 1,042 miles; Austin 1,061 miles; San Antonio 1,042 miles; Houston 1,247 miles; Little Rock 1,365 miles; Kansas City 1,275 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Verde River flows clean, clear and cold from its headwaters to the Salt River on the outskirts of Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix. Flow is dependent upon dam-released water from Bartlett Reservoir in northern Maricopa County. Adequate flows for boating are normal, but may not exist in dry years.

Best time to go

This section of the Verde River is almost totally dependent upon water releases at Bartlett Reservoir. Navigable flows are almost always adequate for canoeing and kayaking, though not necessarily for rafting. Water releases from Bartlett Reservoir provide water for hydroelectric generation, consumption, hygiene, industry and agriculture in and around the Phoenix area. Like all Arizona rivers, the Verde may not have a navigable season at all in drought years. Take heed of the admonition about the endangered species closure period for land access, and the prohibition about continuing onto the Fort McDowell Reservation, as these factors mitigate access to the river.

Hazards to navigation

This reach of the Verde River has no hazards in the form of rapids, waterfalls and normal whitewater characteristics. Near the beginning of the run there is a low head dam type that varies from 2-4 feet in height (depending on which side is taken). The falls, due to their down-river slanted angle across the river from right to left, can be dangerous at higher flows if taken on the right by an inexperienced paddler.

This reach of the river has multiple sections (7-10) that are narrow and contain very dangerous strainers and foot entrapments. These hazards consist of many fallen trees that lay across the river at water level, as well as under water, and ery large, dense, impenetrable stands of tall grass (10-12 feet) at sharp bends in the river that have narrow passages. This certainly is not a section of the river that a novice paddler should tackle alone, a family should ever tackle, or any paddler should tackle without knowledge, comfort and swimming ability through rapids and through strainers.

At 265 cfs most hazards are fairly easy for a novice paddler to see and avoid. At higher flows, however, the speed and extreme force of the water make some of the hazards mostly unavoidable and extremely dangerous. Extreme caution and taking the time to scout anything you cannot clearly see is strongly recommended.

Other hazards here include desert temperatures, excessive solar exposure, snakes, scorpions, centipedes, Gila monsters and other landlubbing creatures that roam the desert floor, and which can become hazards if encountered while walking in the desert. Caci are everywhere, and provides shelter from the sun for most harmful critters, as well as being hazards in their own right.

River Access Points

Riverside RAP, off FR 19 about 16 miles from Cave Creek Road, at 0.0 miles; Needle Rock RAP, off FR 20 about 3 miles from Rio Verde Drive east of the Shea-Pima Road interesection at miles; Box Bar RAP, off FR 2146 east of FR 20 and north of the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation at about miles. There are other access points for this section of the Verde River just above and very near the FR 2146 road access at Box Bar RAP.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are public campgrounds available along this reach of the river at Riverside RAP and Needle Rock RAP. Contact Rangers at Tonto National Forest for information. There are two other off-river campgrounds located between Asher Hills and the northwest corner of the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation just west of the river near the Box Bar RAP. The Phoenix metro area offers many accommodations including motels, hotels, bed & breakfast hostels and RV parks.

Contacts for river running and camping information are:

  • Tonto National Forest (602-225-5200)

  • Cave Creek Ranger Station (480-595-3300)

  • Verde Ranger Station (520-567-4121)

  • Beaver Creek Ranger Station (520-567-4121)
  • Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

    There are no known liveries or outfitters operating along this section of the Verde River. Plan on setting up and running your own shuttles.

    Reviewer's Comments

    The Bartlett Reservoir to Salt River run is a trip that can be enjoyed by recreational canoeists, kayakers and rafters when the lakes are full and water is being released into the Salt River north of the Phoenix area. This desert run is not a popular destination because of difficulty of access and limitations on land use. In sharp contrast to the mountainous forest areas to the north, this run begins amid beautiful, towering cliffs lined with green trees, then descends to the desert floor where the amount of sunshine exceeds the amount of water in the river. This run ends above the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation as it leaves Tonto National Forest northeast of the desert cities of Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and Phoenix. During prolonged drought periods the river may not have adequate flow for paddling, but it always flows for the purposes of hydroelectric generation and water consumption in the Phoenix area. It is an easy place to paddle for those developing boating skills, and whom are not yet ready to try the more challenging waters of upper reaches of the river.

    Technical Data
    Class Rating I to II
    Length 19 miles
    Minimum Flow 400 cfs
    Optimum Flow 800-2,000 cfs
    Maximum Flow 5,000 cfs
    First Put-in Bartlett Dam Access
    Lat/Long 33.8181 / -111.6307983
    Last Take-out FR 2146 at Box Bar RAP
    Elevation msl
    Gradient fpm
    USGS Gauge Web: below Bartlett Dam
    Boats Canoes, Kayaks
    Season Dam release dependent
    Permits No

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

    Central Arizona Paddlers Club

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

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

    [ Verde River Homepage ] [ US Highway 89 to Perkinsville ] [ Perkinsville to Beasley Flat ] [ Beasley Flat to Childs Power Road Access ]
    [ Childs Power Road Access to Horseshoe Reservoir ] [ Horseshoe Dam to Bartlett Reservoir ] [ East Verde River ] [ Sycamore Creek ]

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    Last updated October 12, 2018

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