Paddling the Lower Salt River rapids

If you’ve ever paddled a boat, you can have a successful trip down the river. This is a novice-friendly trip with primarily Class I rapids, one of which can approach Class II during certain flow rates.

Some quick river definitions

  • Upstream: the direction the water is coming from in a river.
  • Downstream: the direction the water is flowing to in a river.
  • River left: the left side of the river as you look downstream.
  • River right: the right side of the river as you look downstream.
  • Current: the ever-present water flowing downstream in a river.
  • Eddy: an area, usually after an obstacle or river bend, where the current reverses course and moves upstream in a circular fashion, filling the void behind the obstacle. These are great places to rest or wait for others.
  • Eddyline: the boundary between the downward flow of the main current and the circulating eddy.
  • Line: a specific approach or pathway through a rapid.
  • Ledge: a wide, horizontal rock obstacle that remains submerged, but creates a drop on the downstream side, often resulting in a hole.
  • Hole: water flowing over a rock or ledge, creating a void on the other side that is filled in by a circular flow—a “vertical” eddy of sorts.
  • Entrapments: anything from rocks to submerged tree branches along the riverbed that can trap paddlers.


At the 0.5-mile mark from Water Users, you’ll encounter a small island. The majority of the river flow will curve to the right, drop into some ripples, leading to Snaggletooth Rapid. While it’s possible to bypass this rapid by staying to the left of the island, it’s quite shallow on that side, which can make for more difficult paddling than the rapid itself unless the river is flowing high.

The key to Snaggletooth is to generally stay in the middle of the river the entire way. That’s because the main current pushes you to the right, up against overhanging vegetation and towards a rock outcropping. The river curves back to the left just before this outcropping, creating a large eddy on river left. Keep an eye out for a large submerged boulder on the right, though, which creates a ledge and a small hole. There are often people fishing around this rock outcropping; I’m sure they have some fun watching tubers navigate this rapid.

Pinball, Bulldog, Rocky Road, et al

Around the 1.2-mile mark, you’ll encounter another island and need to make a decision. Going to the left puts you on course for the largest rapid on the Lower Salt River. Going to the right is the easier route, though there are a few notable rock obstacles to keep an eye out for near the end of the island, just as the river merges back together.

If you opt to paddle to the left side, around the 1.9-mile mark you’ll encounter the 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 and results from the outflow of rocks and sediment from Bulldog Canyon. 

The rapid is about 150 yards long and filled with large rocks. Generally, the deeper water is on the right side, as the canyon empties sediment from the left, but you’ll want to avoid getting too close to the overhanging vegetation on the shoreline. In low flows, Pinball can be more difficult and rather bouncy, simply because it’s difficult to dodge all of the exposed rocks. At medium flows, there are multiple lines you can paddle through the rapid. At high flows, you’ll float above many of the rocks and primarily experience a long series of splashy waves.

I usually don’t bring inexperienced first-timers on this stretch until they’ve paddled the river at least once, but it’s tamer than it used to be. Tonto National Forest staff removed some of the larger boulders that created the best waves during the 2018-2019 offseason.

The rest of the river

Beyond that, you’ll occasionally hit some ripples and will need to dodge a few submerged rocks and holes, but it’s generally smooth paddling. Under some flow rates, you’ll also encounter another wave near Coon Bluff around mile 7.0. If you follow the two general rules below, you should make it through just fine.

Take note that the river changes regularly due to water levels, flooding, or other reasons, so take this just as a guide.

Paddling through rapids

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. 

While it doesn’t take much experience to learn to spot and avoid the simple hazards you’re likely to encounter on the Salt River, I nonetheless recommend that you take the time to learn basic paddling skills, how to read a river, and the benefits of proper technique. Doing so will improve your enjoyment of the sport and help keep you safe. I’ve included some resources later in the book that can teach you more.

For those that want to get started immediately, here are two basic—and entirely oversimplified—paddling tips for getting through what you’ll encounter on the Lower Salt River. As you gain additional training and experience, you’ll develop a deeper and more sophisticated view of river hazards and how to avoid them; however, these two simple tips will allow you to enjoy this stretch of 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.

Avoiding shoreline obstacles, including strainers and sweepers

In addition to the rapids and ripples, you’ll also need to be careful of shoreline obstacles. These tend to be the most dangerous drowning hazards found on the Lower Salt River. The easiest way to void them is to simply stay away.

Once on the river, you’ll notice that it’s common for tree branches and other vegetation to hang over the edge of the river. Since the river current flows easily under these obstacles, which are known as sweepers, it’s easy to get drawn or pushed into one if you’re not vigilant. This creates an unpleasant problem as you crash through the vegetation—causing injury or capsizing the boat, or worse.

Strainers are similar to sweepers, but far more hazardous. Strainers are submerged obstacles (such as a large tree branch) that act like a sieve, allowing some of the water through, but not larger objects like kayaks and people. These are dangerous because the force of the river current can pin you against the debris, often trapping and submerging the victim.

Undercut riverbanks are a related problem, and are often found on the fast-flowing outer edge of a river bend. You may often find sweepers and strainers and other debris hazards here. 

Given all of these hazards, it’s important to select an appropriate spot on the shoreline before choosing to disembark. Look for slow water and a gradual, slow riverbank that’s free of vegetation. If you’re close to the riverbank and can’t easily see the bottom, you’re in too deep of water and need to find a better location.