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A rare opportunity this spring for rafting on the Salt River

Although rapids named “Devil’s Pendejo,” “Little Boat Eater,” “Kiss & Tell,” and “Bump & Grind,” might put the less adventurous off, one of the best parts of rafting the Salt is the quality of tour guides leading these unique river runs. Photo courtesy Salt River Rafting

Adventurers seeking one of the most unique outdoor experiences in Arizona will have the opportunity for the first time in two years to enjoy a true gem of the desert when rafting season begins on the Salt River.

This will be the first time in two years rafting companies will be able to host trips and schedules are already filling up fast for the season that will begin in early March.

“The Salt is so special. It’s a magical one-of-a-kind place in the entire country, in all North America really,” says Salt River Rafting owner James Wilkes. “It’s just incredible up there. There are two major geological faults so the canyon you see from the road at the top is nothing like the canyon 15 miles down river.”

The Salt River Canyon, often referred to as the “Other Grand Canyon,” is one of the hidden gems of Arizona and due to the ephemeral nature of the river — and the permit process to get to the more remote and rugged locations — there is little chance of “Disneyfication” any time soon.

“For all the years I have been up here, nearly every guest from Phoenix says ‘wow, I didn’t know this place was here,’” Wilkes says. “You don’t want to turn it into Disneyland, but clearly that’s not going to happen since it hasn’t in the 20-plus years I’ve been there.”

Wilkes says he has been working the Salt River since 1997, and became a business owner when a group of fellow river guides bought the company, formerly Blue Sky Rafting in Globe, after working for the former owner for a decade.

“We thought that’s probably the dumbest thing you could do, to buy a raft company in the desert, so we decided, sure, let’s do it,” he says.

Salt River Rafting is one of four companies operating on the Salt, with three located in Colorado and one out of Flagstaff. While it is not a steady source of income for operators, since there is only enough water to support the activities every few years, established adventure outfitters relish the possibility to ply the river whenever possible, in part because they enjoy it as much as their customers.

Stunning views and hair-raising excitement await rafters in the Salt River Canyon. Given the transitory nature of the river itself, spring of 2023 will offer a unique experience for those seeking a true Arizona experience. Photo courtesy Salt River Rafting.

A rare and unique place

The Salt River Wilderness Area was established in 1984 and covers approximately 32,100 very rugged acres in the Tonto National Forest. The river begins in the White Mountains and flows west, where it has cut a deep canyon in the desert that drops from 4,200 feet on White Ledge Mountain to 2,200 feet where the river meets Roosevelt Reservoir.

While it lacks the size of the Grand Canyon, it rivals the scope, given its rugged geology and scenic beauty. It is one of a small handful of rivers that flow through saguaro cactus forests in the Sonoran Desert.

The landscape is as varied as the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, as the river winds through myriad rock formations created over millions of years of volcanic activity, wind and water.

There are no maintained trails within the entire wilderness, so travel is basically limited to raft or kayak during the short and temperamental river-running season between March 1 and May 15. Permits are required between these dates and group size is limited to 15 people.

There are 27 sets of rapids and numerous side creeks to explore. The whitewater gets more treacherous as water levels drop, so for the average individual a packaged tour is a must.

As to weather, it is not uncommon to start out the day wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and later wearing winter weather gear or vice versa. There is also no cell phone service in the canyon.

Although rapids named “Devil’s Pendejo,” “Little Boat Eater,” “Kiss & Tell,” and “Bump & Grind,” might put the less adventurous off, one of the best parts of rafting the Salt is the quality of tour guides leading these unique river runs.

“The Salt attracts really good river guides for a couple of reasons: It is beautiful and it is fun,” says Benjamin Dove of Canyon Rio Rafting Company, based in Flagstaff. “All these guides who are really good at what they do on their home rivers get to come for the early season and enjoy being on the beautiful Salt.”

Dove says that due to the weather throughout central Arizona, the Salt River season runs earlier than other rivers further north, where the rafting season does not start until May. The river is fed by snow melt, so when it is running tour companies run as much as they can, because a “warm rain” in the mountains can end a season abruptly by melting the snow pack.

Canyon Rio was established in 1995 by Donnie and Caroline Dove, who moved to Flagstaff in 1991 and fell in love with the rivers and canyons of Arizona. While the main focus of the company most years is on the Grand Canyon, Benjamin Dove says the opportunity to work the Salt is one of the high points of being in the business.

“The Salt is a fantastic river in a beautiful canyon,” he says. “Arizona gets a lot of credit for the Grand Canyon, but a lot of people come to see that and the Salt gets overlooked.”

Canyon Rio Rafting is one of four rafting companies which are permitted on the Salt River. Photo courtesy Canyon Rio Rafting Company

The rafting experience

Rafting tours range from day trips to five-day epic adventures. Most tours begin at the junction of State Highway 60 and the Salt River, about a 40-minute drive north of Globe.

For those choosing a Canyon Rio tour, a typical one-day trip starts at 9:30 a.m. and lasts about seven hours. At the outset, experienced guides talk participants through the day, give an extensive safety orientation and gear everyone up for whatever might be encountered along the way.

The day trip goes through seven Class III rapids — intermediate rapids requiring complex maneuvers — and 13 overall. There is a lunch stop to “dry out,” before the final seven miles of rafting.

A shuttle ride back to the starting point ends the day between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.

Dove says the rapids are already impressive and he hopes the “stomach-droppin’ action” of the “wave trains of haystack waves” continues for the foreseeable future.

In river guide vernacular, a wave train is a spot in the river with continuous waves, and a haystack is a wave caused by fast water hitting a slower current due to a drop in gradient.

A “swimmer” is someone who falls out of the raft.

Salt River Rafting also offers day trips, The Classic, as well as an abbreviated short trip for people who “need to get back to Phoenix for dinner or are heading to the Grand Canyon” afterward.

There are also multi-day options for a trip of about 50 miles. The three-day tour is wall-to-wall rafting, while the five-day tour gives participants more time to camp, hike and enjoy being outdoors with no cell phone service.

“The Salt River Canyon is stunning,” Wilkes says. “It turns into a granite white polished stone micro canyon, and then you cross a fault that takes you into the Black Rock zone and that’s where the big Class IV rapids are.”

Rafting tours are open to adventurers of all levels, although given the nature of the activity kids under the age of seven are not permitted.

“We’re real family oriented but we have an age cut off and it can change with the water level, just to keep things safe,” says Wilkes. “We’ve also made accommodations for people who can’t see and can’t swim. It can be done safely and it’s quite a spectrum.”

No matter which company one chooses, all offer great adventures in one of the most beautiful and unique places in the U.S. World-class tour guides will take even the greenest novice safely through the adventure, providing good food, historical background, and camaraderie along the way.

“What I love about the Salt and why I think it is so unique is you’re in this high desert environment where you’re coming through these incredible granite rock formations that create incredible towers and structures,” says Canyon Rio’s Dove. “At the same time, you get to boat right alongside saguaro cactuses growing right up to the edge of the river. In addition to being stunning, you get to experience this amount of water flowing through the desert. It’s a truly surreal experience.”

Canyon Rio rafters enjoy the calm before the whitewater in one of the most beautiful canyons of the southwest. Photo courtesy Canyon Rio Rafting Company

Contacts for the Salt River rafting experience

Canyon Rio: www.canyonrio.com, info@canyonrio.com, ​​1-800-2PADDLE (272-3353)


Salt River Rafting: raftingsaltriver.com, info@raftthesalt.com, 800-425-5253


Mild to Wild: mild2wildrafting.com, 970-247-4789


Wilderness Aware Rafting: www.inaraft.com, 1-800-462-7238, 719-395-2112

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