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Verde River (AZ) Thru-Paddle

Trip Overview

Last October, I solo canoed the Verde River from its headwaters near Paulden, Arizona to its confluence with the Salt River east of Phoenix. The 196-mile solo canoe journey was the longest known boat trip on the river, besting the one previous thru trip in the 1980’s by four miles. The Verde is an amazing river, with stunning bedrock canyons and rich riparian forests. But it's life is threatened by over-development, ground water pumping, diversions and urbanization. You can read about my trip and the river in my book "Verde River Elegy" available from Vishnu Temple Press (www.vishnutemplepress.com) or on Amazon.

Permanent water on the Verde now begins about 1.2 miles downstream of Sullivan Dam near Paulden, but the springs that feed the river have diminished to the point where they are barely large enough to float a loaded canoe for the next several miles. By mile 4, the river can easily float a canoe, though there are many shallow riffles, strainers, and reed thickets, as well as the occasional beaver dam, that will slow your pace and stretch your muscles. Despite these challenges, this remote Class I-II reach is a stunning oasis of green, inset within a canyon of colorful bedrock cliffs. The river corridor is rich with wildlife, including a growing population of otters, which were recently reintroduced to the Verde after being trapped to extinction in the 1800s. Except for the historical railroad stop at the still-working Perkinsville ranch, and some pre-historic cliff dwellings in the canyon walls, you will see almost no human impacts in the first 20 miles of the upper Verde. A scenic tourist railway parallels the river for the last 20 miles of the upper canyon, providing twice-daily views of the train.

After leaving the upper canyon, the next 50 miles of the Verde flows through farms and open rangeland, as well as the towns of Clarkdale, Cottonwood, and Camp Verde. The so-called Verde Valley is a historical agricultural area that is rapidly transitioning to more densely populated tourist, retirement, and more traditional urban uses. This reach of the river bears the stain of human activities, with numerous irrigation diversion dams, bridge crossings, dumped trash, fences, graffiti, and depleted flow rates, but it is readily accessible with some very pleasant Class I paddling. Although not as spectacular as the canyon reaches upstream and downstream, you may still see the occasional otter or beaver, and a variety of birds in the dense foliage along the river banks.

Downstream of the Verde Valley, the river once again enters a narrow bedrock canyon. The first 20 miles of this canyon contain the largest rapids on the river, which are mostly Class II-III at low water, but can increase in severity at high flows. Verde Falls rapid (Class III-IV) is the largest of these, and requires a scout, some precise boat-handling, or a very short portage. Below the whitewater reach and the ruins of a 1920’s-vintage hotel at Verde Hot Springs, the Verde enters a federally-designated Wild and Scenic area. This 40 mile stretch of Class I-II river is very remote, with no access points until reaching the upper end of Horseshoe Reservoir and the historic Sheep Bridge Crossing. Just after entering the wilderness reach, where the river turns south near the East Verde River confluence, the vegetation on the canyon walls quickly transitions from pinyon-oak woodlands to upper Sonoran desert, with majestic saguaro cacti forests standing as sentinels above the mixed mesquite bosques and cottonwood forests that now line the river banks and narrow floodplains of the canyon floor.

After leaving the wilderness, the next 30 miles of the river consists of flatwater paddling through the reservoirs above Horseshoe and Bartlett Dams, except for a short six mile reach of flowing water between the two reservoirs. The water levels and release rates from these water storage reservoirs vary during the year, making paddling conditions and access points more difficult to predict. Both lakes are popular fishing spots, so outside of the no-wake zones, the main challenges are dodging ski-boats, well-lubricated fishermen, and up-canyon winds.

The last 30 miles of the river below the dams is once again marked by humans. Flow in the river consists entirely of dam releases dictated by millions of flushing toilets and hundreds of grassy golf courses in metropolitan Phoenix. Releases tend to be higher in the spring when the reservoirs are full, but can spike or drop at any time without much advance notice. The lack of natural floods below the dams has caused an increase in the number of strainers and overhanging vegetation along the river, but with care the Class I-II reach is easily boated throughout the year. There are many access points along the river between the dams and the Salt River confluence, although a portion of the reach lies within the Fort McDowell Yavapai Apache Nation, where access is more restricted.

The Verde River is a fantastic paddling river that can be boated at any time of year. The biggest flows, most suitable for rafts and whitewater kayaks, occur in spring when snow is melting from the upper watershed. But, as described in Verde River Elegy, winter, summer, and fall also provide excellent low-water boating opportunities.

  • Duration: Extended Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Number of Portages: 2
  • Portage Description:

    There are two long (> 1 mile) portages required at Horseshoe and Bartlett Dams. The portages follow unpaved roads. Shorter routes over rough canyon terrain closer to the dams are possible, but not recommended. Shuttle service is possible if arranged in advance.

    There are also numerous short portages around beaver dams or some rocky rapids, though almost all of these can be completely by lining or dragging a loaded boat over the obstacle.

Normal river safety rules apply.


Be on the lookout for strainers along most of the Verde, especially downstream of the major dams and where the channel becomes overgrown with invasive species.


Irrigation diversion dams and dumped trash can create obstacles in the Verde Valley.
Like much of the Southwest, flashing flooding can be a concern during summer monsoon season.

At low water, a durable boat is recommended due to many shallow, rocky riffles. Rafting is difficult at low water (< 400 cfs).

Despite what you may see on various websites, the Verde is boatable year-round and at low flows, if you are willing to bump a rock or two, or perhaps occasionally drag your boat briefly.

Locations on this Trip