Discover the 5 Best Rivers for Whitewater Rafting in Arizona

White Water Rafting
© Digital Vision./Photodisc via Getty Images

Written by Kirstin Harrington

Published: September 11, 2023

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When you imagine Arizona, you might think of the vast deserts, hot weather, or towering cacti. Did you know there are a handful of rivers throughout the state? These spots make perfect destinations for whitewater rafting in Arizona. 

Whether you’re an expert paddler who’s ready for class V rapids or you’ve never stepped foot onto a raft before, check out these options. This is a surefire way to beat the heat of the Grand Canyon State. 

Rivers in Arizona For Whitewater Rafting

1. Colorado River

Colorado River - Horseshoe Bend

The Colorado River passes through seven states!

©Lebid Volodymyr/Shutterstock.com

A whitewater rafting and backpacking adventure unlike any other could be had by traveling down the Colorado River via Grand Canyon National Park. Along the canyon’s corridor, visitors can witness towering rock faces, cool, lush caves, exhilarating rapids, and vast beaches of sand as experts discuss the region’s natural and cultural past. 

White water rapids on the Colorado River are classified from one to 10. As you can guess, class 10 rapids are the hardest, most dangerous, and thrilling runnable rapids. Every day is unique and packed with activities, including trips to hidden side canyons, waterfalls, and the ruins of long-gone native settlements that still include ceramics. 

Camp close to the Colorado River beneath the gorge’s walls and witness a sky full of stars! The Colorado River is the most popular place for whitewater rafting in Arizona. There are numerous outfitters to choose from and they offer a myriad of trip choices. 

2. Salt River

The Salt River in summer near the conjunction with Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Arizona

The Salt River is one of the easiest rivers in Arizona to access.

©Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock.com

Consider taking a Salt River rafting excursion to see the beautiful 2,000-foot-deep Salt River Canyon’s amazing landscape. Outfitters in Arizona offer excursion selections for all types of paddlers. Whether you’re visiting Arizona or just looking to get away for the day. 

Select from family-friendly Class II and III rafting excursions or challenging Class IV backcountry expeditions. Raft tours can last from just one day to five days and are perfect for teams, families, and seasoned or amateur whitewater rafters alike.

One reason the Salt River is a great choice is its location. It’s the closest river for rafting for people near Phoenix and Tucson. The Salt River flows through steep, remote gorges for more than 50 miles, dropping 25 feet every mile on average. 

As it descends, it passes through oak and juniper forests and into the breathtaking Lower Sonoran Desert, which is home to a variety of plants, including the enormous multi-armed saguaro cactus. 

Several side valleys have oasis-like microhabitats that offer a verdant contrast to the surrounding prickly cacti. There are many fantastic, picturesque riverbank campsites that can only be reached by raft.

3. Virgin River

rafting on a mountain river

Rafting can be done on a raft, canoe, or kayak.

©Aleksandr Lupin/Shutterstock.com

People travel here because of Arizona’s picturesque landscape and the dazzling sunshine on The Virgin River make for an excellent rafting spot There are campgrounds close by for those of you outdoor enthusiasts. 

Why not bring your sleeping bag along because this portion has adequate mileage for an extended stay? Arizona has many whitewater paddling and rafting locations, however, they are often more difficult than a typical river in the country. 

Many individuals come here to exercise their paddling muscles and enjoy spending time in nature. There is only one paddling part along the Virgin River, in the gorge. If you make arrangements in advance, you’ll be able to stay at one of the neighboring hotels, which are a little ways from the river.

Throughout high flow intervals, which often happen close to the beginning of May, there are a few miles of Class III to IV whitewater that can become Class V and higher on the biggest drops.

4. Gila River

Looking Out of a Cave Along the Middle Fork Gila River in the Gila Wilderness New Mexico - Water Flowing into Cave

There are many caves to explore along the Gila River.

©Eric Poulin/Shutterstock.com

Although there aren’t often huge flows, the Gila River is an important watercourse for Arizona. This reach typically operates year-round dependent on local rainfall. The ideal time to raft on the Gila River in Arizona is throughout springtime. 

The Gila, like the majority of Arizona’s waterways, is mostly arid and gravelly with a lot of small and big stones at the bottom of the river. Thankfully, the portion of the river that’s in Arizona is navigable. 

There are class II and III rapids that can have quite a strong current if there has been a lot of rain. One area that can be extremely risky is the Solomon Diversion Dam. It has several man-made and natural obstacles. 

This includes a two-inch rebar, fast currents, and other threats. 

5. Black River

Summertime at Woods Canyon Lake on the Mogollon Rim in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, northern Arizona

Areas along the Black River make for perfect swimming holes.

©Aimee Fitz/Shutterstock.com

In Greenlee County’s Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, the Black River emerges from Big Lake and runs east. The Black River travels around 90 miles in total. It starts directly west of the Arizona-New Mexico state border.  

The Black River provides extremely difficult Class II to IV whitewater, including a few Class V rapids. There are drops in high-water conditions, for a brief period of time in the springtime in years when the nearby mountains see an extensive winter snowpack.

Due to its possible difficulties and extremely remote setting, this river is not suggested for novice whitewater paddlers.

Summary of Rivers in Arizona For Whitewater Rafting

RiverLength
Colorado River1,450 miles 
Salt River199 miles
Virgin River162 miles
Gila River649 miles
Black River114 miles 


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About the Author

Kirstin is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering animals, news topics, fun places, and helpful tips. Kirstin has been writing on a variety of topics for over five years. She has her real estate license, along with an associates degree in another field. A resident of Minnesota, Kirstin treats her two cats (Spook and Finlay) like the children they are. She never misses an opportunity to explore a thrift store with a coffee in hand, especially if it’s a cold autumn day!

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