Horses & Herons & Swallows, oh my! What it’s like to Kayak Salt River

There's no need for experience if you want to paddle this peaceful class 1 float near Scottsdale, Arizona.

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Participating in a water sport may not be the first thing that comes to mind when visiting the land of saguaro cacti and rattlesnakes.

However, I daresay it should be the first thing you do when you arrive.

Chicago was a chilly 50 degrees when I entered O’Hare Airport at three in the morning. Five hours later I was floating down the Lower Salt River under a cloudless sky with temps that doubled what I’d left behind.

It was glorious. I basked. I reveled. I liberally applied sunscreen and drank gallons of water and thought to myself, “It’s not that hot…

Besides, it’s a dry heat.”

I was in Scottsdale, located in the aptly-named Valley of the Sun, for a conference. I’d flown in a couple of days early so I could explore, and my introduction to this magical land was to kayak Salt River with Arizona Outback Adventures.

Related: see the many, many things you can do when you visit Scottsdale, Arizona in my ginormous guide.

Entrance point at the Lower Salt River
Entrance point at the Lower Salt River. AOA uses a restricted location so entry is easy.

Experience Scottsdale provided my kayaking experience, but all opinions are entirely my own and not influenced in the slightest by cool water and perfect blue skies.

Guides Ben and Jillian picked me up at my hotel, the extravagantly luxurious Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa, and we headed towards Tonto National Forest. As we drove, Ben pointed out a network of canals. Those canals are vital to the region, and have been since the Hohokam began digging them by hand around 600 CE. The only North American people to use irrigation canals to water their crops, by 1300 their canals helped sustain 110,000 acres.

While their canals remained, by 1450 the Hohokam had disappeared, although the Tohono O’odham and the Pima peoples are considered direct descendants.

The Hohokam may have vanished, but their legacy is still in use and the irrigation channels are now lined with concrete. To this day, the canals divert portions of the Salt River, the flow controlled by a series of dams and lakes. By the time the water gets past Saguaro Lake and becomes the Lower Salt River, it’s calm enough for a peaceful ride.

I picked my way to the shore, avoiding all the things that could prick me. A lone man in a tube glided by as Ben and Jillian inflated the kayaks. A van with a storage trailer backed up to the water and a succession of kayakers landed, quietly exiting their crafts and piling into the outfitter’s vehicle.

Inflating kayaks at the Salt River
Jillian inflating a kayak. You can tell Ben’s a local with those long sleeves and pants!
Kayakers on the Lower Salt River
Kayakers heading to shore

They might not have been silent, but everything seemed muted. It could have been the compression in my head from my early morning flight, but I think the Lower Salt River inspired a sense of reverence. It’s like I was in church. Nature is god; god is nature.

Whatever. It was peaceful.

I needed the calm because, frankly, I was nervous. I’d never kayaked and I’m not the most athletically inclined. Jillian assured me I’d be fine, and I chose to believe her as I tumbled into the vessel. She took me through a quick tutorial and we were off.

She was right.

Clear water of the Lower Salt River with two kayaks
You can see how absolutely clear the water is.

Closer to the mountains the Salt River is a little more rambunctious, but the Lower Salt River is classified as class 1. There were a couple of spots with ripples, but for the most part it was smooth gliding. I quickly learned how to propel my craft forward, and for the next hour and forty-odd minutes Jillian and I chatted. She pointed out Pima land to our right, wild turkeys (jerks) to our left, and herons here there and everywhere.

In spots the shore was lush and green, interspersed with desert crawling right to the water with saguaro waving from the top of the crest.

Saguaro cacti at the top of a crest leading into the Salt River
Saguaro cacti at the top of a crest

We sailed by swallows darting in and out of their distinctive mud nests on a cliff. We passed cottonwoods and mesquites. With every dip of my paddle, the cool river sprinkled on my arms and legs.

We rounded a bend, and wild horses sauntered through the trees. A little further, a group of horses stood still, seemingly protecting a quite pregnant mare in the middle.

Swallows nests hang from a cliff over the Salt River
Swallows nests hang from a cliff over the Salt River
Jillian waits while we watch wild horses on the banks of the Salt River
Jillian waits while we watch wild horses
We didn't want to get too close to these wild horses, especially since the one in the middle was pregnant!
We didn’t want to get too close to these wild horses, especially since the one in the middle was pregnant!
In some spots of the Lower Salt River, the water was completely still.
In some spots, the water was completely still.

I was smitten. I may or may not have priced kayaks the minute I got into the truck.

(I totally did.)

Guess what! An inflatable kayak with oars is less than $70. I’ve got my eye on that one since I’m already a fan of Intex’s inflatable mattresses.

I didn’t want it to end, but by the time we got back to shore it was early afternoon and I was almost out of sunscreen. I grabbed a bag of almonds and sank into the back seat of the air-conditioned cab, sporting a grin that would last far beyond that experience.

Banks of the Lower Salt River in Tonto National Forest
Nearing the pull-out point

In fact, I’m grinning now.

The kayaking adventure ended
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to navigate to this pull-out point, but I made it!
Lower Salt River

Arizona Outback Adventures is part of the REI Co-Op. In addition to kayaking, they also have hiking, cycling, and stand-up paddle boarding.

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3 thoughts on “Horses & Herons & Swallows, oh my! What it’s like to Kayak Salt River”

  1. This is something I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet, but it is on my list. I will probably wait until after summer, but I will do it! I was so surprised when I moved here about the variety of water activities there are – thought I was moving to the desert!

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