The Best Western River You’ve Never Heard Of
Camping & Hiking expert Olivia Whitehead deep dives into how to plan a rafting trip along Upper Salt River in Arizona.
Forty-nine miles south of Show Low, Arizona, there is an unassuming dirt road marked by a few very weathered signs. Turning onto this dirt road will lead you into the Upper Salt River Canyon and the stretch of the Salt River that runs through it. Although this section of river is often overshadowed by the other incredible desert rivers in the Western United States, it is one of the most unique places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.
We’ll refer to the Upper Salt River as simply the “Salt” in this article, but it is important to note that we are specifically talking about the 52.6-mile stretch between U.S. Highway 60 and the Roosevelt (Highway 288) take-out, or end point. There is a mellow, downstream section of the river that people often tube and casually float on, but these sections are very different!
As with many rivers, there are two ways to run the Upper Salt: on a commercial or private trip. Most years, there are four commercial outfitters that run this section, starting on March 1 until the water is too low. As an alternative, a private trip can be a rewarding experience for those with river skills and a sense of adventure. A commercial trip simply requires that you pay for the trip, pack your bag, and show up with a good attitude. A private trip is a lot more involved, and it’s the private trip that we’ll specifically cover in this article.
Here is everything you need to know before running the Salt for yourself!
Different Sections & Permits
As mentioned, we are specifically talking about the Upper Salt River, although this is broken into different sections as well.
The Daily section begins right at the U.S. Highway 60 put-in, or starting point, and ends around river-mile 10, just after Mescal Rapid. Should you go beyond this 10-mile point, you will enter the wilderness section of the Salt (guides will often refer to this stretch as the “wildy”). You can run the Daily section without a Forest Service permit, but you’ll need to pay the Apache fees discussed below.
The only feasible take-out between mile 10 and the Roosevelt take-out at mile 52.6 is found at mile 19.3 and is named Gleason Flats. While it is possible to take out here, I recommend either just running the Daily section or fully committing to the entire 52.6 miles of wilderness.
The permits are a bit different depending on the section you intend to run, as well. Should you hope to run the Salt wilderness between March 1 and May 15, you will need to apply for and win a permit through the governing Forest Service office. March will give you the best chance of having enough water, and most years it is unlikely that there is enough water for a May rafting trip. You might be okay in a kayak, depending on the year.
Even if you win a Forest Service permit, you also need to abide by the local Apache regulations, and you will have to pay a daily Apache fee as well. This fee is subject to change, but it is important that you check out the White Mountain Apache’s website and buy and print your permits in advance—there is little-to-no cell service at the put-in or while on the water. You will spend the beginning of your trip on White Mountain Apache land, and they regularly check your paperwork.
Finally, because the snowpack is so fickle in Arizona, there are years when runoff begins early and there is plenty of water for February trips. As of now, the Forest Service doesn’t begin regulating trips until March 1, and you can run a wildy trip in the month of February without winning a Forest Service permit. (You will still have to pay any necessary White Mountain Apache fees though!) The way the Forest Service permits work, it also isn’t enough to be on the water before March 1—you must be off the water by the time permitting goes into effect.
Three of my fourteen wildy trips have been in February, and it is worth the cold to experience this river! The best thing you can do is keep an eye on the weather and projected flows and be ready to head to the Salt when things look promising.
One of the things that makes the Salt so incredible is the lack of an upstream dam. The water level can vary wildly, and because solid snowpack isn’t a guarantee, there are many years when the Salt doesn’t commercially run at all.
The best way to check the flow is by looking at the Chrysotile Gauge near U.S. Highway 60. You might see water levels as low as 200 cubic feet per second (CFS) or as high as 20,000 CFS, but this doesn’t mean that you should run the river at all flows.
Most people do not recommend running the Salt wilderness in a raft below 600 CFS. Although there are no unrunnable upper flow levels, I would not recommend being in the quintessential Jump Off Canyon (we’ll talk about Jump Off later!) when the flow is above 5,000 CFS—particularly for your first trip! Many have run it at a higher flow, but you should be familiar with the Salt before making the decision to do so.
The daily section is a bit lower of a consequence, as you can take off the river at multiple places between miles zero and 10, and you can run this section at more varied flows. You’ll have to drag your raft at 200 CFS, and you’ll get amazing Grand-Canyon-sized waves at 18,000 CFS. Use discretion, and don’t hesitate to (politely) ask the guides if you have any questions!
What to Bring (Salt-Specific)
Your packing list for the Salt will be pretty typical if you’re used to running other Western rivers. I personally like to bring a few extra things on the Salt, so we’ll just talk about those!
A little blacklight
- Scorpions abound on the Salt, and although they won’t get in your way if you don’t bother them, they do glow under a blacklight. It’s a fun trick to pull out your blacklight after a day of boating and hunt around for the tiny, glowing scorpions.
- One of the coolest things about the Salt is the wide variety of cacti along the banks. It’s interesting to watch them change as you float downstream, from pincushions and hedgehogs, to saguaros, to teddy bear cholla. The side hikes are also incredible on this particular stretch, and with enough trips it’s inevitable that you will get a bit too close to a cactus. This is where extra tweezers come in! When I am guiding the Salt, I like to make sure that each guide on the trip has a pair of tweezers on them, as well as give the guests a heads-up speech about respecting the local cacti.
The Actual Whitewater
My favorite thing about the actual Salt whitewater is how much it varies within the 52.6 miles. You’ll pass through several different sections of canyon, and the rapids and scenery will change accordingly. Here is a quick overview of the sections of river you’ll experience:
- Defining rapids: Grumman, Overboard, Exhibition, and Mezcal.
- The Daily section offers a wonderful taste of the whitewater to come, and is worth a trip even if you can’t commit to the entire wilderness stretch. The difficulty of the rapids will vary with the water level, and this section can be exciting even for those who have run it before. The calm stretch after Mini Ledges rapid is an excellent place to spot a bald eagle, and the saguaros greeting you just after Mescal Rapid make for one of my favorite Daily moments.
- First and Second White Rock Gorges
- Defining rapids: Ledges, Rat Trap, White Rock, and Granite.
- There are two White Rock Gorges back-to-back and some exciting rapids spaced out within them. While the rapids here are a bit trickier at low water (in my opinion), the wall shots in this section can get really exciting at high water! Between rapids, look around for the elusive crested saguaro, as it’s possible to spot one if you look closely.
- There are no rapids in the Gleason Flats section.
- This calm section is defined by the opening up of the canyon and the rolling hills on either side. It provides a nice break from the exciting whitewater, and the road for the Gleason Flats access point meets the river here. It’s not unusual to see people who have driven their cars down just to enjoy the river for an afternoon here.
Black Rock Gorge
- Defining rapids: Eye of the Needle and Black Rock.
- Short and spicy, the Black Rock Gorge holds two of my favorite Salt rapids. Eye of the Needle is a fun, tight move at most flows (and two very large, offset holes when the river is higher), and Black Rock has the potential to be exciting regardless of the flow. Of all the Salt rapids to scout, I recommend looking at Black Rock before running it for the first time. There is a nice beach on the inside of a right-hand bend just above the rapid.
Jump Off Canyon
- Defining rapids: Lower Corral, Pinball, Maze, Quartzite, and Corkscrew.
- Jump Off Canyon is the most iconic section of the Salt wilderness, and the rapids can be challenging. You’ll know that you’re entering this section when the red rocks begin to rise up more steeply on both sides and the canyon becomes more narrow. One of the most scenic sections on the Salt lies just between the Maze and Quartzite, as well. You’ll come around a bend, seeing a large, flat face of rock (Black Jack Face) on your right and a maze of rocks to your left. I love to stop here to walk around between the rocks!
Float Out (Horseshoe Bend Area)
- There are no defining rapids on the long float out after Jump Off Canyon, but there are some splashy rifles and interesting wall shots at higher water. Some nice, sandy camps and interesting hikes mark this section as well though, so that makes up quite a bit for the lack of exciting whitewater.
The Salt is an amazing river to continue to explore, and one that you could run a hundred times without learning everything. The thing I love most, the fact that it is so varied and volatile, makes it that much more interesting! Should you decide to run the Salt for yourself, I recommend continuing to do your research, buying a detailed guide book, applying for a permit, and watching the snowpack closely. The excitement of watching the snowpack build in Arizona, followed by the awe of seeing the Salt for the first time, are truly incredible experiences.