Hardly a Mirage

Paddling Arizona's Verde River
By Ena Lynne Wilson
  |  Gorp.com
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Canoeing in the desert? Sounds about as likely as growing cactus in Minnesota, but the roiling Verde River, which flows through parched central Arizona, is hardly a mirage. The thrills and chills are very real when rafting, canoeing, or kayaking this snow-fed cataract clogged with Class I, II, III, and (depending on the season) IV whitewater.

For most of its nearly 200-mile length, the Verde travels against an ever-changing but always breathtaking wilderness backdrop. Located between Flagstaff and Phoenix, the Verde flows south from its headwaters north of Prescott through three national forests that embrace the unique flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. It's a moderately popular and exceptionally rewarding float adventure, and the Verde owns the distinction of being the only federally designated Wild and Scenic river in Arizona.

Paddlers along this scenic stretch of water can encounter bald eagles, blue herons, beaver, and river otter. In the spring, wildflowers abound in contrast with the cactus perched along the canyon walls. Numerous creeks flow into the Verde from side canyons cut into the towering cliffs, and willows and tamarisk line the grass-covered banks.The Verde is generally navigable by canoe or kayak in the early spring (February to April), when flows often measure several thousand cubic feet per second. Runoff can vary greatly from year to year, however, and some seasons the river is not runable, at least not without dragging your boat through numerous shallows, while in other years the high water lingers into May. Generally, rafts are not feasible at low flows.

For those temperature-sensitive souls shying away from the desert's intense summer heat, spring is definitely the optimum time of year to tangle with the sparkling Verde. Although late summer monsoons can provide a wild ride, you have to be ready at a moment's notice (the Verde is sometimes referred to as a"surf's up" river), and there can be a lot of boat-beating debris in the channel due to flash flooding, as well as numerous snags and strainers.

Ena Wilson is an environmental scientist and freelance writer. She and her geologist/photographer husband, Steve, live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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