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Salt River, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord

Horse Mesa Dam (Apache Lake) to Canyon Lake
~ 15 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Middle Salt River begins immediately below Roosevelt Dam at a pocket park operated by the U.S. Forest Service and continues downriver to Apache Lake, then from Horse Mesa Dam down to Canyon Lake, below Morman Flats Dam down to Stewart Montain dam on Saguaro Lake. The section from Roosevelt Dam down to Apache Lake is the only section between the lakes where paddlers can put in upriver, then paddle downriver. The other sections require putting in on one of the lakes, then paddling upriver, turning around and paddling back down river. There are no access points below Apache Lake other than at USFS parks located on the lakes.

The section from Horse Mesa Dam on Apache Lake down to Canyon Lake is very beautiful, but flatter than the Arizona desert. It features an abundance of water for paddling almost all the time, and is vested with beautiful, rough-cut mountains in the Sierra Ancha Range where the river has cut a deep channel. Arizonans refer to the Middle Salt River as the "Mini Grand Canyon". Paddling here will let you know why. The current is gentle, with lake effect waves that can get rough if the wind is up. The only real hazards to navigation are the powerboats that frequently make their way up or down the river carrying fishermen, skiiers and others just out for a great time on a gorgeous section of river.

Along the path of the Middle Salt River you will see Saguaro cactus, many birds of prey and occasionally a few small animals. There are larger animals that live here, but they are seldom seen. There are also several species of poisonous snakes, but they are also a rare sight. However, it is advisable to exercise caution when walking away from your campsite at night, if you should camp along the river - walk heavily, make a lot of noise and vibration, carry a bright light and a long pole or stick, and follow the rules about hiking in snake country. The author has made numerous trips on the Salt River, and has yet to actually see any snakes, though they are there.

The section from Apache Lake to Canyon Lake is definitely one for taking photos. The tall mountains are awesome, and depending upon the time of day, sunlight and shadows make for some very interesting shots. There are no public or private services of any kind along this section of the Salt River, but numerous natural campsites are available, including some that have been developed by the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). There is a small fee ($4 per day per car or $6 per day per car with a boat) that you will pay at the self-serve pay stations at each of the USFS parks on the lakes. There are no fees for use of campsites along the river, though USFS permits may be required, depending upon the time of year.

Apache Trail, the road leading from Phoenix to the mountain lakes area, is a hard-surface, two-lane blacktop running right through the heart of the Apache Nation. Upon leaving US Highway 60 from Phoenix or Globe you will turn onto Apache Trail at the Town of Apache Junction, then wind through the Tonto National Forest past an abandoned goldmine ghost town that is now a tourist trap, out through the Superstition Mountains past the Lost Dutchman State Park. As you approach Canyon Lake you will be winding through mountains offering excellent vistas, many of which have turn-offs where you can stop to shoot photos. Beyond Canyon Lake the road leads to the tourist trap of Tortilla Flat, where the hard surface ends and the dirt road begins.


Located in Pinal County, the section from Apache Lake to Canyon Lake is in the Sierra Ancha Mountains of Tonto National Forest. Nearby cities include Globe to the south and Phoenix to the west. The road to the put-in (from Phoenix) passes through Apache Junction and Tortilla Flat. US Highway 60 runs east-to-west just a few miles to the south.

Distance from major cities

Phoenix 70 miles; Tucson 160 miles; Flagstaff 145 miles; Salt Lake City 790 miles; Albuquerque 420 miles; Denver 800 miles; Dallas 900 miles; Austin 1,020 miles; San Antonio 1,000 miles; Houston 1,190 miles; Oklahoma City 970 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

The Middle Salt River flows clean and clear from its dam release source waters. There is very little to cause pollution, contamination or litter, so the water quality is usually very high during periods of sustainable flow, though it may have a slightly stagnant odor that is typical of impounded bodies of water.

Best time to go

Generally, the Middle Salt River is navigable year round, though the current will be slower when no dam releases are occurring. Because of the need for hydroelectric generation there is almost always adequate water for paddling.

Hazards to navigation

The only real hazards on any section of the Lower Salt River are headwinds and occasionally powerboats, which are more prevalent on weekends. There are no rapids or waterfalls on the section from Apache Lake to Canyon Lake.

River Access Points

The only access points on this section of the Salt River are any of the USFS parks located on Apache Lake. Several parks along the south side of Canyon Lake offer excellent launch points for trips up and back down the river. There are self-serve pay stations at all the pocket parks on Salt River lakes for day-use parking. There is no access from the top of this section.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no public or private campgrounds located along the Middle Salt River. Natural campgrounds are abundant all along the river, but most of this section requires a permit from the U.S. Forest Service (Tonto National Forest office in Phoenix.) Be sure to inquire about available campsites when applying for permits.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no liveries or outfitters located along the Middle Salt River. Take everything you need, and arrange to run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The Middle Salt River is a trip that anybody can enjoy regardless of paddling skills or experience. The flow is usually slow and there are no natural hazards except occasionally strong headwinds. While powerboats do frequent the river, it is plenty wide and avoiding boats and their wake turbulence is generally easy. You will be rocked by wake turbulence, but there is plenty of room for avoiding the worst of it. The scenery along the Lower Salt River is just awesome. Sometimes, it is hard to realize that you are paddling a boat through the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Be sure to take a camera and plenty of film or digital media, because the topography is simply spectacular. It is easy to see why locals call this place the "Mini Grand Canyon", because you are definitely paddling through a mountain canyon and it is definitely grand (though not as much so as its cousin to the north.)

Technical Data
Class Rating I
Length 15 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in any USFS park on Apache Lake
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out any USFS park on Apache Lake
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web:
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits USFS permits are required March through May. Camping fees may apply and access (parking) fees are required at all times.

Lower Salt River between Apache Lake and Canyon Lake
Typical desert topography on the wide and flat Lower
Salt River between Apache Lake and Canyon Lake

Central Arizona Paddlers Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lower Salt River between Apache Lake and Canyon Lake
Typical desert topography on the wide and flat Lower
Salt River between Apache Lake and Canyon Lake

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Salt River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Salt River Homepage ] [ US Highway 60 to Roosevelt Lake ] [ Roosevelt Lake to Apache Lake ] [ Canyon Lake to Saguaro Lake ]
[ Saguaro Lake to Granite Reef Dam ] [ Big Bonito River ] [ Black River ] [ Canyon Creek ] [ Tonto Creek ]

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