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.
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.
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.
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. on weekdays and 8 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. 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.
It costs $25 USD per person (as of the 2023 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 $18 USD.
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 $20. There is a container within the tube to keep belongings from falling out the bottom.
Reservations can now be made online in advance. You may also rent tubes and pay in cash or credit upon arrival. You must bring a valid driver’s license/ID to rent tubes. Salt River Tubing will not inflate tubes that are not theirs and will not shuttle huge rafts or kayaks.
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.
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.
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.
What to Expect When Floating the Salt River
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.
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 around an hour 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 be harder to come by on these busy days, regardless of whether you park at the Salt River Tubing or other launch spots.
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.
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. When we visited, Salt River Tubing charged $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.
This isn’t to scare anybody from doing this activity, but people do get injured and have drowned in 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. Children under 12 must wear a life jacket, which can be rented as well. 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.
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.
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/Tickets: If you already have a tubing ticket, 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.
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.
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. Salt River Tubing does not offer cooler rentals
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 using rope to tie 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 if you have it or rent one from Salt River Tubing.
GoPro: If you want to snap some photos, bring along a GoPro or other waterproof camera.