The Salt and Verde rivers bring greenery and water sports to the northeast corner of the Valley.
Lower Salt River Recreation Area
The Salt's final run below Saguaro Lake offers a glimpse of what the riparian life of the Valley looked like before the coming of modern irrigation canals. Visitors come to enjoy tubing in the Salt during the warm months, camping in winter (Oct. 15-April 15 only), and fishing and picnicking year-round. Recreation areas have vault toilets but no drinking water; day use is free, campers pay $6.
The Bush Highway connects the area with Mesa to the south and AZ 87 to the north. If coming from Mesa, you'll first reach the turnoff for Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area; it's 1.2 miles in and has lots of parking for RVs. The Lower Salt River Nature Trail, an easy 2.3-mile loop, begins at the downstream end of Phon D. Sutton, follows the shore downstream, turns inland through cottonwood and mesquite woodlands, then returns via some desert uplands; signs tell of life here and the changes that settlement has brought.
Coon Bluff Recreation Area is one mile east on Bush Highway past the Sutton turnoff, then one mile in. Picnic tables under the trees overlook the river. This is an especially good spot for tent camping.
Goldfield Recreation Area is 1.3 miles past the Coon Bluff turnoff, then 1.3 miles in. Tube rental and the shuttle-bus center are near the turnoff. Usery Pass Road ends at this junction; turn south for Usery Mountain Recreation Area and good views back to the Salt River Valley.
You'll find three recreation areas near where the Bush Highway crosses the Salt on Blue Point Bridge, 2.5 miles east of the Goldfield turnoff: Pebble Beach is southeast of the bridge, Blue Point is northeast of the bridge, and Sheep Crossing is northwest of the bridge. Another two miles east takes you to Water Users Recreation Area and some impressive canyon scenery; a short trail leads to the river. All of these have a $4/vehicle day-use fee. Continue up a hill on the Bush Highway to the turnoff for Saguaro Lake.
The scenery, fishing, and boating on Saguaro Lake attract people year-round. The 10-mile-long, 1,100-acre lake within Tonto National Forest is the last in the chain of lakes on the Salt River and the closest to Phoenix. Anglers catch largemouth and yellow bass, channel catfish, bluegill, and walleye. Lakeshore Restaurant (480/984-5311) serves breakfast and lunch daily and dinner Wed.-Sun., either indoors or out on the patio (great views). Saguaro Lake Marina (480/986-5546 marina, 480/986-0969 rentals) offers boating supplies and rentals of fishing, patio, and ski boats.
The adjacent Saguaro del Norte area provides day-use boat ramps, picnic areas with shaded tables, and Saguaro Lake Vista Trail, but no water; $4/vehicle and $2/boat. Butcher Jones Recreation Area offers a picnic area and hiking along the northern lakeshore, but no boat ramp; $4/vehicle day use. Butcher Jones Trail follows the shore—the first quarter mile is paved for wheelchair fishing access—and crosses a ridge (115-foot climb) to Burro Cove in 2.5 miles one-way. The road to Butcher Jones turns off the Bush Highway one mile north of the marina. Picnic and boating areas almost always fill up on Sunday and sometimes on Saturday from mid-spring to mid-summer; try to arrive by early morning. Only boaters can reach Bagley Flat Campground, about four miles from the marina; it has tables and pit toilets, but no water or fee. Dispersed camping is also permitted, but again, you'll need a boat.
To reach Saguaro Lake, take the Bush Highway or AZ 87 from eastern Mesa. The Mesa Ranger District Office of the Tonto National Forest (5140 E. Ingram St., Mesa, AZ 85205, 480/610-3300, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) stocks recreation information for the Saguaro Lake, lower Salt River, Superstitions, and Four Peaks areas. You can also contact the main Tonto office (2324 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85006, 602/225-5200, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.).
Bartlett and Horseshoe Reservoirs
These lakes on the Verde River offer fine scenery and outdoor recreation, including fishing for largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, bluegill, and carp. Horseshoe also supports endangered razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow, which must be returned to the water. At each reservoir, you'll need to pay daily use fees at vending machines of $4/vehicle and $2/boat, but there's no additional charge for camping. For more information, contact the Cave Creek Ranger Station (40202 N. Cave Creek Rd., Scottsdale, AZ 85262, 480/595-3300, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto). You'll pass the ranger station on the left just after turning toward the reservoirs from Cave Creek Road.
From the town of Cave Creek, go east seven miles on Cave Creek Road, turn right and drive six miles on Forest Road 205, then continue eight miles on Forest Road 19 to the lake. These roads are paved and make a great scenic drive, especially on weekdays when traffic is light.
The main road to Bartlett ends at Jojoba Boating Site, which has a paved boat ramp. A sign says that RV camping is permitted here from Oct. 31 to May 1. The nearby sheriff's office is staffed on summer weekends and has an emergency phone. Jojoba Trail begins on the north side of the parking area and winds north about one mile through granite boulders and desert plants. The Mazatzal Mountains soar into the sky across the lake. Bartlett Lake Marina (602/316-3378, www.bartlettlake.com), just south of Jojoba Boating Site, provides two convenience stores, pontoon boat rentals, wet and dry storage, auto and boat fuel, and bait and tackle year-round. Continue south 2.1 miles past the marina turnoff on an unpaved road through boulder-strewn hills for Riverside Campground (vault toilets but no drinking water) below the dam.
North Lake Road (Forest Road 459) leads to recreation areas on the lake; the turnoff from the main road is half a mile before Jojoba Boating Site. In 0.6 mile you'll reach the entrance for Rattlesnake Cove Recreation Site, a day-use area with water, shaded tables, grills, restrooms, and fishing pier. Pavement ends in another 2.5 miles at Yellow Cliffs Boating Site, which has a paved boat ramp, water, and restrooms. Primitive camping is just beyond at S. B. Cove. The road ends 0.7 farther at Bartlett Flat, popular with boaters and campers; outhouses are the only facilities.
Horseshoe Lake, upstream from Bartlett, offers a quieter experience. The road is unpaved and facilities are very basic. Personal watercraft and water-skiing are not permitted, and there's a 15-mph speed limit. Follow directions toward Bartlett, but turn left on unpaved Forest Road 205 and follow it for 10 miles all the way to the dam. You can stay on the Verde River at Mesquite Recreation Site, which has tables, grills, and outhouses in a mesquite grove; the turnoff is 8.2 miles in on your right. Horseshoe Campground offers similar facilities near the river 1.5 miles farther north. Catfish Point nearby has river access just below the dam; you can hand launch boats here. Canoeists enjoy the eight miles of river between Horseshoe and Bartlett; for information on flow and lake levels, call the Salt River Project, 602/236-5929. A few shaded picnic tables overlook the lake near road's end. The boat ramp here is paved, but narrow and usable only at higher lake levels. Visitors pay the same daily fees as at Bartlett, $4/vehicle and $2/boat.
About 900 years ago, the Hohokam built this hilltop village as one of a series between the Valley and the mountains to the north. A one-mile loop trail climbs to the 40-room pueblo and its main plaza, laboriously constructed with a retaining wall. On top, you'll enjoy a great view of Weaver's Needle in the Superstitions, Four Peaks, the fountain in Fountain Hills, and many hills to the north. The trailhead has a few covered picnic tables for day use only; no water or fee. Follow Cave Creek Road east from Carefree, turn left (north) 2.6 miles on Forest Road 24 at the Bartlett Lake junction (the last one-third mile of Forest Road 24 is gravel), then turn right at the sign.
Seven Springs and CCC Campgrounds
Large sycamore and ash trees provide shade for these two adjacent campgrounds among hills of the Tonto National Forest, north of the Valley. Sites have picnic tables and pit toilets but no drinking water, $4/vehicle. From the town of Cave Creek go seven miles east on Cave Creek Road to a junction, then keep left on Forest Road 24. It becomes dirt after 2.3 miles, then it's another 11 miles of scenic, winding road to the two campgrounds. Cave Creek Campground, a mile farther, is a group fee area requiring reservations from the Cave Creek Ranger Station. The Cave Creek Trail System offers about 30 miles of trails for hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. The Cave Creek Ranger Station (480/595-3300, www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto) has recreation information for this area.
Bloody Basin Road
Drivers with high-clearance vehicles can leave the crowds behind on this 60-mile scenic back road through the Tonto National Forest. The road connects Carefree/Cave Creek with I-17 Exit 259 (Bloody Basin/Crown King). You'll enjoy views of the Mazatzals, rugged high-desert hill country, and wooded canyons. In Bloody Basin, 26 miles from I-17, a very bumpy side road goes southeast 12 miles to the Verde River and Sheep Bridge, where hikers can head into the Mazatzal Wilderness. Primitive camping is possible almost anywhere in Tonto National Forest, or you can stop at Seven Springs or CCC Campgrounds near the south end of Bloody Basin Road. Follow directions to Seven Springs Campground above, then continue north on Forest Road 24.
On to Valley of the Sun Information