Want to experience a part of Arizona with wild horses and beautiful desert views, then check out what advice you need before paddle boarding the Salt River.
Arizona has a diverse landscape that encompasses deserts, rivers, waterfalls, canyons, animals and plants like the Saguaro Cactus. If you are visiting this great state or are even from here then you need to try paddle boarding the Salt River at least once or visit one of the recreation areas.
What you might see while on the river is one of the many animal species that call this home like the Bighorn Sheep, various fish, river otters, birds and of course the wild horses. Combined with canyon walls, lush bank vegetation, and a few rocky beaches help to make the river a special place for anyone to spend their time.
Before you plan your paddle boarding trip, check out the info below to help make it easier for you. Trust me, you don’t want to get out on the river and wish you had more water, new what stop to get off at and more.
Table of Contents
A Little History About The Salt River
Yep, the nerd portion of me is coming out for you to tell you a bit about this area before you go paddle boarding the Salt River. Anyone who visits the Phoenix area needs to explore this river at least once to see why this is a popular destination for Arizonians.
First, the best part is the animals you might see along the river. Home to River Otters, Bass, Bighorn Sheep, Turtles, Raccoons, Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, and my favorite the Wild Horses. Can’t paddle the river but still want to see some of the wild horses then try Coon Bluff Recreation Area. It is the best place to see them, but try for earlier morning or towards the evening.
In fact, it is believed these wild horses are descended from Spanish horses from the 1600’s. A man named Father Eusbeio Kino was supposedly the one who brought them over. It is estimated that there are around 300 wild horses the call the Salt River area their home today.
The second thing you should know is how the river came to be. A confluence of two rivers, the White and Black in the White Mountains is what helped to form the Salt River. Throughout its meandering path, many perennial streams help to feed the river. Interesting enough the river almost stops and is diverted to the Arizona canal system at the Granite Reef Dam area. Onward it is dry most of the year, except with heavy rainfall, which will see the water joining the Gila River eventually.
Thirdly, the river is important for irrigation, which has been used since 300 AD with the Hohokam Native American Indians. Over the years, dams and other projects have made it an important part of Phoenix. Now it also is home to countless individuals who use it for recreational purposes.
Where To Go When Paddle Boarding The Salt River
Depending on the time of day, what season it is, and how far you want to go when paddle boarding the Salt River, you will need to discuss it in order to pick the right spot to start in. No matter what time of year, there is almost always a part of the Salt River that you can paddle board. Below are a few spots to consider and what you need to think about before committing to it. Wherever you plan on starting, you will get to enjoy the river and what it holds.
The Lower Salt River – Granite Reef
This is the popular spot to start at for most who want to paddle board the salt river. Unfortunately, Granite Reef is a small area when it comes to parking. If you can’t find parking, then try the area along the outer road, as long as there is no “No Parking” sign.
Only have one car, then this is the perfect place to go. You will be paddling up the river and can go at your own pace since the water current is slower. Make sure to take advantage of the bathrooms they have and the picnic tables to eat a snack to recharge.
What To Known Before You Start At Granite Reef
- Parking: Very limited and if you can’t find a spot then you can park on the side of the road. If you do park in the Granite Reef section then make sure to grab a Tonto Pass. The daily pass will be $8. You can buy a year pass at Tonto National Forest Office for $80 or $60 for seniors. They do have a small kiosk to buy a pass in the parking lot.
- Where To Paddle: If you start here, then you will be paddling upstream. Most will go until the current is too much and then will let it take you back down to Granite Reef. Look for the sign on the left for the exit before the dam. There is only one place to get in or out of due to the reeds and such.
- Accessible: This depends on the water flow, honestly. May through September is the best months, due to a constant water flow. Proceed with caution and check first if you plan to paddle the Salt River during the fall or winter. This spot will always be your best shot since it will have calmer water areas.
Starting At The Beginning -Water Users Recreation Area
If you have ever experienced the popular Salt River Tubing down the river during summer, than you will know of stop #1 or otherwise known as the Water Users Recreation Area. If you have never been here, then it is below Saguaro Lake, along the SR 87 Beeline Hwy. What you will find is a large parking lot, with various people that use it as a start point to go down the river. It is also where the Salt River Tubing Bus dose it first drop off for the tubers.
If you wish to start at this point, then try to start before 10 a.m. before the tubers become more abundant, especially during the summer months. Make sure you have either rented the correct paddle board with a smaller middle fin or take yours off. You will encounter a few sections with lower water levels where a longer fin might hit rocks.
In addition, many parts you can stand up and enjoy the river, but on the faster rapid sections, it is wise to either kneel or sit if you are not experienced enough. Below are some facts to help you decide where to start, get out and the most important rule when starting at the beginning.
What You Need To Know When Starting At The Beginning
- Permit: Yes, you can buy a Tonto Pass beforehand or get one out of the machines at many of the stops along the river.
- Bathrooms: Yes, they have simple portal potty type of restrooms.
- Diffrent Stops:
- Blue Point Recreation Area (Stop 2): Here you will find a bridge and an area where some people will relax along the river, fish, or for some start their trip down the river. Depending on the river current and how much you paddle, it will take you anywhere from 30 mins to 45 mins to get to this point.
- Goldfield Ranch Recreational Area (Kayak exit 3): Not too many people will exit at this stop, except for guided kayak groups and a few others. Another good 30 mins on the river till you will encounter this spot.
- Coon Bluff Recreation Area: This is the place that the tubing bus usually picks up people for their last stop. It is also the best place to see wild horses without getting into the water.
- Phon D Sutton Recreation Area: If you plan to start at the first stop, then this is the exit you should do. From the first stop to this one will take you about 3-4 hours. it has the best views and a few rapids to make it fun.
- Granite Reef (Last stop before Dam): The exit is to the left and will take you a good 4 to 5 hours when paddle boarding the Salt River from Water Users Recreation Area to this stop. Wonder how far it is? About 10 miles will be waiting for you if you plan to do the whole trip. Very doable, but plan ahead with supplies.
- How To Navigate Getting Back To Your Car: Yep, this is probably the most important thing to consider. If you park at stop #1 and float, kayak, or paddle board down then you need to plan how to get back to your car.
- Uber: Not going to happen sorry. The cell service is spotty and it’s very unlikely you will get one to come out to you.
- Hitch a ride: Some people are lucky or take a chance to try to find someone who’s driving back to stop #1, Water Recreations Users Area. Not recommend, but if you somehow forget to plan this or forget your keys in the first car, then you probably will find someone nice enough to do this for you. I speak from experience.
- Plan for 2 cars: This is what you should be planning for. Have one car parked at the end stop you plan to get out at and the other at the beginning. Just make sure to put your keys in something that’s waterproof, floats, and is actually on you.
Don’t have a paddle board and want to rent one then try checking out No Snow Stand Up Paddle Board Shop, which is only a 5 mins drive from the Salt River. They are friendly, knowledgeable, and have a great selection of boards as well as kayaks.
What To Take
- Water and extra water. This is important. Even though you are on the river, you will still be in the desert, which can become very dry and hot.
- Paddle Board/Kayak/Tube, it won’t matter just make sure its in good condition and is set up correct for the river. For paddle boards, make sure the middle fin is the correct size or take it off.
- Life Vest: It is wise to wear one, but no matter what you will need one on you.
- Dry Bag: This is a great item to own if you ever plan on being on the water again. If you don’t own one then a zip lock bag will work. Just make sure either one is tied on or in a bag that’s carabiner to the water device. You do not want to go through the trouble of putting together a dry bag just for it to sink somewhere on the river.
- Hat/Glasses: Temperatures can get into the 120 °F, so bringing something to help keep you cool or protect your eyes is important. In addition, you will want to look up on occasion to watch for Bald Eagles or Blue Herons flying around. It can also be a benefit when you decide you want to lay down and relax on the slower sections.
- Tonto Pass: Parking at any of the stops along the Salt River, then make sure to display your Tonto parking pass or annual pass.
- Extra Vehicle: This is for those who plan to start at one of the upper stops and paddle down the Salt River. Just make sure to have both sets of keys on you. Yes, sadly my wife and myself made this mistake before.
Want To See The River In A Different Light?
Then try going down it at night. Yes, I said it. Going down the river at night is pretty awesome, since you know most of the animals in the desert are nocturnal. But if you do this be cautious. Do it when the moon is full for the extra light, only during summer, and when it is very hot. You do not want the water to be cold. Take headlamps and always tell others where your group will be.
Other Places To Paddle Board
- Canyon Lake: Located 45 minutes outside of Phoenix, this man made reservoir can be found off of Hwy 88, near Goldfield Ghost Town. An amazing lake with high canyon walls make this a special place to explore. In fact, if you go farther into the lake or canyon, you will come across areas to stop and rest at picnic benches.
- Watson Lake: Visiting Prescott, then this is the lake you will want to check out to paddle board.
- Lake Mary: This lake is located near Flagstaff. Only really accessible from the end of May to the beginning of September due to weather.
Don’t Forget To Pin For Later!
Have you already tried paddle boarding the Salt River in Arizona and have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments.
Have any other activities or places we should see, let us know in the comments section. From Phoenix? Hi neighbor, comment and say hi or let us know any other places we should add!
The information on this website has come from research and by experiencing it ourselves. Opening hours, closures, prices, etc. are always subject to change. We try to keep up to date on any new information, or tips to help make your adventure more enjoyable.
Always make sure to check all websites and other services before you go to see any new restrictions they haven place during Covid-19.