top of page

Discover the Salt River Canyon Wilderness in Gila County, AZ

The Upper Salt River runs through the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, often referred to as Arizona’s other Grand Canyon. While it lacks the size of the Grand Canyon, it certainly measures up in terms of outstanding, rugged geology and sheer scenic beauty. It is one of a few rivers to flow through the saguaro cactus forests of the Sonoran Desert, a truly exotic landscape.

A Tonto National Forest Upper Salt River boater permit is required to float the Salt River Canyon Wilderness from March 1st to May 15th annually. The Upper Salt River is a solid Class III-IV river and requires whitewater boating skills.

There are no trails in the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, but many of the side canyons are great hikes. The wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert can be magical in the spring, and just walking out into the desert from any of the camps can lead to fabulous scenic hiking. There are very few places in the world that compare to the WILD beauty and rugged terrain of the Salt River Canyon Wilderness.

History of the Salt River Canyon Wilderness

This Wilderness contains approximately 32,100 very rugged acres and was established in 1984. The Salt River and its spectacular canyon bisect the wilderness for its entire length. Elevations range from 2,200 feet at the canyon's lower end to 4,200 feet on White Ledge Mountain. This area can be visited practically any time; however, there are no maintained trails within the entire wilderness. Travel is basically done by raft or kayak during the short and dangerous river-running season. The Salt River is formed by the confluence of the White River and the Black River in the White Mountains of eastern Gila County. The White and Black rivers, and other tributaries of the upper Salt River, drain the region between the Mogollon Rim in the north and the Natanes Mountains and Natanes Plateau to the east and south. Tributaries of the Salt River also drain the Sierra Ancha and Mazatzal Mountains. The White and Black rivers drain the White Mountains in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Together the two rivers drain an area of about 1,900 square miles (4,900 km2).[1] The Salt River, along with the Black River, forms the boundary between the Fort Apache Indian Reservation to the north and the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation to the south. The Salt River is fed by numerous perennial streams that start as springs and seep along the Mogollon Rim and in the White Mountains. The Salt River is perennial from its tributary headwaters to Granite Reef Diversion Dam near Mesa. From the Black and White confluence, the Salt River flows generally west and southwest. It is joined by Carrizo Creek, a 25-mile (40 km) perennial stream, and then flows through the Salt River Canyon. Cibecue Creek, a 36-mile (58 km) perennial stream, joins the river in the canyon, flowing from the north through the Fort Apache Reservation. Between Carrizo and Cibecue creeks, the Salt River becomes the boundary between the Tonto National Forest on the south and the Fort Apache Reservation on the north. Another perennial stream joins from the north, 46-mile (74 km) long Canyon Creek, followed by Cherry Creek. Just downstream from the Salt's confluence with Medicine Creek, a portion of the Tonto National Forest is designated the Salt River Canyon Wilderness. The Salt River forms the northern and western boundary of the wilderness for several miles, after which the national forest and wilderness occupy both sides of the river. Continuing its westward course, the Salt River is joined by Pinal Creek from the south, just before leaving the Salt River Canyon Wilderness. The river continues to flow through the Tonto National Forest until leaving the mountains near Mesa. Below the Pinal Creek confluence, the Salt River enters Theodore Roosevelt Lake, the first of four reservoirs on the river. Tonto Creek joins the Salt River in Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Below Theodore Roosevelt Dam, the Salt River passes through the canyon between the Mazatzal Mountains and the Superstition Mountains and is impounded by Horse Mesa Dam (forming Apache Lake) then Mormon Flat Dam (forming Canyon Lake) than Stewart Mountain Dam (forming Saguaro Lake).

Salt River Canyon Wilderness Trails

Due to its rugged terrain, there are not any designated trails in this area. But there is one point of interest you should see if traveling by car. Apache falls are one of Arizona's best-kept secrets. Hidden in the heart of the Salt River canyon the falls are an incredible sight to behold and easy to get to. Apache Falls in the Salt River Canyon is an impressive fall because of the size and the amount of water flowing over them (especially after snowmelt) and is one of the few waterfalls in AZ that is in a river, not a creek. The falls are very easy to get to, only ¾ mile off the HW. To reach the falls from phoenix drive east on HWY 60, 43 miles past Globe. You will drop down into the canyon through a series of switchbacks, cross over the river, and take your first left. You can park there in the parking lot or follow the semi-rough road under the bridge for ¾ of a mile to the falls. Important! You need a hiking permit to visit the falls. You can either get the White MT Apache Salt River Canyon Recreation Permit or a San Carlos Apache Recreation Permit. Most people buy the White Mt Apache permit and combine the trip with a hike to Cibecue Falls, you can purchase the pass online for $15 from the tribe’s website. If you are only going to the Apache falls you can purchase the San Carlos permit from the last circle K in Globe for $10.

Salt River Canyon Wilderness Fishing

Known for its monster flathead catfish the Salt River has produced some whoppers. Best baits tend to be bluegill, either small or cut, and anchovies. You can also use water dogs with pretty good results. If you catch a flathead catfish with a Game and Fish tag attached to it, please note the weight, length, and river location, then call the Game and Fish Dept. at (480) 981-9400 ext.214 (you can keep the fish).

The salt river hosts nearly every species of fish in the state. Trout, Catfish, Bass, Sunfish, Carp, Tilapia, Crappie, and Suckers call this river home. If you will be accessing the river from either the White Mountain Apache Reservation or the San Carlos Apache Reservation you will need to purchase a permit to fish.

Salt River Canyon Rafting and Boating Options

Permit & Season Information A Tonto National Forest Upper Salt River boater permit is required to float the Salt River Canyon Wilderness from March 1st to May 15th annually. You must launch on your permitted day. Typically boaters launch on the river right from First Campground on Apache Road 1 just down from where the Highway 60 Bridge crosses the Upper Salt River. The take-out for the permitted wilderness section is just downstream of the Highway 288 Bridge on river left, 52.3 miles downstream from First Campground. Most people with boater permits plan a four or five-day river trip, although the permit does not limit your length of stay. Group size is limited to 15 people. For important registration, dates click here Lottery Information A Tonto National Forest Upper Salt River boater permit is required to float the Salt River Canyon Wilderness from March 1st to May 15th annually. Applicants can select up to three potential launch dates. When an application is randomly selected from the lottery, it is awarded a permit for the first choice date. If the first choice date is already full, then it is awarded the second choice date. If the second choice date is already full, it is awarded the third choice date. If all three dates are already full, the application is unsuccessful and no permit is awarded to the applicant. How Does the Quota Work for this Permit? There are four boater permits available per day of the permitted season (March 1 – May 15). Group size is limited to 15 people. Groups are not allowed to camp together. Professional River Rafting Businesses There are four companies with permits to shuttle visitors to launch and take-out points along with the Upper Salt. These include:

  • Wilderness Aware Rafting (800) 231-2738

  • Mild to Wild Rafting (800) 567-6745

  • Salt River Rafting (800) 425-5253

  • Canyon Rio Rafting (800) 637-4604.

The shuttle takes approximately three hours round-trip if you do not stop in town. If you have questions, you may call the River Manager, Don Sullivan, at (928) 402-6236. Get more info on the permitting process - Click Here

Access Points to the Salt River Canyon Wilderness

You drive through the juniper-covered hills, and suddenly, there it is the Salt River Canyon, formed by thousands of years of a river cutting to the geologic core. The canyon, one of the most beautiful places in Arizona, is about 40 miles northeast of Globe on U.S. 60. On the drive to its steep and twisting expanse, you'll pass the mining towns of Miami, Claypool, and Globe. We recommend you contact the Forest Service District that administers it for specific access points.

They can be contacted at: Globe Ranger District Tonto National Forest 7680 S. Six Shooter, Globe, AZ 85501 (928) 402-6200

For more history and adventure opportunities visit

812 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page