Discover an ancient canyon wilderness, rich in riparian nature and pristine, natural beauty, and enjoy a fun and exciting outdoors adventure, white water rafting the Upper Salt River. Located just 135 miles from Phoenix, near the town of Globe, the roughly 52 mile stretch of the Upper Salt River, after receiving run off from the nearby White Mountains during early spring, is home to some of Arizona’s best Class III and Class IV river rapids. Even if you are a beginner, white water rafting doesn’t require having prior experience or training is relatively inexpensive and best of all, it’s a thrilling and exciting adrenaline rush and a great way to experience nature and the outdoors with your friends or family. So if you consider yourself an outdoors adventurer, and would like to experience something new and exciting to do, that’s not expensive and close to Phoenix, then I highly recommend you go white water rafting down the Upper Salt River, Globe, Arizona!
I really enjoy the adventure of white water rafting and have previously been down the Snake River in the Teton’s National Park, Wyoming, as well as the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California. I had heard about white water rafting trips down the Upper Salt River here in Arizona, however, I had never done it before because the season for running the Upper Salt is very unpredictable as well as very short. To time it just right when the perennial run off and water flow is at its optimum and peak, ideally you’re looking at about early-mid March. However, this is dependent on how much snow is received up in the mountains each winter. The season for running the Upper Salt they say actually extends from as early as February until mid May. So when I saw that there was a local group called the Desert Mountain Paddlers, led and organized by Ron Russell, who was planning a white water rafting trip down on the Upper Salt River, I quickly invited my friends and got signed up at a discounted group rate through Canyon Rio Rafting, based out of Flagstaff, Arizona, and the professional outfitter company who runs the Upper Salt River.
It was a beautiful spring morning during the first week in April that my friends and I met Ron Russell, aka “The Canoe Guy” and the rest of the Desert Mountain Paddlers team and began our day’s journey, heading out US 60 east, aka “The Old West Highway” and arrived in Globe by 7:30am. After a short break for food and restrooms at McDonalds, we made a left onto US 60-Hwy 77 North and enjoyed the beautiful mountain drive for another 30 minutes until we finally arrived at the top of the hill overlooking the Salt River Valley below and were all completely stunned and amazed at how absolutely breathtaking and gorgeous it was. Wow!
We drove down the steep hill, and after crossing over the bridge, made a quick left onto the short dirt road where by 8:30am we had finally arrived at Canyon Rio’s meeting and parking area. We got out and were warmly greeted by the staff of Canyon Rio who quickly provided us the equipment we would be needing for our day’s river rafting adventure including full wet suits, nylon splash jackets, helmets, paddles and PFD’s (personal flotation devices). We were advised by Canyon Rio in advance, to not only bring with us bottled water but also, when river rafting early in the spring season when water temps are very cold and outside air temps a bit more chilly than in summer months, to wear clothes that are made of either synthetic or quick drying fabrics, and shoes that are old sneakers or river sandals with socks that are neoprene or wool material to keep your feet and body from getting too cold.
Once fully suited up, and with our paddles in our hands, we began to walk down to the river’s edge together where our river guide, “Scratchy”, a veteran river guide with 9 years experience behind him, met us and provided an excellent introduction to river rafting including learning how to use a paddle, as well as what to do in case of an emergency, such as falling out of the raft, what to do should the raft get flipped over. After this thorough overview, we were finally ready for what was sure to be a very adventurous and also very scenic 9 mile river rafting journey down the Upper Salt River! After getting together for a few quick group photos, we eagerly got into all of our 6 man rafts and one by one launched out onto the river by about 10 am.
The Upper Salt River Canyon, about 4000 feet elevation, was windy and chilly that morning, I’d estimate somewhere in the 50’s in temperature as we began our journey and I was happy to have been provided a full wet suit as well as a wind breaker for added warmth. As we were slowly drifting down from our river launch site, I looked up and was just completely amazed at the very beautiful, pristine scenery of this wilderness area, which stretched 52 miles from Globe all the way down to Roosevelt Lake. Located on ancestral Native American Indian grounds, the Upper Salt River Canyon is highly restricted by the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and is only accessible by river raft or kayak with a permit.
It only took a few minutes on the river before we came to our first rapid, the “Bump & Grind” rapid, classified as a “Class II” rapid. And wow, what fun that was too! But that was just a warm up. There were a whole lot more to come, we were headed for an entire series of excellent “Class III” rapids, and although we had missed the peak flow a few weeks earlier, the river’s cfs, or flow rate, was still very good that day, “Scratchy”, our river guide advised, so we were in for a real adventure! How rapids are classified is really pretty subjective, I learned. Basically it’s determined by water levels, flow rates, obstructions or obstacles in the river’s bottom such as rocks and boulders or anything that would cause the water, always flowing down hill, to spin, swirl or cause to spill over such as a water fall. Rapids are rated anywhere from 1, which is your scenic float, all the way up to 10, and extremely dangerous. However, if you’re a beginning to intermediate river rafter, like myself, the Class II & Class III river rafting trips are perfect and the Upper Salt River offers some of the best rapids in the entire western U.S.
After warming up at the “Bump and Grind”, Class II rapid, and with the rest of our team of Desert Mountain Paddlers now closely behind us, we looked up and were excited to take on the next rapid, our first Class III rapid of the day, the “Maytag” rapid! Wow, now that was fun! But that was just the beginning of the adventure! From there it was all Class III”s, an entire series! With our team behind us and mostly out of sight by now, we continued on to move on to the next rapid and the next, the “Grumman”, the “Mother Rock” and the “Overboard” rapids, rocking, splashing and spinning, crashing against the waves and twirling through the torrent of current of the Upper Salt, I almost got tossed out of the boat twice!. Wow, what a wild, thrilling and exciting adventure ride!
After successfully running the “Overboard” Class III rapid, we veered our raft over to the river’s edge to wait for the rest of our team to arrive. This was turning out to be one heck of a wild river run, and I noticed I wasn’t the only one to get tossed out either! There were a few solo kayakers also attempting to run the river that day and one of them got flipped over and tossed out of his kayak! Thankfully, after swimming through the rapid while still hanging onto his kayak, he eventually he made it and was okay. We waited along the river’s edge until everyone had made it successfully through the last rapid and once we had all of our rafting team back together again, we continued on.
From here we had a break from the rapids and had a chance to enjoy some of the gorgeous canyon scenery and wildlife that is along the Upper Salt River. So absolutely beautiful and majestic, I found it so amazing that the Upper Salt River Canyon is a backcountry wilderness area, consisting of about 32,000 acres, that has managed to remain completely remote, and untouched here within the state of Arizona. What a great day and adventure this had been so far, I thought to myself.
It was a little after 12 noon when we arrived at Canyon Rio’s camp site on the river and where we’d pull our rafts over to the shore and have a picnic lunch and mid-day rest break. And what a lunch it was too! Canyon Rio really provided us a delicious and fantastic lunch, that had it all, right down to the last details too. Wow! We were really enjoying everything but by 1:30 pm, and after a quick group photo with our river guide extraordinaire, “Scratchy”, it was time to get back in our rafts again and begin the second part of our journey and adventure down the Upper Salt River.
After pulling our rafts out and continuing on from camp, and next taking on the “Exhibition” Class III rapid, the scenery was even more beautiful and spectacular as we quickly approached the gorgeous Cibecue Canyon, the crossed Cibeque Creek. After running the Cibecue Rapid, a Class II rapid, we turned a corner to the left and continued to enjoy the journey heading down this very serene and tranquil stretch of the Upper Salt River until we came to what would be the best but final set of rapids of the day.
Once again we were advised by our excellent river guide “Scratchy” what we were to do as we approached first the “Three Way” rapid, a Class III rapid, followed by the “Salt River Draw”, a Class II rapid, then on to our final rapid of the day, the “grand finale” and saving the best for last it seemed, as we crashed, splashed, bumped, grinded and glided our way down through the rocking and rolling “Mezcal Falls”, a Class III-IV rapid that was absolutely the best one of them all! Wow, what a total adrenaline rush!
After pulling to the side to wait for the rest of our team to successfully make it through “Mezcal Falls”, we then floated for a few more final minutes on the river until we finally reached the end of our 9 mile river rafting adventure by about 2:30pm, and the access point where Canyon Rio was waiting for us to transport us back to the parking area where our cars were and by 3:30pm we had arrived back at the parking lot, ready to head back home to Phoenix again.
In all, what an incredibly fun, exciting and scenic outdoors adventure on the Upper Salt River! Really a great day spent with friends and everyone from the Desert Mountain Paddlers group. And also, an excellent river rafting expedition put together by the professional and experienced team of river guides from Canyon Rio Rafting. So if you’re looking for something new, exciting, fun and adventurous to do, then I highly recommend you be sure to check out white water rafting down the Upper Salt River, Globe, Arizona!
Laura K. Halik is a writer and published author with over 20 years experience of outdoors travel throughout the state of Arizona and the western region. She is passionate for nature, the outdoors, travel and adventure. Laura enjoys hiking, canyoneering, white water rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, writing, and photography. She is also a co-hiking leader and organizer in a hiking and outdoors adventure club for advanced and experienced hikers.