Floating Down the Salt River – Phoenix, Arizona

Summer brings a brutal heat over the Arizona desert and people flock to rivers and lakes around the Phoenix area to find some relief from it. One of the most popular summer activities near Phoenix is taking a float down the Salt River. Tubing down the river offers a great way to get outside and enjoy the desert scenery with family and friends, and you don’t have to travel too far outside of the city to do so. Here are the details of spending a day floating down the Salt River.

The Salt River winds through beautiful desert landscape
The Salt River winds through beautiful desert landscape

Salt River Tubing Company

There is a company providing tube rentals and a shuttle service that takes visitors from the rental shop and parking area to various points along the Salt River. If you don’t have your own gear or just want the convenience of the shuttle, this is a great option.

Getting There:

When coming from Mesa, exit onto Power Road. This will turn into Bush Highway. The parking lot and rental shop sit about 8 miles down this road. The parking area is well marked with plenty of signs, and it is also shown on Google Maps. We recommend arriving early to secure a parking spot and avoid having to wait in long lines in the heat.

Hours:

The Salt River Tubing season begins sometime in April or May and ends sometime in September depending on water flow. The operating hours are from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. daily, but gear rentals are not permitted past 2 p.m. The last shuttle runs at 6:30 p.m.

Some holidays and water flow may affect hours and season length, so always check the website for updates.

Cost:

It costs $19 USD per person (as of the 2021 season) for those looking to rent a tube and ride the shuttle. If you have your own tube and just want to ride the shuttle, it costs $16 USD. You may pay in cash or credit and must bring a valid driver’s license to be able to rent tubes. Salt River Tubing will not inflate tubes that are not theirs and will not shuttle huge rafts or kayaks.

If you have a cooler, trash bag, backpack, or other belongings you want to bring on the river, they offer cooler tubes of varying sizes for rent for $17. There is a container within the tube to keep belongings from falling out the bottom.

The storage tube holding our cooler and dry bag
The storage tube holding our cooler, shoes, and dry bag

Tubing the Salt River on Your Own

It is possible to float down the Salt River without utilizing Salt River Tubing if you have your own tubes and two vehicles to park at your starting and stopping point. This is a great option because it is cheaper, you can go on your own time, and you don’t have to wait in lines for rentals or the shuttle.

Cost:

There are a few points to put in your tubes – we’ll highlight them below. At each of these points, there are parking areas where you must have a Tonto National Forest pass. These can be purchased at these lots or online and cost $8 per vehicle. Display them in your car.

You can also use an America the Beautiful annual parks pass which covers the recreation cost at these sites and many others in Tonto.

Float Trip Routes

As mentioned above, there are multiple Salt River access points that entail float trips of varying lengths. Reference the map below. Note that there are other points in Tonto National Forest where you can access the Salt River, but the points highlighted below are those used by Salt River Tubing and are most popular among those tubing independently.

Salt River Tubing Float Trip Map

The numbered green and yellow dots all mark parking areas and shuttle stops. Point 3 (yellow dot) marks the Salt River Tubing headquarters. If parking here, you don’t need to pay for a Tonto National Forest day pass, but you must pay for the shuttle. There is no direct water access from this point.

Points 1, 2, and 4 (green dots) can be accessed by shuttle or your own private vehicle. If you park at these spots, a Tonto Pass is required.

Here are the varying float trips with the estimated times provided by Salt River Tubing:

Point 1-2: 1.5-2 hours. Water Users Recreation Site to Pebble Beach.

Point 2-4: 2.5-3 hours. Pebble Beach to Goldfield.

Point 1-4: 4-5 hours. Water Users Recreation Site to Goldfield

Float times can vary depending on water flow. If taking the shuttle, you can catch it after your float at point 2 or 4, and they’ll take you back to point 3 – the Salt River Tubing parking area.

A fun trip down the river with Lia's parents
A fun trip down the river with Lia’s parents

What to Expect When Floating the Salt River

Wilderness

Any of the float trips mentioned above will give you a beautiful glimpse of the desert that surrounds Phoenix. As you make your way down the Salt River, you’ll see rugged cliffs, plenty of saguaros, other vegetation that grows around this water source, and the wildlife that also flourishes here.

If you spend some time in Tonto National Forest, you’ll likely see the wild horses that live there. They often come to the Salt River, so you may see them wading as you float. Don’t disturb them for your safety and theirs.

Both wildlife and humans know that the Salt River is a great place to cool off! The summer temperatures in Arizona frequently climb over 110˚F, but the water stays nice and cool. While floating, be sure to stay hydrated and use sun protection.

Lastly, Salt River Tubing has implemented a clean-up crew to help keep the Salt River trash-free. However, it is important that we all do our part to keep the area clean to preserve the habitat so that everybody can enjoy it. There are trash cans at the various entry/exit points.

A wild horse in Tonto National Forest
A wild horse in Tonto National Forest

Crowds

Floating the Salt River is a great way to get outside, but don’t be expecting a quiet day in nature. This is an incredibly popular activity in the summer, especially on weekends and holidays. The river is a frequented spot among college students, and heavy drinking and music aren’t uncommon. On busy days, people can be waiting in line for a couple hours for the shuttle and tube rentals in the hot sun. People have passed out from heat exhaustion while waiting, so bring plenty of water. Parking can also be harder to come by.

You won’t likely have the river to yourself, but to avoid the busiest times, arrive early and avoid weekends and holidays. We found the river to be the least busy on a weekday in September, and it was actually pretty peaceful.

The river is an awesome place to spend time with friends and family. Have a blast, but keep it respectful and just remember that there are others trying to enjoy it too.

The Salt River was surprisingly quiet in September
The Salt River was surprisingly quiet in September

Getting In and Out of the Salt River

Visitors have only a short walk from the parking areas and shuttle stops to the river. The river entry and exit points are pretty obvious. Before beginning to float, make sure all of your clothing and items are secured to your tube. When getting in, taking a dip, and getting out, keep track of your tube to prevent it from floating away. Salt River Tubing charges $30 for lost tubes, which must be paid in cash.

As you reach your point of exit, start to paddle your way over to that side of the river in advance. That way, you won’t overshoot it or have to hop out on the rocks in the middle of the river.

Preparing to hop into the river
Preparing to hop into the river

Safety

This isn’t to scare anybody from doing this activity, but people do get injured have drowned while on the Salt River. Take the proper precautions to have a fun and safe day.

Salt River Tubing requires that children be 8 years of age and 4 feet tall to rent tubes and ride the shuttle. If you are tubing independently with children, use your best judgement.

The rapids at the Salt River aren’t anything to wild. There are some spots that move quickly, but it’s not like white water rafting. Some spots along the float are pretty shallow, so lift up your butt to avoid a bruised tailbone. Other areas are calm and deep enough for swimming. Tubes can occasionally flip, so we’d recommend a life vest for smaller kids or anybody in your party not comfortable swimming.

Even on the river, the desert sun can take a toll, so be sure to stay hydrated (not just with beer). Glass containers are not permitted and rangers and cops frequently patrol to check coolers and watch for drunk drivers. Though there are officials patrolling, we recommend leaving valuables at home and locking your car.

Sunset in beautiful Tonto National Forest
Sunset in beautiful Tonto National Forest

What to Bring to the Salt River

Payment Method: If you need to purchase a Tonto National Forest pass, rent tubes, or take the shuttle, you’ll need a card or cash.

Pass: If you already have a national park pass or Tonto pass that you intend to use, bring it to display in your car.

Driver’s License: You’ll need to present your license if you want to rent tubes. If you pay with card, the driver’s license and the name on the card must match.

Tubes: If you aren’t renting tubes, don’t forget your own!

Sun Protection: Sun exposure on the Salt River is pretty intense, so bring a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen.

Water: Staying hydrated is important!

Food & Drink: You may want to bring extra beverages and snacks, especially if you intend to take the long float. Alcohol is permitted, but no glass containers.

Cooler: with ice – an essential for a refreshing, cold beverage.

Dry Bag: Having a bag to store keys, money, clothes, and other items and keep them dry is helpful. We just kept our dry bag secured to the extra tube.

Water Shoes: The landscape around the Salt River is full of cacti and sharp rocks baking in the sun. The bottom of the river is also rocky, so we recommend old sneakers, Chacos, or other sandals to protect your feet. You can always take them off while you float if desired.

Rope/Carabiners: Carabiners or short rope can be helpful to secure your cooler, sandals, bag, etc. to the tube. Salt River Tubing does not recommend it, but you’ll also see many people tying their tubes together.

Trash Bag: Keep the area clean and pack out all your trash. Having a trash bag to toss beverage cans, wrappers, and more in will help prevent those items from floating away and littering the river.

Life Vest: If anybody in your group needs a life vest, bring one with because Salt River Tubing does not have them for rent.

GoPro: If you want to snap some photos, bring along a GoPro or other waterproof camera.

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