Whitewater Rafting the Upper Salt River: ‘National Geographic’ Goes On An Amazing Arizona Adventure

It’s been a long time coming, my plan to go whitewater rafting on the upper Salt River near Globe, Arizona. It’s been on the back burner of my brain for some time, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would surf this untamed river in a rubber dingy as a representative of National Geographic! The plan finally materialized when my friend from Finland sent me an unexpected message that she was surprising her family by coming to Arizona for a visit.

“Do you want to go hiking with us one day when we are there?” she asked.

“Do you want to go whitewater rafting on the Upper Salt River one day?” I replied, answering her question with a question of my own.

She said she would get back to me, and we both went to work on our respective husbands. You know, she told her husband that my husband is going, and I told my husband that her husband is going. And being the real men that they are, they couldn’t show their fear of rafting one to the other….. and soon we both got “yes” as an answer. Now never mind that my husband gets severe motion sickness and claims he can’t swim, and my friend’s husband just recovered from back surgery.

I called up one company first, called Mild to Wild, but they weren’t of the negotiating type. Now, you may know me as the negotiating type. So I called another company called Wilderness Aware, and guess what? They were of the negotiating type, and I scored myself a deal! Now mind you, this rafting trip ends up still being frightfully expensive in my books, but I scored a full day of rafting including lunch for $141 per person, as opposed to over $170. So, it pays to negotiate. This reduced price includes the $25 per person Apache reservation access fee. I’m all for giving the Apaches a chunk of change for traversing their land. 

I am a bit troubled in the days leading up to our rafting trip, though. I can’t find a single soul who has gone rafting the upper Salt, no matter who I ask or who I talk to. I hope the rapids are not useless! My friend sends me a message from her husband asking if there is actually any water in the river. I laugh a bit, because I know what he is thinking….. Arizona is a dry place! But what he is neglecting to remember is that there is snow up in the high country and it’s melting….. and the rivers are running strong!  Or so I hope……

Alas, on the day of our excursion we leave from home at 6 am. It’s about a 3 hour drive to the bridge on Hwy 60 that crosses over the Salt River in the stunning Salt River Canyon. We have driven through here several times before, so I know what to expect! It’s gorgeous!

There’s a lot of people here today. I guess a lot of others had the same idea as we did. Wilderness Aware is taking a group of almost 50 paddlers on the water this morning! It’s a frenzy trying to get our gear together. They hand out wetsuit overalls, splash jackets and river shoes to all those in need. Helmets and life jackets are mandatory. The temperature is in the 50s this morning so we are happy to have all this gear available.

The Wilderness Aware website mentions that there are dressing rooms available. What they don’t mention is that the dressing room curtains blow around in the wind quite a bit. I snap a picture of Mr. Handsome in the men’s dressing room when the wind suddenly whips the curtain away from the doorway……no worries, he is decent. Some of the ladies seem really worried that they have to change in a room with other women inside. I guess they want their own private dressing stalls! 

Come on! Stop the nonsense! I barge right in and get into my nice warm wetsuit. If you’re finicky about someone seeing your underwear then wear a swimsuit underneath!

My Finnish friends are geared up and ready to hit it!

Once we are all signed in and proceed to hand in our car keys for safekeeping, we meet the lead guide for the day. I don’t make my brain remember his name. All I know is that he is beginning to annoy me. 

“What are you doing with all that stuff?” he asks me condescendingly.  “Are you taking a camera down there? Why? What do you need a camera for? What do you need your cell phone for? There’s no service down there. (DUH Like I don’t know). What are you? National Geographic? Seriously? Why do you need your big camera on the river? What? You have a GoPro, too? What’s in that bag? Seriously! What do you think you are? National Geographic?”

I just glare at him. At first I try to laugh him off, but I am becoming increasingly annoyed. “Is there a problem with me taking my camera?” I ask.

He has no answer. No worries. I am prepared. I know things can get wet when you go whitewater rafting. DUH. So I have a waterproof case for my Canon, and a dry bag in addition to that where I can put the camera if I get worried. My cell phone is in a waterproof case. Just leave me alone. What am I? National Geographic? Of course, dude! Just wait and see!

And with that we start a short walk down to the river. All the while I am feeling self-conscious and like an idiot because I have “all that stuff” with me! David is smirking, and willingly carries my paddle so I look just a little bit less idiotic.

Now this is when Mr. Leader brings out his jokes. He has magically gone from a sneering bully to Mr. Nice-Guy. He gives us a comprehensive safety lesson before we head out in the boats. 

Now I may not have told you that out of our group of six rafters I am the only one who has gone rafting before. David has always adamantly refused to go rafting before this, and now he is getting mighty nervous. The longer the safety talk goes on, the more he wonders if he should bail out now.

I hear David asking, “Are those the rafts we are going in? They look really small!”

Well, the boat seems to float. We do a few practice maneuvers before we head on down the river. Our boat is going to be the last of the bunch operated by Wilderness Aware on this morning run, since we have the special kit for dislodging boats and people from rocks. The first rapid is called “Kiss & Tell”, because if you screw up and kiss the rock wall, you will definitely have a tale to tell. 

Up ahead on the hillside you can see what looks like a rock slide scar. It’s actually mine tailings from an old asbestos mine. I guess before the EPA came on the scene the mines could dump their waste anywhere, and what could be easier than just dumping it on the hillside? Needless to say, the market for asbestos is not that strong, so the mine has long since closed operations.

Now are we ready for some fun, or are we ready for some fun? But before we get too carried away, let me introduce our river guide. This is Isaiah. Somehow he knows better than to harass me about my camera, although he does say that the only people he has seen on the river with a big camera were professional videographers. I assure him that I am a professional too…… a professional blogger….. and b.s.er….. He seems happy with that. 

Isaiah has a great sense of humor, mixed with the right amount of seriousness and professionalism to ensure our safety. We don’t tell our guide yet that one of us can’t swim, and another just recovered from back surgery….. you know….. lest he should kick them off the boat before we get started. Ha ha! Joke might be on us, but yeah!

The first couple of rapids are pretty tame, or what do you think? It’s all a blur.

Oh heavens….   we crash into a rock wall! Luckily this rig bounces so there’s no harm done.

The thundering roar of the rushing water fills my ears at every rapid. It’s thrilling beyond my expectations. The scenery is second to none. Arizona knows how to deliver beauty!

Well, that’s not so bad yet, is it? Bring it on!

Okay, we get the picture! This river has some rapids worth talking about! I guess it is flowing right now at 1700 cfs, which is not that crazy compared to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon that flows at 27,000 cfs! Just right for beginners, is all I can say. The rafting season here on the Salt is pretty limited, lasting only a couple of months.

Soon it is time to stop for lunch. The river guides get to work right away making us lunch. I guess this is where all the employees for the rafting companies camp out for the duration of the rafting season.


Or beef…….

The lunch hits the spot, no doubt. Fajitas are tasty in the wilderness.

David would normally have pretty bad motion sickness by now, but we came well prepared. He has a scopolamine patch on to prevent nausea and dizziness from bouncing around in the raft.

Now…..later on the bus ride out of this canyon might be more of a problem for David’s motion sickness, but I am not going to say anything to him now…..

The boats are waiting patiently to be loaded up again. After lunch we will hit the only Class IV rapid on this run, which is called Mescal Rapid. There are about a total of 14 rapids that we traverse today, of which some are Class II and others Class III. So far so good! We are ready for the Class IV!

Are we ready for the Class IV? YES!!!!

Do you want to say a prayer before we hit it?

No? Okay! All aboard!!!!! Let’s do it!


Holy Smokes! Mescal Rapid is the bomb! One of the boats ahead of us lost three people into the river! We are golden!

“Nice JOB, everyone!!!!” yells Isaiah. We are laughing like crazy kids.

Our rafting trip is over. Now for the crazy part. Have you ever heard of “Apache Hwy #1”? Well, I hadn’t either. Trust me…… it’s not a highway, by any stretch. It’s a rinky dink trail that is blazed into the sides of the canyon walls that tower above the Salt River. And we are going into this rickety old school bus, which is going to drive the approximate 10 miles back to base camp down this wretched dirt road.

The seats are super tight. I can’t remember school bus seating being this snug before….

At one point we drive through the Cibeque Creek. Now, you might think that riding in the back of an old rickety school bus while crossing a creek is fun, and it was until it bottomed out on a rock. It sounded like that was the end of our joy ride, but the bus lunged forward, the engine howling up the steep embankment on the other side.

From the road the rapids actually look worse than they seemed when we were in the rafts.

Now mind you….. this road is very windy and narrow. The shoulders are soft. The drop offs are steep. The bus is long. And all that makes for a terrible combination.

We are in the back of the bus and with every bounce it seems like the bus is going to leap off the road and down the embankment into the river below. Every once in a while the bus lurches forward, the gears grinding ominously, the clutch slipping, and finally slamming into gear. My confidence is waning. I begin to calculate how many feet the bus will fall before it comes to a stop. I evaluate the landscape closely to determine whether or not a rock outcropping or trees that I see would be able to stop an ancient heavy old bus from tumbling down into the roaring rapids below. Some spots seem safer than others. Perhaps here we would only fall 20 feet…..perfectly survivable….. or wait…… here we would fall at least 100 feet, and the bus would roll over and over and over……

No sooner am I done with one of my calculations than the bus driver slams hard on the brakes and the bus lurches to a compete standstill, creaking incessantly as it rocks in place for a moment. In the back of the bus it is hard to hear what is happening up front. I stick my camera out the window of the bus and I can see some vehicles up ahead.

No kidding……SLOW…..that sounds like a good idea! Unfortunately there is another bus on the road coming towards us, and there is no place for us to go. Want to know how impossible it would be to back this bus up on this ridiculous road?  I can hear the bus driver yelling out the window to the oncoming bus driver. Choice words? Can’t tell……

At great last the oncoming bus manages to work itself off the roadway enough that we can safely pass. No tumbling down the hillside today. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Once we are back in our car headed home we contemplate our next rafting trip. Yep…… even my husband is game….. before today he had adamantly refused to go rafting….. but now he is online looking at a week long excursion on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon….. my dream come true…. my absolute dream come true….

I know what you’re wondering. You’re asking if whitewater rafting on the upper Salt River was worth the money, right? Yes, definitely, that’s the answer. The rapids are pretty darn good. The country is stunningly beautiful. The air is clean and fresh. And best of all, it awakened a desire in all of us, not just me, to go for the big one! Someday soon…..

And if you do venture into this canyon with Wilderness Aware, try my tactic for a discount, and ask for Isaiah as your guide. And give Isaiah a nice big fat tip at the end for a job well done!

I have one question pressing my mind that perhaps you can answer…… What am I? National Geographic? Did I do all right? Am I a professional videographer? Nah…. but my camera is safe and sound. My waterproof camera case worked just fine and dandy, and the GoPro…..what a cool tool!