Exploring along the Salt River with kids is an adventure every family should take. It’s a relatively short drive from Phoenix, especially the East Valley, and offers everything from wading and swimming, tubing and kayaking, and even possible sightings of wild horses! All ages will love this beautiful area any time of the year.
A Little History
So what is the Salt River? It’s a major water source for Phoenix, about 200 miles long, starting in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona. And yes, there are actual salt deposits near the beginning of the river, hence the name. Four lakes (Roosevelt, Apache, Canyon, and Saguaro), form as you get closer to Phoenix. Then near Northeast Mesa, the river is dammed again to form the Arizona Canal and Southern Canal, which brings water all through the city! Have you been to Tempe Town Lake? Well that’s part of the Salt River as well! It’s amazing that such a lush water source is part of the Phoenix area.
This blog post will focus on the portion of the Salt River just inside the southern beginnings of Tonto National Forest. There are five popular spots to enjoy the water. (There are three others, but we’ll just cover five in this post.) Each require a permit, which can often be purchased onsite. We recommend purchasing one before you visit to save time and effort. For more about Tonto passes, browse this website.
One other note: the wild horses mentioned are best spotted in early morning before 9am, or at dusk. Please remember that they are just that, wild horses that call the Salt River area their home. If you spot them, observe from a distance and do not approach. Do not chase them under any circumstances. If interested, here is a video we took via drone in 2019. (We may seem close but the zoom feature was used.) More information about these unique animals can be found here. These horses are a fascinating part of Arizona history, dating back to the 1600’s!
Where to Explore
The five most popular areas along the Salt River are: Phon D. Sutton, Blue Point, Pebble Beach, Water Users, and Butcher Jones. Butcher Jones is technically alongside Saguaro Lake, but is listed with other Salt River access points. The other river access points are: Granite Reef, Coon Bluff, and Goldfield. These three are mainly used for tubing/kayaking access points and aren’t the best for swimming or water fun. There’s a good map of all Salt River access points here. You can also seasonally camp at Coon Bluff!
It’s important to remember that the depth of the river can vary depending on the season. Obviously it will be deeper in the spring than in the fall. Also, there is almost always a current during swim season. So please come prepared with lifejackets for little ones or beginner swimmers. There may be shallow portions to play at each spot, BUT the current can be strong. Always watch your children.
Phon D Sutton: arguably the most popular of all places along the Salt River, and for good reason! There is a kiosk for purchasing passes, a huge parking lot, restrooms, ramadas, and many little beach areas to access the water. Simply head down the hill from the parking lot on one of the many “paths” – it’s a weird makeshift path system, and you will need to climb over rocks. But it’s totally possible with toddlers! If you can, find the paths between the restrooms and nearby ramada, and go down the hill at the water are some great places for kids. Depending on the water level, there may be a small shaded island too. More info here.
Blue Point/Pebble Beach: listed together because these two spots are across the road from each other, with a ticket kiosk being at Pebble Beach. There are vault toilets at both locations and numerous ramadas. There are more ramadas at Blue Point.
As to which one is best, you can’t go wrong with either. For toddlers and young children, Pebble Beach might be a better option as there is a long stretch of flat ground (with pebbles, hence the name!) for play. Blue Point may or may not have flat play areas; when we went in September, the water was actually quite deep close to the shoreline. There were spots to set up picnic blankets. More info on Pebble Beach and Blue Point.
Water Users: this site is popular for a kayaking start point,, and is also open for swimming. The scenery is absolutely stunning, with a backdrop of cliffs! We need to explore more here at some point because our initial observation is that there is a strong current with little shallow spots. Having a toddler along, we didn’t feel comfortable staying to play. But this could be a great place for older kids and teenagers! The parking lot is huge, and there are restrooms. More info here.
Butcher Jones: on the north side of Saguaro Lake is this very popular swimming spot. The inlet of water, and being a lake vs. river, makes for a calm and protected area for children. Ramadas and restrooms give everything you need, plus the wild horses are very often spotted here in the mornings! Butcher Jones attracts the crowds, however, and is often filled by mid-morning on the weekends. So take this in to consideration. More info here.
What to Bring
Have you explored the lower Verde River? This river also brings water to the Phoenix area, and has some fun areas to experience in far North Scottsdale. Learn more here!