Not far from the edge of Greater Phoenix, a magical kingdom exists. Here, in the midst of the wide-open Sonoran Desert, the waters of the Salt River wind south and west. The water flows year-round thanks to releases from the Stewart Mountain Dam, creating a gem-like oasis shaded by leafy trees and canyon cliffs, that's alive with everything from tiny fish to wild horses. It’s a magnet for recreation, attracting anglers, picnickers and adventurers float down this steady stream via inner tubes, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.
One thing about the Salt River that most visitors to the Greater Phoenix area may not realize, is that this magic is easy to plan, with little to no experience needed, thanks to a wide variety of nearby outfitters. And it's just as worthy of your bucket list as any other excursion in the Sonoran Desert.
Jonique Beach, Wildhorse Paddleboards. Visit Phoenix/Foskett Creative.
“You feel like you’re somewhere totally different from your everyday life,” says Jonique Beach, of the waterway. She’s floated the Salt River since childhood and is now the owner of Wildhorse Paddleboard Rentals, a local gear rental company. “You’re in your own happy bubble there, on the water.”
Jonique first tried paddleboarding on an Arizona lake, then discovered the enchantment of taking her board on the Salt River. Soon, her children and husband joined the adventure, then friends.
“Our garage was filling up with paddleboards,” she recalls. “I decided to officially start my company ... because everyone kept asking if they could rent my boards.” As such, Jonique offers equipment and insider tips for how – and where – to take to the water, then sets renters out to enjoy the wonders of the Salt River on their own.
The 200-mile river has its headwaters in the mountains of northeastern Arizona and joins the Gila River southeast of Phoenix. For centuries, its life-giving waters sustained Native peoples – the ancient Hohokam dug irrigation canals from the river to water their crops in order to feed a civilization from the early A.D. years to approximately to 1450.
Today, the river passes through the Fort Apache, Fort McDowell Yavapai and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian communities. In the early 20th century, several dams were built to create reservoirs on the river, providing much of the water for Greater Phoenix.
About 40 miles from downtown Phoenix, a 12-mile section of the river is known as the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. The section falls largely within the Tonto National Forest and stretches from below the Saguaro Lake reservoir to Granite Reef Dam. Its proximity invites aqua adventurers, like Jonique, to spend time in the river from late spring to early fall, the season during which the dams release more water to meet the needs of the summer months. During other times of the year, areas like Granite Reef offer more of a lake-like paddling experience.
Between 400 and 500 wild horses call the Salt River home. Visit Phoenix/Foskett Creative.
“You never know what you’ll see when you’re on the river,” says Jonique, who spends up to five days a week paddling or organizing volunteer groups to clean up the river’s edges. “I’ve seen bobcats and bald eagles nesting. Two years ago, I spotted a mountain lion, hiding behind the trees.”
Indeed, this riparian ecosystem supports biological diversity, with huge cottonwoods, lacy willows, cattails and mesquite bosques providing shelter and shade. Besides eagles, you might see herons, ducks, egrets, owls and scores of migratory birds fluttering at the river’s banks. Desert suckers, rainbow trout, bass, sunfish and Sonoran mud turtles also call the waters home. Skunks, raccoons, javelinas, coyotes, deer and bighorn sheep are known to make guest appearances, too.
But it’s the wild horses that draw the biggest smiles (and snapshots) from rivergoers. The herd, estimated to number between 400 and 500, has found a home along the water since the early 1900s. They’re unbranded and unclaimed, protected by law (stay 50 feet away from them for safety) and are managed by the nonprofit organization, Salt River Wild Horse Management Group.
“These majestic horses are the cherry on top of the river experience,” says Jonique, who has volunteered with the group. “You can never predict where or when you’ll see them along the banks or in the river. But if you do, it’s special.”
From the flora and fauna to the water depth and pace, no two days spent on the river are ever the same.
“The Salt River is ever-changing,” says Jonique. “That’s why it keeps calling me back.”
Sunset paddler. Visit Phoenix/Foskett Creative.