Phoenix Spring Escapes

Whitewater Paddle
By Judy Wade & Bill Baker

Arizona is not generally touted as a hot whitewater destination, but it holds the distinction of having the earliest spring-running whitewater river of any state in the nation.

From March through May, snow melt from Arizona's White Mountains provides enough runoff to guarantee good paddling on the upper Salt River, north of Phoenix. Some years meager snowfall lead to particularly rocky boating, but the abundant accumulation in Arizona's highest mountains this winter assures an outstanding chocolate-colored surge on the Salt this spring.

Rafting the Salt is very popular. The put-in site is located on an unregulated part of the river on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, above the dam systems that controls runoff on its way to Roosevelt Lake and the Phoenix area. A three-hour drive from Phoenix makes it an easy day trip.

Sheer canyon walls, hovering eagles balancing on thermals, cactus stuck firmly on ledges and overhangs, and rocks that take on imaginative forms are all part of the experience. Signs of civilization are few and far between. Guides dispense tidbits of history and geology, and when they're not retrieving an errant paddle or fishing a rafter from fast-flowing waters, they point out sights along the way.

Most rafting companies ask guests to meet north of Globe, near the bridge where U.S. 60 crosses the Salt. Wet suits, a necessity, are furnished, and a mandatory paddling and safety briefing outlines what to do if thrown from the raft (float downstream feet first), and how to behave in the rapids (stay seated). After that, you're on your way to Mule Hoof Bend and the first rapids.

Kiss and Tell is where the river rushes into a rock wall. If you let the raft bump the rock sideways (the kiss), it can tip, spilling everyone into the chilly torrent. On sunny weekends when the river is awash with paddlers, dozens of other rafters wait apprehensively above the rapid, hoping they aren't next into the drink.

The rapids called Bump and Grind describes what it does to your raft. Swirling Maytag rapids leaves no doubt about the origin of its name. Tricky Mescal rapids, the last patch of whitewater on this day trip, catapults even an occasional guide into the rushing water. Most rapids on this stretch of river are Class I and II in the spring. If conditions are right, an occasional Class III might have to be negotiated.

Temperatures at this time of year usually hover in the 80s and 90s on the river. Just about the time the sun heats up your wetsuit to sauna conditions, a bumpy patch of rapids will deliver a refreshing splash. Rafting companies provide a cold buffet lunch midway through the trip. It's an opportunity to strip off wetsuits and absorb the sun's warming rays. By late afternoon, with the sun about to slide behind steep canyon walls, you shuffle ashore at Salt Banks after covering about 15 miles of quirky river.

Companies that offer one-day trips ($95, including lunch) from Horseshoe Bend to Salt Banks include: Far-Flung Adventures (800-359-262 or 520-425-7272), Blue Sky Whitewater (800-425-5253), and Sun Country Rafting (800- 272-3353).

Judy Wade and Bill Baker are freelance writers/photographers who pack and unpack in Phoenix.

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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