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East Verde River, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord

Payson to Sheeps Bridge
~ 61.5 Miles


EXPERT KAYAKERS ONLY!

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

If you are looking for a place to dump the body where it will likely never be found, then few places on earth would be better than the East Verde! Forming near SH 99 in Gila County due east of the Verde River is the East Verde River, which flows to the confluence about 7 miles below the Childs Power Road Access on the Verde River in the middle of nowhere. In fact, there is very limited access on the East Verde along roads best suited for high cleaance, 4-wheel drive vehicles, so a trip will require 26 more miles of paddling down the Verde River to the Sheeps Bridge access. This run of about 61.5 miles includes numerous Class IV to V+ rapids and drops on the East Verde portion (first 35.5 miles) that test the skills of expert whitewater kayakers before mellowing to Class I to III rapids on the Verde below the confluence. Some waterfalls on the East Verde are considered to be unrunnable with mandatory portages that eat time and energy. The river flows through Tonto National Forest a few miles north of, and perpendicular to, Tonto Creek, another great whitewater run in Arizona. Water in the river sources mainly from snowmelt runoff in the area of the forest northeast of Phoenix, though the river frequently is not navigable due to insufficient flow, and when it does flow at navigable levels it can be swift and dangerous. Small gorges and waterfall drops characterize the East Verde River making it much more difficult than the mainstream into which it flows.

This run begins at a primitive access off SH 260 / SH 87 and East Verde Estates Road north of Payson and spans the lower 35.5 miles of the East Verde River plus about 26 miles of the Verde River down to the Sheeps Bridge Access on river right. Finding the takeout may be harder than running the river, and it may well be harder on your vehicle than the river will be to your boat. The take-out roads require high clearance vehicles, and if the roads are wet or eroded, then a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance is mandatory. The roads are often unmaintained and have blind curves that are potential dangers, though traffic will almost always be non-existent. Getting wrecker assistance would cost a fortune! These are just some of the reasons why the East Verde is not wildly popular, but the main reasons are the technical difficulty and the distance you have to paddle to reach the take-out, though there are some possible access points along the route that could be used, but you had better have a GPS, sat phone and a good, CURRENT road map showing the backcountry trails and unimproved roads. The put-in is a snap to find, but the take-out requires some serious mountain road navigation on narrow, winding roads that would be difficult, if not impossible, with trailers or long wheel base vehicles.

A couple of miles into the trip all traces of civilization vanish and you enter a mountain canyon where the river descends at a rate of over 57 feet per mile for the first 35.5 miles, then at about 40.1 feet per mile on the Verde down to the take-out 26 miles below the confluence. There are a couple of low water bridges near the launch in Payson at about 0.1 and 1.9 miles to be negotiated. At normal (low) water levels they may be runnable if there is adequate water to float a boat, but at higher levels they could become hazards to be avoided. A portage around one or both may be necessary at any water level - use your best judgment!

The surrounding area is very remote, and few people will be seen (most of them will be driving by on the SH 87 crossing.) This run is definitely off the beaten path, though paddlers who enjoy creek boating will love this stream when it flows. The streambed is narrow and tight in most places, and it would be a difficult hike in low water conditions. It could be a killer in high water conditions. Its very limited season is usually in April through June if there was sufficient snowpack over the preceding winter, which means the water will be cold, so dress accordingly. Always check flows on the USGS gauge near Childs and the Verde River confluence before departing for this hairboat run. Be prepared to cover a lot of kayak miles between access points. There are no easy roads separating short runs on the East Verde River. Above all else, be sure to let others know exactly where you are going and when you plan to launch and take out so in the event you do not show up the authorities know where to start looking for you.

Location

Gila County of central Arizona. The launch is just north of Payson. Prescott and Flagstaff lie to the northwest. Metropolitan Phoenix is to the southwest. Tonto National Forest is home to the East Verde River.

Distance from major cities

Flagstaff 95 miles; Phoenix 100 miles; Tucson 217 miles; Albuquerque 558 miles; Salt Lake City 617 miles; Durango 411 miles; Grand Junction 581 miles; Denver 750 miles; Oklahoma City 969 miles; Dallas 1,102 miles; Austin 1,121 miles; San Antonio 1,102 miles; Houston 1,307 miles; Little Rock 1,439 miles; Kansas City 1,335 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The East Verde River flows clean, clear and cold from its headwaters to the Verde River confluence about 7 miles below the Childs Power Road Access on the Verde River. Flow is dependent upon adequate snowmelt in the drainage basin of Tonto National Forest, supplemented by late summer to early fall rains. Adequate flows for boating are rare, and may not exist in dry years.

Best time to go

The East Verde River is almost totally dependent upon snowmelt runoff for adequate navigable flows which, when they occur, are usually in April through June, or possibly part of July. Like most Arizona rivers, the East Verde River may not have a navigable season at all in drought years. This river is best avoided in low water conditions.

Hazards to navigation

The East Verde is the Mr. Hyde to the Verde River's Dr. Jekyl. It has some easy Class I to III whitewater, but the big drops are rated Class IV to V+, possibly escalating to VI- in high water conditions (which are very rare.) Its big drops consist of small gorges and waterfalls amid constricting boulders and dead-fallen trees, with plenty of places to pin and/or wrap a boat. Ledge drops are common. The general remoteness of the area necessitates that paddlers have expert level whitewater kayaking and swiftwater rescue skills, along with First Aid training. Getting outside help is a slow, time-consuming process if possible at all - even sat phone reception may be impossible without climbing a mountain. Most of the drops can be scouted, but some are around blind curves where they difficult or impossible to see in advance, so quick reflexes and accurate decision-making are paramount in importance on this run. The water temperature is very cold, so wearing wetsuits or drysuits with a base layer is recommended to prevent hypothermia.

The first two potential hazards are the low water bridges located at 0.1 and 1.9 miles below the put-in. Below that, the next 33 miles are filled with boulders, deadfall tree debris, tight channels, possibly pushy currents (depending upon flow)and occasional significant, unrunnable waterfalls with portages almost as arduous as running them. Walking in the river, especially in low water conditions, can result in foot injuries or entrapments possibly resulting in death. And, when not on the water watch for rattlesnakes - this area is their home turf!

River Access Points

East Verde Road at SH 260 / SH 87 (N 34 18' 02.60" / W 111 21' 32.20") on river left at 0.0 miles; Low water bridge on East Verde Road (N 34 17' 56.70" / W 111 21' 29.91") about 0.1 miles; Low water bridge on the Forest Service road (N 34 17' 14.77" / W 111 22' 28.92") at about 1.9 miles; Possible access on trail to Doll Baby Ranch Road (N 34 13' 37.73" / W 11127' 23.63") on river left at about 17.2 miles; Possible access at primitive low water crossing off Doll Baby Ranch Road (N 34 13' 03.32" / W 111 28' 40.84") on river left at about 18.9 miles; Possible access at Arizona National Scenic Trail at LF Ranch (N 34 13' 45.90" / W 111 30' 47.24") on river left at about 21.8 miles; Verde River confluence (N 34 17' 10.71" W 111 39' 54.23") - NO ACCESS - at about 35.5 miles; Sheeps Bridge Access (N 34 04' 39.44" / W 111 42' 20.73") on Verde River on river right at about 61.5 miles. There may be other access points for the East Verde River, especially for somebody who knows a local landowner who will grant access from private property.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no public or private campgrounds available in the near vicinity of the East Verde River. The river flows through Tonto National Forest, so obtain access and camping permission from rangers in the Phoenix office (2324 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85006 , 602-225-5200) before beginning trips on the East Verde River. Due to the length of trips on this river overnight camping in very primitive conditions will be required.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or outfitters operating along the East Verde River. Plan on setting up and running your own shuttles. Allow about 5-6 hours for running shuttles, and possibly longer depending upon road conditions.

Reviewer's Comments

The East Verde River offers expert whitewater kayakers the opportunity to experience some big drops and difficult, technical maneuvers in central Arizona without having to drive to Colorado or California to get their kicks. The Catch-22 is in finding the river in navigable flow conditions and being able to secure permission from rangers in Tonto National Forest at the same time, as well as being able to paddle a loaded whitewater kayak on a typically low river that requires a LOT of quick maneuvering to avid obstacles and big drops. The river has a fickle season from about April through June in years when there was sufficient snowpack in the upper elevations of the forest surrounding the drainage area of the river. However, when it flows the East Verde is a Class IV to V+ run with beautiful waterfalls, small gorges and boulder garden rapids interspersed with dead-fallen trees just to make it interesting. This river is not well suited for canoes and rafts. The East Verde is a dangerous river for expert kayakers and even more dangerous for others. The sheer remoteness of the area makes outside rescue all but impossible, so paddlers need to be completely self-sufficient.

The phenomenal majesty and beauty of the East Verde offsets much of the difficulty of paddling here. While there are some potential access points to greatly shorten the trip they are in the middle on nowhere, so using them in an emergency might constitute another emergency in and of itself. The beauty of the surrounding topography is also a barrier to quick and easy outside support. It is only about 100 miles from Phoenix, but allow at least 2-2.5 hours of drive time to get there - not all roads in remote areas of Arizona are friendly toward vehicles. Take a camera if you can secure it in a bumpproof, waterproof case, because the East Verde is as beautiful as it is challenging. And be sure to take a GPS and the coordinates listed or you might not find the place at all!

Technical Data
Class Rating I to V+
Length 61.5 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in E. Verde Estates Rd. @ SH 260/SH 87
Lat/Long N 34 18' 02.60" / W 111 21' 32.20"
Last Take-out Sheeps Bridge (on the Verde River)
Lat/Long N 34 04' 39.50" / W 111 42' 20.74"
Elevation 4,512 - 2,044 ft msl
Gradient 57.21 fpm (East Verde)
16.92 fpm (Verde)
USGS Gauge Web: Childs
Boats EXPERT KAYAKERS ONLY!
Season April-June, rainfall dependent
Permits Depends on time of year


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 ] [ Bartlett Dam to Salt River Confluence ] [ Sycamore Creek ]

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Last updated October 12, 2018

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