Kayaking The Lower Salt River

Now that tax season is over (!!!) I have been itching to get outside for an adventure. It’s been knock-you-down windy here lately so that’s really put a halt to my outdoor plans. But, when ESP Boss invited me to kayak the Lower Salt River on Saturday, I jumped at the chance.

Since we had to be on the road by 5 am, it was a little after 6 when we entered the Valley. And what did I see floating over the I-17? Hot air balloons. Too cool!

Hot Air Ballons over I-17

We were meeting our friend, Captain Ted, at 7:30 Saturday. The Lower Salt River is in the Tonto National Forest. The area requires a Tonto Pass, a $6 per-day pass that allows access to a variety of day use areas along the Salt. Since we’re not from the area, Captain Ted said he’d pick a pass up for us and also provide a shuttle.

We dropped our Jeep at the take-out spot and then piled our kayaks (and gear!) into the Captain’s truck and headed up river to the launch point.

And I’ll admit, I didn’t do a great job of keeping track of the names of the day-use areas that are the start and end points for the float. But, Code Wolf lives about 20 minutes away from the area so I’ll be back to snap pictures and get more details!

We were on the river by about 8:00. Well before the heat of the day. We also wanted to be on the river early since the Lower Salt River is known as a great place for tubing.

ESP Boss

ESP Boss & Captain Ted's wife, Lilly.

I knew next-to-nothing about the 9 mile stretch of the Lower Salt River that we were setting out upon. But one thing I figured out really quickly: Class I Rapids. Lots of them.

Class I Rapids

Now, before you get all worried about the word “RAPIDS” let me explain. A Class I is the smallest class of rapids. The water would break over the front of the kayak but not a drop actually ended up inside. They’re exciting but not really scary. They look a lot like white caps on a windy day.

I was amazed at the variety of wildlife that we saw. The stretch of the Lower Salt that we were on is less than 10 minutes away from the Valley. (I call EVERYTHING down there ‘Phoenix’ but it’s actually closest to Mesa.)

We saw a ton of herons.


Turkey vultures.

Turkey Vulture

I LOVE the sign he's sitting on! Too bad many river users DON'T pack out their trash.

And I saw my first ever in-the-wild turtle. Pardon the blurry photo but Captain Ted’s wife was coming in for a closer look which scared the bird which scared the turtle and they both took off. So I only got the one snap!


The water in the Lower Salt is crystal clear and icy cold. Which in some ways is unfortunate because I could clearly see all the trash left behind by people. Even though there were trashcans (lots of them) at every access point, the bottom of the river was littered with beer cans, lost towels, clothes, swimsuit pieces, water bottles, and just general trash. Some of it might blow in from the road or be released into the river through the waterflow, but I think most of it was just left behind.

It was really sad. And it made me FURIOUS. The Lower Salt River is a seasonal river that is controlled by having the large lakes upriver release water to create the flow. I’m not really sure how low the water gets during the winter, but I’m already making plans to head out there with trash bags and gloves to take as much trash out of the waterway as possible. I figure I can make a FORTUNE in aluminum can recycling! CITO anybody?

But more about the good things: and there were LOTS of them!

The scenery was stunning. I was a bit worried since the road to the launch point paralleled the river most of the way that I’d have seen everything the Lower Salt had to offer from the truck’s windows. But I was totally wrong!

Scenery on Lower Salt River

The first 6 miles or so had a good current and it alternated between Class I rapids and a calm river flowing at a quick pace. It was great to sit back and enjoy.

One of my favorite places was called ‘Mud Cliffs.’ There I saw red winged blackbirds and was dive bombed by swallows. The swallows made their mud nests on the cliff sides.

Mud Cliffs

ESP Boss below the towering Mud Cliffs.


Swallow Nests

Swallow Nests

The last 3 miles, however, while just a pretty, were FLAT. It’s after the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers. The water becomes muddier and the current isn’t as quick. Which means more paddling.

Flat Water

(And less photos!)

The highlight of the trip?

The Bald Eagle that was sitting on river left munching on a catfish! I’ve seen these birds in my travels around the state, but never so close. And I’ve NEVER seen one on the ground.

Bald Eagle

Captain Ted said that it’s common to see herons, ducks, turkey vultures, bald eagles, and red winged black birds. I’m not really into bird watching, but it was really cool seeing all of them. It’s less common but still possible to see wild mustangs and big horn sheep. (Didn’t spot either!) I did see signs of beaver along the banks as well.

As for fish, there were bass, catfish, carp, and walleye. And speaking of catfish, to the catfish that I ran over with my kayak, I sincerely apologize for the headache I gave you! (Seriously, it was swimming just under the surface of the water and I smacked it with the kayak!)

The whole trip took about 4 hours. Any later in the summer and Captain Ted recommends starting about 5:30 or 6:00. That way, you miss the heat of the day, see more wildlife and miss the tubers!

I’ll be taking Code Wolf on the river this summer as a warm-up for an overnight trip on the Colorado River between Hoover Dam and Willow Beach.

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