UPPER SALT RIVER IN GILA COUNTY, ARIZONA

Ah...the Salt River - Inspiring canyon vistas and heart pounding rapids have made the Upper Canyon of the Salt River the most popular day section in Arizona. You will be greeted with a shot of refreshing mountain water in rapids like Bump and Grind, Maytag Rapid, and Exhibition Rapid. 

There is 60 miles of bouncing whitewater in a spectacular Sonoran Desert canyon. For gear-hauling rafts, a minimum flow is 1,200. The infamous rapid Quartzite is a solid class IV at most levels, but without the class V consequences that existed at high flows before it was illegally blasted.

A Wilderness permit is required from March 1st to May 15th. Normally a 3 or 4 day trip, the controlled wilderness section begins 20 miles downstream from Highway 60.

Other recreation activities include hiking, camping, fishing and other forms of boating.

Access Points

The section of the Upper Salt that is legal to run begins at the US Highway 60 crossing in Gila County and runs to Rosevelt Lake in the Sierra Ancha Mountains of Tonto National Forest.

The navigable section of the Upper Salt River is about 52 miles with numerous Class II to IV (mostly Class III) rapids and small waterfalls. These drops are not particularly challenging for boaters having intermediate or higher level whitewater skills. Plan on taking 3-5 days for this trip. However, a shorter run can be made from US Highway 60 down to Mescal Road (about 7 miles of Class III to IV whitewater). Setting up a shuttles on the Upper Salt River can eat up one day, so be prepared for the total time it will take to prepare and run this river. The first 50 miles drops at a gradient of about 26 feet per mile (fpm), then flattens a little as the river approaches Roosevelt Lake. The Upper Salt River is a permit-regulated river (see "Permit Requirements" below.)

US Highway 60 Bridge River Access Point (RAP) on river right at 0.0 miles; Mule Hoof RAP on river right at about 0.5 miles; Exhibition RAP on river right at about 6.0 miles; Cibecue Creek RAP on river right at about 6.9 miles; Sandy Beach RAP on river right at about 9.4 miles; Hoodoo RAP on river right at about 9.8 miles (last take-out above Gleason Flats); Upper Gleason Flat RAP (4WD recommended) on river left at about 19.5 miles; Gleason Flat RAP (4WD recommended) on river left at about 19.7 miles; Gleason Flat RAP (4WD recommended) on river right at about 19.7 miles; Horseshoe Bend RAP ( on private land - use for emergencies only) on river left at about 39.0 miles; Highway 288 RAP (LAST TAKE-OUT POINT) on river right at about 51.9 miles.

NOTES: Mileage is calculated from the uppermost access about 0.2 miles above US Highway 60. ALL access points above Gleason Flat are along Road # 1 on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and require a permit from the Apache Nation for access or camping. Permits can be obtained during daylight hours ONLY at the store located at the intersection of US Highway 60 and the Salt River. Access points at the Gleason Flat sites are along very primitive roads where 4-wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended. The road to Horseshoe Bend was washed out by a flood in September, 2003, and probably is not passable, but this access is on private land, through a locked gate, and should be used for emergencies ONLY. Do NOT leave vehicles parked at the access points, which are for unloading and loading only. Use parking lots nearby so that others can have access to the river.

Upper Salt River Permit 

Running the Upper Salt River requires permits. For sections above Tonto National Forest (US Highway 60 to Gleason Flat RAP) permits are obtainable from the White Mountain Apaches at the store on US Highway 60 at the river. A Daily Rafting Permit and a signed waiver is required for each person for each day they are rafting or floating (using rafts, kayaks, or boats) either entering or exiting the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. All rafting trips going beyond the Hoodoo camp area are required to purchase a 2-day permit for each individual boater. Boaters starting their trip from Gleason Flat need to have a Daily Rafting Permit covering them for the entire time (days) they will be on the Reservation. Important reminder, all individuals holding a valid Daily Rafting Permit are allowed one night of camping. Permit fees are $25 per person per day. For complete information on Fort Apache river use regulations please visit White Montain Apache Tribe Game and Fish web page.

For paddlers entering Tonto National Forest between March 1 and May 15, permits must be obtained from the forest office in Phoenix. Maximum group size is limited to 15 persons. Applications for permits MUST arrive at the forest office between November 15 and January 31. Following the January random drawing for permits, successful applicants will be notified by email. To secure the permit, successful applicants must send all requested information, along with an additional non-refundablefee of $125 at least 21 days prior to their reserved launch date. You may contact the Tonto National Forest office at:

Tonto National Forest
Globe Ranger District
7680 S. Six Shooter Canyon Rd.
Globe, AZ 85501
(928) 402-6200 / Fax: (928) 402-6292

 

White Mountain Apache Tribe
Wildlife & Outdoor Recreation Div.
PO Box 220
White River, AZ 85941
928-338-4385

History of the Upper Salt River

The historic Fort Apache Indian Reservation, ancestral home to brave Native Americans such as Geronimo and Cochise, is the source of Arizona's Salt River, a seasonal stream that is usually navigable from March through May, depending upon snowpack in the mountains and rainfall within the drainage basin. The headwaters are located within the boundaries of Fort Apache National Forest in Graham County, east-northeast of Phoenix.

The Upper Salt River is generally described as that section from the headwaters down to Roosevelt Lake in the Sierra Ancha Mountains of south-central Arizona. The desert environment offers spectacular vistas seldom seen where most people paddle and camp. The primary attraction of the Upper Salt River is its exciting Class II to IV whitewater rapids that can be challenging for canoeists, kayakers and rafters. A major rapid, Apache Falls, is located just above the US Highway 60 crossing, but running it is strictly prohibited by ancient Apache Nation laws. Please respect the ancient customs of the indigenous people and do not attempt to run this drop. The penalty for getting caught, and you probably will, is stiff fines and probably some time in jail!

Paddling the Upper Salt is like stepping back in time by at least 150 years. Natural beauty abounds, and you will find few signs of civilization or modernization. However, you may find snakes, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, hawks, falcons, mountains standing 500 to 1,000 feet above the river and Sonoran Desert flora and fauna as far as the eye can see. Because of the short season and the relative scarcity of navigable rivers in Arizona you may encounter crowds of boaters (especially on weekends - Easter weekend is the most crowded) seeking a wilderness paddle trip under big, blue skies and amid giant Saguaro cactus everywhere you look. There is a "no-stop" zone starting at 41.3 miles and continuing for about 1 mile between December 1 and June 30, in a nesting area for Bald Eagles.

Info provided by: www.southwestpaddler.com

Hiking Near The Upper Salt River

One of the most beautiful and common hiking experiences near the Upper Salt River is the hike to Cibeque Creek.  It is a canyoneering adventure to see another one of Arizona's incredible waterfalls.

It is a bumpy ride down an old dirt road to get to the trailhead. Use extreme caution on this road as there are very narrow sections with sheer cliffs. The road follows along the Salt River giving you a nice viewpoint of the Salt River Canyon. On your way in you will pass the campgrounds (First and Second Campgrounds), just make note of this if you plan on spending the night. A few feet before the trailhead is the Cibeque Creek which you must drive over, so be prepared. For you off-roaders, it is always fun driving through running bodies of water! Permits are now required, which you can find more info on here.  

Immediately after crossing the creek there is a clearing for parking on the right. There is also a sign with a list of rules, please be considerate of them. The trailhead starts you off at about 2900 ft of elevation. This is more of a canyoneering style hike as the trail criss crosses a lot from bank to bank of the creek. Your feet will get wet. Because most of the trail is in the creek they will be a lot of rock jumping. For those dogs that love the water this hike is a heaven for them. Some areas in the creek can get pretty deep and as the sign says swimming is not allowed some areas are deep enough to do so. It's a fun two mile hike up the creek with spectacular views of the canyon and all the little water features the creek has to offer. Since you are a canyon there is plenty of shade and the water tends to keep you nice and cool. The closer you get to the falls the more narrow the canyon becomes and you start to notice the beauty of it all. Just before the falls is a natural cave/alcove. The water fall itself is about 30 feet high and has significant water flow.  

It is a peaceful little place here in the desert. You exit the way you came in. If camping afterwards the sites are very primitive. They provide shade structures but not much more. Some sites have fire rings others don't. I did not see any picnic tables and the restrooms are pretty basic. It is a nice peaceful spot right by the salt river. Always be mindful of the wildlife, during our stay we woke up to a black bear fishing in the river right across from camp.  

Don't forget:

  • Special Use Permit (Including 1 night of camping)

  • Hydration System

  • Shoes/Boots that do well in water

  • Bathing Suit or gear meant to get wet

Upper Salt River Fish Species

The Upper Salt is a mecca for amazing fishing.  These are the most popular fish species often found in the Upper Salt River.

  • Carp.

  • Channel Catfish.

  • Black crappie.

  • Flathead Catfish.

  • Largemouth Bass.

  • Rainbow trout.

  • Smallmouth bass.

  • Sunfish.

Upper Salt River Fishing Strategy

Fly Fishing the Upper Salt River:

 

Most anglers access to the area just below the dam at  the User's Water Recreational Area. This area can become crowded just after the stream is stocked. Phon D. Sutton, Coon Bluff and Goldfield are other areas the Salt River can be accessed. The Verde River confluence is at the Pon D. Sutton access area. The fishing area extends to the Granite Reef Dam area.

This tailwater supports a good population of aquatic insects. There are plenty of Little Blue-winged Olives, Tricos, Blue Quills, Pale Evening duns and other mayflies. There are plenty of caddisflies including Little Black Caddis, Short-horned Sedges, Spotted Sedges and 
Green Sedges.

Don't forget the terrestrials. Imitations of beetles, ants and grass hoppers work great during the summer months. When the water is cold, midges become important, especially in the tailwater.

Seasons:
The fishing season runs year-round.


Spring:
Fly fishing the Salt River offers the most fun during the 
Spring because of the aquatic insect hatches.


Summer:
The tailwater stays cold all Summer long and fishing 
continues to be good provides water is released from the 
dam.


Fall:
Fishing remains good throughout the Fall


Winter:
The water remains near 50 degrees throughout the 
Winter near the dam and fishing can be good throughout 
the winter months. Trout are stocked during the Winter

Boating Options on the Upper Salt River

Canoes w/ flotation, Kayaks, Rafts are all acceptable forms of boating on the Upper Salt River.  Please make sure you trained or have someone with you that understands whitewater.  This is not your small stream here...you will want to make sure before you head out on this adventure that you have contacted all of the appropriate governing entities and that you have a clear understanding of what you are getting in to.

Upper Salt River Camping Options

There are no public or private campgrounds located along the Upper Salt River. Natural campgrounds are abundant all along the river, but most of this section requires a permit from the White Mountain Apaches, US Forest Service, or both. Be sure to inquire about available campsites when applying for permits.

Upper Salt River Swimming Holes

There are many swimming holes along the upper salt river.  For best places contact the Tonto National Forest or the White Mountain Apache tribe.  Contact info listed above.