Blue kayak in shallow water with cliffs in background

Your Guide to Kayaking the Salt River

The quick guide below gives you all the basics to enjoy a successful paddle down the Lower Salt River.

But if you want to upgrade your experience even more, grab the Complete Guide to Kayaking the Salt River—which is 6x more detailed and offers insider tips that will improve your trip experience.

Kayaking the Salt River

On summer weekends, the Lower Salt River can resemble a drunken party scene. Hoards of inner-tubers converge on the river to cool off and have some summer fun. Beer cans, bikinis, loud music, and general shenanigans are easy to find, along with plenty of police officers and DUI checkpoints, too.

But that doesn’t mean that the Salt River isn’t a worthy kayaking destination. Indeed, it’s a favorite of the metro Phoenix paddling community. Cool water, easy paddling, scenic views, memorable wildlife, and close proximity make it an excellent retreat from the city.

Four kayakers paddle down the river with cliffs behind them
Kayaking the Salt River is one of the premier summertime activities near Phoenix

This guide covers all the basics you need to know to kayak the Salt River.

Quick summary

Season: May-Oct
Ideal cfs: 500-1500
Experience level: Novice
Rapids: mostly Class I
River Miles: ~12
Vehicle shuttle required
Parking fee: $8 (Tonto Pass)

What time of year can you kayak the Salt River?

This stretch of the Salt River depends on periodic water releases from the Stewart Mountain Dam. The most consistent of these releases occur between mid-May and mid-October. Luckily, there’s a river gauge just below the dam where you can check the streamflow. This is public data, so you check the official USGS source, SRP’s website, or use something else like River app. The ideal flow for kayaking is between about 500-1500 cfs. The bare minimum flow you’d need is about 300cfs, though you may need to get out and drag your kayak through some shallows at that level.

Here are the current river conditions:

stream flow for Lower Salt River
Here’s the updated water flow for the Lower Salt River from the USGS. The ideal flow for kayaking is between 500-1500 cfs.

Even when the gauge looks too low for a full run, you might be able to kayak further down the river. The Verde River joins the Salt River near the Phon D Sutton Recreation Area, often adding enough water to allow for a run downstream. The last mile or so of calm water approaching Granite Reef Diversion Dam features enough water to paddle year round, though it’s more lake-like in that stretch. If you’re desperate for a paddle but the Salt River isn’t cooperating, you can just as easily continue up the road to Saguaro Lake.

What time of day should you kayak?

The key to enjoying your time on the river is to either start very early, or to arrive well after the party has dissipated, or to find yourself there mid-week. My favorite time of day to kayak the Salt River is early in the morning. You’ll avoid both the worst of the summer heat and the worst of the tubers. It’s remarkably peaceful first thing in the morning, and you’ll also see more wildlife by paddling early. I recommend getting on the water no later than 7am, which means arriving closer to 6am to unload your boat and set up the car shuttle (more on that below). Salt River Recreation begins busing tubers to the river at 9am sharp, so you’ll want to be downstream of the bridge well before then.

Woman paddling during colorful sunset
Early morning is my favorite, but sunset is also a great time for kayaking the Lower Salt River.

If mornings aren’t your thing and you’d rather paddle at sunset, be sure to check out the sunset and moonrise times when you’re planning your trip. Take note that it’ll still be hot out even after the sun sets, and you still might encounter the tail end of the party-goers (while the shuttle buses end at 6pm, the party often lingers later). If it’s July or August, you’ll also want to keep your eye on any monsoon storms—it’s a good idea to avoid the river during or immediately after one of these storms.

How long does it take to kayak the Salt River?

The main stretch from Water Users to Granite Reef Dam is about 12 river miles and requires a 7 mile car shuttle. On average, it takes roughly 4 hours to paddle the whole stretch, though that depends on how fast you paddle and how fast the river is running. Some groups get it done in 3 hours while others enjoy a more leisurely 5.5 hour paddle.

My recommendation is to set aside plenty of time for your first trip and learn what your own style is.

How difficult or technical is it to paddle?

Generally this is a beginner/novice trip with only Class I rapids, two of which approach Class II during certain flow rates (and occasionally reaching Class II after some flash flood events). At the 0.5 mile mark from Water Users, you’ll encounter Snaggletooth Rapid. Later, around mile 2.0, you’ll encounter a rapid known as either Pinball Alley, Bulldog, Rattlesnake, or Rocky Road, depending on who you’re paddling with. This is the fiercest of the entire Lower Salt River, but shouldn’t give you much trouble. Under some flow rates, you’ll also encounter another wave near Coon Bluff Rec Area around mile 7.0. Take note that the difficulties of each of these changes due to water levels, flooding, or other reasons, so take this just as a guide.

Most of the rapids and ripples on the Salt River are caused by a few large submerged rocks that sit higher than the surrounding river bottom—some of which are exposed above the waterline. It’s generally pretty easy to avoid these simply by paying close attention to the river ahead of you, identifying the areas of choppy water that might indicate an obstacle, and paddling around them. 

Here are two basic—and entirely oversimplified—paddling tips for getting through what you’ll encounter on the Lower Salt River.

The most important aspect for beginners is to simply keep your boat pointed straight downstream. Where most paddlers get into trouble is by hitting an obstacle like submerged rock with the side of their boat, tipping them to one side, and thereby allowing the force of the flowing water to flood the cockpit or otherwise capsize the boat. In simplistic terms, the best way to keep your boat upright is keep the front of the boat pointed downstream as much as possible.

Another problem you may run into is bumping into lots of rocks in shallow areas of the river. Again, the primary key here is to simply keep paddling. When you stop paddling, the kayak slows down, often turns to one side, and then you run into the problem above. Remember, you can only steer and propel your kayak when the paddle is in the water.

If you do capsize…

If you do fall in, don’t panic! Your pfd should keep you safe.

In many areas, the river is shallow enough to simply stand up in if you manage to tip over. If you’re in one of those spots, the first thing to do is to alert others (a great reason to attach a waterproof whistle to your pfd). If you can safely hold on to your paddle and boat, then start making your way to shore with your items. If you can’t hold on to them, let your friends downstream collect them for you.

If you can’t easily stand up—either because the river is moving too swiftly, or because it’s too deep, or because there are more obstacles coming up—then the very first thing you’ll want to do is reposition your body to safely float down the river. Turn yourself around so that you are floating on your back with your feet aimed downstream and your knees bent. Try to keep your head tilted so you can see downriver, put your arms out to help balance and steer yourself, and hold your butt up a bit to avoid hitting any rocks. The goal here is to avoid any downstream obstacles and use your legs as shock absorbers for anything that you do run into. Once you’ve gained some control, alert others. When it’s safe to do so, maneuver yourself to the shoreline.

It can be difficult to hold on to any objects after you’ve flipped, especially if you’re still in rough water. If you can’t easily hold on to an item, let go of it and have your friends paddle ahead to retrieve it for you. If you can safely hold on to an item, it’s usually best to choose your paddle over the boat, since paddles can get damaged or lost far more easily. If you do manage to hold on to your boat, it’s usually best to wait to flip it back over until you get to shore.

I always attach my gear—especially my phone case, cooler, and dry bag—to the boat using carabiners. That way if I flip over, I don’t lose any items. If you’ve ever paddled the river, you’ll see countless lost items on the shoreline or river bottom from people who did not do this. Not only do people lose many items, but each of these becomes trash in the river. So please—lash it down before you launch!

Once you’re to the shoreline, take a moment to collect yourself and your gear, drain any water from your boat, and find a good spot to re-launch from.

Renting a kayak for the Salt River

What kind of kayak should you rent?

Just about any kayak will do on this easy stretch of the Salt River. Sit-on-tops seem to be the most common, followed by sit-ins, followed by inflatables. Overall, I’d say that’s in line with my personal preferences for this stretch of river. But don’t get me wrong, if I only had an inflatable available, I wouldn’t hesitate using it.

salt river kayaking in stillwater
Just about any kayak will do on this stretch of the Salt River, where stillwater is only briefly interrupted by minor rapids.

Sit-on-tops are great because they’re very stable and they don’t make some new paddlers as nervous as the enclosed cockpit of sit-ins. But sit-ins perform the best, even if they require a bit more skill to keep upright. Inflatables are the easiest to transport—no doubt about that—and are very stable but don’t perform as well, especially when it comes to tracking a straight line at slower speeds. Luckily, performance isn’t much of a concern on a river like this. You’ll have fun whatever you paddle.

Where to rent kayaks?

I recommend renting kayaks from the Arizona Hiking Shack, which is near 32nd Street & Thomas in east Phoenix. They have both sit-on-top kayaks and inflatable kayaks available for rent as either single-person or doubles. Single-person kayaks run $35/day while doubles are $45/day. All of their kayaks come with paddle and personal floatation devices (pfd), and inflatables also come with a manual pump. They’ve always provided me the necessary river straps to transport rental boats on my vehicle. You can also rent a variety of other accessories, or purchase something new from their shop. They also sell Tonto Passes.

Redline also rents a number of boats these days and is a popular option, too. Previously known as East Valley Kayak Rentals, this outfit is located near Higley and McKellips in Mesa. Single kayaks rent for $45/day ($40 if paying in cash), while doubles cost $65/day ($60 if paying in cash).

REI Adventures is another rental option. REI rents inflatable kayaks for $35 (singles) and $50 (doubles) for “1 day” rentals, which means picking them up and returning them the same day between 8am and 5pm. For an extra $10, you can keep them for a full 24 hours. REI also offers river delivery and shuttle for only $15 per boat. That means that they meet you at the river with the kayak and help you set up the shuttle for your driver; the fee also includes one Tonto Pass for your vehicle. You’ll need advance reservations, and this service is only offered between 10am and 4pm, but otherwise this could be an excellent option.

There are a handful of other places you can rent from, including both individuals or other non-storefront locations; you can often find these advertising on craigslist and elsewhere. You can also rent kayaks from Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch by booking one of their unguided tours.

What to bring kayaking

There are a number of basic items you’ll want to bring kayaking on the Lower Salt River. During kayaking season, I recommend keeping them all in one place, such as a plastic tote bin, so that it’s easy to grab before your trip without forgetting anything.

Kayak + paddle
Duh. You’ll never live it down if you arrive without either of these two items.

PFD
It’s federal law to have a PFD for each person onboard, and it just makes sense to wear it. After all, PFDs that you’re not wearing typically aren’t useful to you after you’ve fallen into the water. Buy one that’s comfy so you’re more inclined to use it.

Hat or visor
Unless you’re paddling at night, you’ll probably want a hat or visor. Luckily, if you’re launching in the early morning, you’ll be paddling with the sun at your back.

Sunglasses
Trust me, you’ll want to bring these. If you have prescription glasses or sunglasses, you might want to bring a croakies-style glasses strap to keep them secured to your head in case you end up in the water.

Sunscreen
Don’t forget to put on plenty of sunscreen before you launch. And keep in mind that you’ll need to reapply it when you stop for a break. Or better yet, wear long-sleeved UV protection shirts that will ensure you stay covered (it’s easy to keep these wet, which helps keep you cooler). Remember to add sunscreen to your legs, inner thighs, knees, and feet—all of which may be exposed during your paddle.

Appropriate clothes
You’ll want to wear clothes that are comfortable while wet (e.g., not your standard cotton t-shirt). I usually wear a swimsuit and a long-sleeved synthetic shirt with UV protection. Some people wear lightweight hiking or yoga pants to help protect their legs from the sun. Whatever you wear, make sure that you’ll enjoy wearing it even when it’s soaking wet.

Towel
You may want to dry off if you go for an unexpected swim, and it’s also useful to keep a dry one in your vehicle, too.

Dry bag
These are particularly important for keeping everything dry in case you tip over. Be sure to clip your bag to the boat with a carabiner so that it doesn’t float away if you capsize (this goes for all items on your boat, including coolers). I always bring several ziplock baggies, just in case I need them.

Sandals or water shoes
You’ll likely get your feet wet at some point during the trip, so I recommend wearing sandals with heel straps (like Chacos or Tevas—not flip flops that can easily fall off and float away if you capsize) or water shoes. Some people use neoprene booties, but I suggest sticking with something a bit more substantial. Good traction is useful, as submerged rocks can be quite slippery.

Water
Always bring (and drink) water, even if you’ve brought other beverages. This is the desert, after all.

Snacks
Most groups take a break halfway through the paddle, which makes for a perfect time for a quick snack.

Whistle
Federal regulations require every boat, including kayaks, to have a signaling device on board—and a whistle is your best option on the Lower Salt River. Even if it wasn’t required, I find it useful to have, especially to communicate with friends ahead or behind me on the river. Just be sure to let everyone know what the signal code is prior to hitting the water.

Optional items

Cooler
Most paddlers bring a cooler to keep their beverages cold. I strongly recommend a cooler with a zipper, as the others will usually dump all of their contents if you tip over. Not only are you then without your beverages, but you’ve also created more river trash. As with all gear, make sure to lash your cooler to your boat.

If you bring adult beverages, remember to leave the glass at home. Also keep in mind that the Bush Highway is heavily patrolled by sheriff deputies. Play it safe and find a designated driver.

Kayaking gloves
Most people on the Salt River don’t use kayaking gloves, but they can be nice if you often get blisters while paddling. If your paddle starts to get hot in the sun, it’s easy enough to quickly dunk it in the water to cool it off.

A change of clothes for the car
This is especially useful if you plan on grabbing a post-paddle beer or lunch with your paddling friends.

Cold drinks for the car
Trust me, it’s great to have a cold beverage on hand while you load your kayak and gear in the hot sun after a long paddle. I usually bring some extras in case a paddling partner needs one, too.

Headlamp
If you’re paddling near sunset or by moonlight, be sure to bring a headlamp. A white light is required by law, and it’s important to have if something goes wrong. Be sure to test the batteries before you leave home, and better yet, carry some extras in case you need them.
It’s also helpful to add a couple glow sticks or other small lights on the front and back of every boat so everyone can see where each boat is. You want these to be bright enough that others can see where your boat is, but not so bright as to impair your night vision. And, please tie them securely so they don’t fall off and become river trash.

Bug spray
Depending on the time of year, there can be swarms of tiny flying insects (including mosquitos) near where people launch and take-out and in a few other short stretches on the river. If you hate dealing with flying insects, you might want to bring some bug spray or even a cheap bug head net.

An extra trash bag (and gloves or a “picker-upper” tool)
It’s our collective responsibility to keep the river clean, but not everyone takes this responsibility to heart. While it’s frustrating to come across someone else’s trash, it’s even more frustrating to know that it’ll remain there unless we pick it up. Help do your part to make kayaking the river a more enjoyable experience by picking up any trash you see during your trip. I end each trip with numerous pieces of trash I’ve collected along the journey.

Bilge pump
If you don’t have a self-bailing boats, you may want to bring a bilge pump—a manual hand pump that can be used to get excess water out of your kayak’s cockpit. Alternatively, you can also bring something like a plastic drink cup that you can use to scoop out water. I generally don’t worry about this on the Salt River, where the cool water helps keep you refreshed and it’s easy to stop to drain your boat if needed.

Kayak cart
While it’s general paddler courtesy to help carry your group’s boats down to the launch point (or back to the vehicles at the take-out), some people prefer using a kayak cart—a two-wheeled contraption that you attach to one end of your boat.

Gloves for your vehicle
If you’re transporting your boat on top of your vehicle, you may want to bring some gloves to avoid burning your hands while loading—after all, your vehicle has been in the sun for hours and it’s likely very hot.

You’ll need a Tonto Pass

In order to park at any of the recreation areas along the Lower Salt River, you’ll need a Tonto Pass.

Quite a few kayakers carpool to the river in order to save on Tonto Passes. I highly encourage this, as it also reduces parking issues at the recreation sites (especially Granite Reef). Paddling groups routinely meet in shopping center parking lots near Power and McDowell and leave vehicles there during their kayaking trips. As long as you park at the edges of the parking lots, you shouldn’t encounter any problems.

Which Tonto Pass do you need?

There are two primary options for Tonto Passes: a $8 Daily Pass and a $80 Discovery Pass, which is good for one year. If you’re just starting out kayaking the Salt River, I’d recommend grabbing a daily pass. The daily pass requires you to scratch off the appropriate date and time before displaying it, so you can easily stock up on a few without “starting the clock,” so to speak.

A quick side note: because these passes are only good for 24 hours from the time you validate it, you may need more than one to do an overnight trip on one of the lakes (no overnight dispersed camping is allowed along the Salt River itself).

If you recreate often along the Salt River, the annual Discovery Pass might be cheaper for you. If you’re a senior or disabled, you qualify for a discounted $60 annual Senior or Access Discovery Pass.

Note that you do not need an additional Watercraft Pass if you are using a non-motorized boat, like a kayak, packraft, or canoe.

Where can you buy a Tonto Pass?

Tonto pass
You’ll probably need a Tonto Pass for your trip.

Tonto Daily Passes can be purchased from Tonto National Forest offices, online, by mail or by phone, or at a long list of local retailers (pdf). Here’s slightly-outdated google map showing all of the vendor locations; I suspect that most all of these locations are still active resellers, but you might want to call first to be sure. I usually buy mine at one of the gas stations near Power & McDowell on my way to the river.

Some of the recreation sites also have a kiosk where you can buy them. I try to rely on these only as a last resort, however, since the machines aren’t always working and there is a convenience fee added to the charge.

The annual Discovery, Senior, and Access Passes are only sold at Tonto National Forest offices, and you’ll need to bring ID or proof of your disability. Each of these passes is issued to one individual who must sign the back of the pass. The pass then covers all occupants of a single, private noncommercial vehicle as along as long as the pass holder is present.

Does the America the Beautiful Pass/Interagency Pass work?

An America the Beautiful Annual Pass (also known as the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands, or interagency pass) covers your vehicle when you park and kayak from the sites along the Lower Salt River. You can purchase an America the Beautiful Annual Pass online, in person at a number of federal recreation areas and offices, or at select retailers, such as REI. Please note that online orders are not fulfilled electronically and include an additional processing fee. I prefer to purchase my annual pass at my favorite local national park, which gets to retain a portion of the sale price for its local operations.

In previous years, there was substantial confusion, even among some Tonto National Forest rangers and staff, on whether the America the Beautiful pass covered kayakers on the Salt River. As a result, quite a few kayakers had been mis-told (and some even ticketed) for using an America the Beautiful pass in the past. However, that confusion was finally remedied and everyone now seems to be on the same page—the America the Beautiful annual pass is indeed accepted at all the Lower Salt River recreation sites.

Salt River kayaking map

Below you’ll find a custom google map of some of the locations mentioned in this guide.

How to get to the Salt River

There are three ways to get to the Lower Salt River, which is accessible solely via the Bush Highway. The first is to drive north on Power Road from the Loop-101 freeway in northeast Mesa. Power Road heads north for a few miles before turns east and becomes Bush Highway, passing each of the river’s main recreation areas and roughly paralleling the river until reaching Saguaro Lake.

Alternatively, further east you can drive north on Ellsworth Road, which becomes Usery Pass Road and connects with the Bush Highway a few miles later. When arriving at Bush Highway via this route, Blue Ridge, Pebble Beach, Water Users and Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch will be to your right, whereas Coon Bluff, Phon D Sutton, and Granite Reef will be to your left. If you went straight, you’d arrive at Salt River Recreation, the outfit that runs the busy tubing rental and shuttle service for the river.

The other way to find the Lower Salt River is via Exit 199 from “The Beeline,” Hwy 87. This might be most convenient for those coming from the north valley via Shea Blvd and Fountain Hills. At the top of the off-ramp, turn south and follow the road past Saguaro Lake.

For more information on the various segments you can paddle—and why you might choose one over anothe—check out the Complete Guide to Kayaking the Salt River.

Where to launch from

There are a number of places you can launch from. I’ll take them in order, starting at the furthest upstream put-in. You’ll need a Tonto Pass for each vehicle parked in each place mentioned below, except the privately-run Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch.

salt river water users launch
Preparing to launch from Water Users Recreation Area.

Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch

This is the furthest spot upstream to launch, just a bit down river from Stewart Mountain Dam. The longest trip you can do on the Lower Salt River starts here and ends about 13 river miles later at Granite Reef. The best part of launching from the ranch is the first 3 minutes: you almost immediately hit some fun rapids as the river turns hard right under some magnificent cliffs. After you clear the rapids, look up—you might see an eagle perched high above you. It’s my favorite stretch of the entire river, even though it’s just a few minutes upstream from the first public launching spot. The actual put-in here at the ranch is a bit more difficult than a sandy beach, but the views are worth it.

View of Goldfield Mountains and Salt River from a blue kayak
The views from Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch make up for its rocky put-in.

Because this launch starts at a private guest ranch, you’ll need to pay for the privilege. One option is to book what the ranch calls a “self-guided tour.” That basically covers your parking fee, boat and gear rental, and a shuttle back to the ranch. Roughly two-hour “tours” cost $50 while the longer 4.5 hour trips run $75. You’ll need a reservation for both of the tours. If you’re just looking to launch from the ranch, you can instead pay $15 per vehicle (includes one boat), plus $5 for each additional boat. You’ll need to check in with the front desk to pay and obtain a parking pass before you launch, and the ranch requires you to remove your vehicle by 3pm.

Water Users

This large parking lot is where most tubers start, and it’s also the most common put-in for longer kayaking trips down the Salt River. Water Users is located just a few minutes downstream of Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch and requires a Tonto or Interagency Pass to park at. This rec area is no frills—it’s really just a place to park while you paddle or float the river. There are pit toilets here, but no drinkable water. If you fail to arrive long before (or long after) the summer tubers, you’ll regret stopping here. This is also sometimes referred to as Stop 1 for the tubers.

“The Bridge”

There are two recreation areas on the immediate east side of the bridge over the Salt River. The downstream/north area is called Blue Point, while the more expansive area across the highway is called Pebble Beach. Both are popular areas to launch kayaks for shortened trips down the river.

kayaks on beach with river in background
Kayakers preparing to launch from Blue Point beach with wild horses on the opposite riverbank

This is also a great spot to launch for those who want to avoid the rapids of Bulldog Canyon (sometimes referred to as ‘Pinball Alley’), the most extensive set of rapids on the Lower Salt River. In spite of its smaller parking lot, Blue Point is a bit preferable as the shoreline is closer to the parking lot so you won’t have to carry your boat as far. Also, the river flattens out and is more shallow near the bridge, so it’s easier to start on the other side of the ripples, especially in low water. The river around Pebble Beach can also get rather crowded with non-kayakers, so it can be easier to just avoid dodging kids swimming or fisherman stading in the river by launching downstream of the bridge.

There are pit toilets at both sites, but no running water. Don’t forget that you’ll need a Tonto or Interagency Pass to park at both Pebble Beach and Blue Point. Pebble Beach is also known as Stop 2 by the tubers.

Granite Reef

If you’re looking for more of a workout, you can also put-in at the Granite Reef Recreation Area—traditionally, the last take-out of the Lower Salt River stretch before the Granite Reef Dam. From here, you can only paddle upstream, against the slow flow of the river. However, this area is nearly always flat, slow-moving water that more closely resembles a lake than a fast flowing river. It’s also your best and easiest option for a quick paddle during low flow periods.

Where to take out

Phon D Sutton

Phon D Sutton is the most convenient and the most popular ending spot for Salt River kayaking trips. Finding the take-out is extremely easy; just aim for the small beachy area on the far left as you approach the large rock outcropping that sticks out into the river. This popular rock area will almost certainly be filled with various people fishing, sunbathing, or otherwise enjoying the river. Disembark here and carry your boat up the small hill to your left and you’ll find yourself at the parking lot.

Phon D Sutton has pit toilets, picnic shelters, and both a large parking lot and a secondary lot further back. Be sure to park your vehicles in the back half of the first parking lot area. The path you’ll later carry your boats up emerges between the two picnic shelters, so aim to park in a spot close by.

Granite Reef

Granite Reef is the end of the line for kayaking trips on the Lower Salt River. Unfortunately, it’s also home to the fewest parking spaces of any of the main recreation areas, so you may want to start a bit earlier than normal if you’re planning on parking several vehicles here. Alternatively, you can set up a “reverse” car shuttle—more on that below.

Granite Reef is also home to the smallest landing, so it make take a few moments to empty a crowd off the river. In fact, the take-out can be a bit hard to find from the river. There is a medium-sized palm tree on the north bank—river right—that you should keep an eye out for. The take-out is nearly directly across the river from the tree, tucked into a small nook. If you can’t find a parking space at Granite Reef, there’s a dirt pull-off about 4/10ths of a mile east.

How to set up a car shuttle

The great thing about kayaking a river is that the water does half the work for you—whether or not you paddle, you’re heading downstream. The bad part of kayaking a river is that you’re heading downstream, so you’ll need to arrange a car shuttle.

The only exception for the Salt River is if you’re launching from Granite Reef. The water is more lake-like down near the dam, so it’s possible to paddle up river up a bit and then float back down to your car. Unfortunately, that’s not really an option for the rest of the river. If you’ve paid for a tour from the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, then you’ll be receiving a ride back courtesy of the ranch and you can skip this section.

You’ll need at least two vehicles for the car shuttle, and each vehicle will require a Tonto Pass. It’s a bit easier if you have more than 2 cars and more than 2 people, as it allows you to have someone you know keep an eye on your boats.

  1. Drive the boats to the launch site. Drop off your boats and any gear that you want for the trip. You’ll probably want to leave at least one person here to watch your stuff.
  2. Drive all the vehicles to the take-out where you’ll leave them for later. I like leaving a cold beverage and a towel in my vehicle so I have it when I finish the paddle.
  3. Using as few vehicles as possible, drive everyone back up to the take-out.
  4. Launch your boats and enjoy your paddle down the river.
  5. When you’re done kayaking, someone will need to drive the owner(s) of the vehicle(s) used in step 3 back to their vehicles parked at the put-in while everyone else loads their boats into their own vehicles.

You can also reverse this scenario and drop off a sufficient number of vehicles at the take-out first, on your way to the put-in. This adds a bit of difficulty in that you’ll need to transport all of the boats up to the put-in using fewer vehicles than they arrived in, but it’s one way to deal with the lack of parking spaces at Granite Reef.

A third alternative to dealing with Granite Reef’s limited parking is to follow the normal car shuttle routine but to leave one or more vehicles at Phon D Sutton or one of the pull-offs along the Bush Highway. At the end of the paddle, drivers can be shuttled back to their vehicles before heading back to the take-out to retrieve their boats. As you can imagine, I usually prefer to end at Phon D Sutton to avoid these logistical challenges.

Can’t arrange for a vehicle shuttle? Here are some alternatives to a vehicle shuttle.

Other things to consider

Salt River wild horses

Three Salt River Wild Horses grazing on the riverbank
Salt River wild horses grazing along the riverbank

Yes, it’s common to see “wild” horses during a paddle. While recent legislation officially bestows the name “wild horses” upon the herd, they’re not exactly wild, at least in the truest sense of the word. Unlike other native wildlife, these horses did not evolve with the Salt River landscape, but are descendants of domesticated horses.

Nonetheless, many paddlers enjoy seeing them. You’re most likely to see some if you paddle in the early morning. Feel free to take photos, but please don’t disturb them. They also often cross the Bush Highway, so please be careful while driving. Originally stuck in a legal limbo, these horses are now protected under state law. There is a local nonprofit that helps to manage the herd, and you may encounter volunteers who try to keep people from harassing them.

Learning how to kayak

Arizona Hiking Shack, REI Paradise Valley, and REI Chandler locations offer short classes on kayaking and can help you choose the proper gear. Arizona Game and Fish Department also offers some education courses, as do a number of other groups.

Finding other people to kayak the Salt River with

The easiest way to find people to paddle with is by joining a Phoenix-area Meetup group. There are a few kayaking-focused groups, including Paddle Arizona, Phoenix Kayak Club, and Just Add Water Paddlers, among others. Each of these groups offers nearly-weekly kayaking trips down the Salt River. A number of other meetup groups offer Salt River kayaking events, even if they aren’t primarily a paddling group. A quick search will likely yield several scheduled trips.

There’s also a Facebook group for Lower Salt River Kayakers where people more informally meet up for trips together, as well as one focused on organizing shuttles called Lower Salt River Shuttle Connection. And if you’re still striking out, check out this post about ways to make more outdoor recreation friends.

Want to take it to the next level?

Check out the Complete Guide to Kayaking the Salt River ebook, which contains roughly 6 times more detail, lots of insider tips, and other interesting content you won’t find in any other guide out there.