Discovering the Lower Verde River with Kids

Discovering the lower Verde River with kids is a fun day trip from Phoenix that can be as easy or as difficult as you like! River access is readily available, or you can opt to hike for added exercise or seclusion. We spent almost 7 hours enjoying three different spots along the river. All three had beautiful cottonwood trees, sandy banks, and lush green scenery mixed with rock formations. It was a refreshing (and somewhat cold!) nature change that is definitely added to our favorites list.

So where is the Verde River exactly? The 192 mile river begins north of Prescott, near Paulson, and flows south by Cottonwood and Camp Verde. It then collects in two major reservoirs, Horseshoe Lake and Bartlett Lake. Side rivers and creeks contribute to the waterways, including Oak Creek and Beaver Creek, which we’ve explored too! After Bartlett Lake, the Verde River continues to join the Salt River, by the Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area. The Verde River supplies about 40% of the water delivered to the Phoenix area!

This blog post shares areas to explore along the Verde River, south of Bartlett Lake. It’s in the vicinity of North Scottsdale and Rio Verde, southeast from Cave Creek. The lower Verde River is popular for swimming, tubing, kayaking, bird watching, and more! There is always water present, and will be chilly even during the summer (water depth may vary). Summer months will definitely be busier than the rest of the year, especially weekends. Read on to discover our three favorite places along the lower Verde River with kids!

View our YouTube video summery here:

Box Bar Recreation Area – this is the first river access you’ll see when driving from Scottsdale. The hard packed dirt road is fine for all vehicles, and will lead to a large parking lot, portions of which are rocky. There are port a potties available here. The shoreline is a mixture of dirt and rocks as well, no sandy beach areas (at least not when the water is high). There are three areas of interest to seek out. Going right from the parking lot (follow the river downstream), will give you access to a small swing over the water and plenty of shade. Going left from the parking lot (upstream), will offer a larger swing over the water and a small shallow area to play. Find a spot to set up camp and enjoy! Look for tadpoles and small fish to catch too. There are a few areas of rapids that are fun for rafting. Please bring lifejackets for children and beginner swimmers. The water depth varies drastically in places.

Needle Rock Recreation Site – next stop off of Needlerock Road is this recreation site. It’s one of the most developed, as far as numerous picnic tables and ramadas available, bathrooms (vault toilets vs port a potties), and parking spaces. We also had the most difficulty accessing water here. However, the water level was high so that likely attributed to less “beach” areas. Our favorite spot we found was about 5 minutes down the main trail, starting at the south end of the parking lot. You’ll see the path branch off left and right. Stay in the middle and it will take you down to the river and a small access point. We tried to explore the right path, but met up with a huge pack of ants (and that was a no go with kids and flip flops). Once we found a place to settle for a few hours, the kids loved catching tadpoles and crawfish, wading out with the little boat, and throwing rocks. The water here was no deeper than 2 feet, but very rocky. Bring water shoes!

Verde River Recreation Site – last, but almost our favorite, is this river access point at the end of Needlerock Road. The pavement ends and continues for 1/4 mile of dirt to a huge parking lot. It will likely be super busy on weekends! But the beauty is they there is lots of places to explore and set up camp for the day! Follow the path at the south end of the parking lot to get away from the crowds. Cottonwood trees give plenty of shade, and there are some shallow points for toddlers. Otherwise we found the river extremely deep here and with a current. Please watch your beginner swimmers, and bring life jackets. (We witnessed two children struggling to swim and needing assistance after falling out of their tube.) We enjoyed floating down the river in our mini raft safely, and swam several times in the freezing water. Two other things to note: there are port a potties on the west side of the parking lot, and lots of ATV activity here.


Here are a few extra tips for discovering the lower Verde River with kids:

  • A Tonto Pass is required for all three places. Learn more here. You can purchase a Tonto Day Pass on site, north of Box Bar; there is a small station alongside Needlerock Road, just north of the intersection of Needlerock Road and Box Bar Road. It is on the right hand side of the road, facing north.
  • Bring plenty of sunscreen, towels, water shoes, hats, even more water/hydrating drinks than you think you’ll need, snacks/lunch, tubes or the like for floating, and life jackets for younger children or beginner swimmers. A portable shade structure and camping chairs are optional but nice. Our kids also loved having buckets, shovels, and nets.
  • The water is COLD. Maybe not ice cold right out of the mountain, but close! It’s refreshing on a hot day for sure. And also chilly in the mornings during the summer months. Our kids were disappointed it wasn’t warmer, but did get wet for a few minutes. Hubby was the brave one and swam for 30 min!
  • Do not use Google Maps for getting to these access points! While the map below has the correct points, we experienced first hand that the driving directions are not the best. From Scottsdale or Pima Roads, take Dynamite Road east (this changes to Rio Verde Drive) all the way to Needlerock Road. From here you can head north to access all mentioned stops. Google Maps directed us to take Dixileta Drive, which turned into a dirt road with horrible bumps and turns like a mini race track. We barely made it out with our mini van! It was an adventure for sure. Stick to the directions above.
  • Weekends will be super busy, starting at around 10-11am. Go early if possible, or find a spot away from the crowds if aiming to social distance. Weekdays will also be slightly better crowd wise during the summer months.
  • More fun day trip options from Phoenix can be found here!


  • Jana is a homeschooling mother of three children, and lives in Scottsdale with her husband, Chris. She enjoys traveling, reading and coffee. Follow @phoenixwithkids on Instagram for daily photos around Phoenix!

Jana is a homeschooling mother of three children, and lives in Scottsdale with her husband, Chris. She enjoys traveling, reading and coffee. Follow @phoenixwithkids on Instagram for daily photos around Phoenix!


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