Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Paddling Overview

Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests Paddling Highlights

  • Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen, and oak surround 52-acre Woods Canyon Lake near the Mogollon Rim. Campgrounds offer places to stay, and there's a marina. It's off Forest Road 300, five miles north of AZ 260 between Heber and Payson.
  • Rainbow Lake has 80 acres stocked with trout just west of AZ 260 on the north edge of Pinetop-Lakeside. Rainbow Lake Campground is nearby. You can rent boats at a marina.
  • Luna Lake offers 75 acres amidst meadows and ponderosa pines west of Alpine near the New Mexico border. Trout swim in the waters. Other attractions include a campground, mountain bike trail, and birding opportunities.
  • Big Lake lives up its name with 575 acres surrounded by meadows and forests northwest of Alpine. There's lots of hiking and mountain biking along with four campgrounds, a marina, and a visitor center.

Running rivers in the Alpine district is a matter of opportunity. Even the largest streams on the district are small, and unless they are swollen well beyond their banks with a raging flood, they are suited only for small rafts, kayaks, or one- or two-person inflatables. The two district streams that do flow at levels large enough to float a boat, on a seasonal basis, are the Black River on the west side of the district and the Blue River at the bottom of Blue River Canyon. You've no doubt already made the connection—Black and Blue—but actually these rivers are more likely to leave you smiling than bruised. That is, if you have the expertise to run them, and if you like doing something that not a whole lot of other people have done.

Think Snow
About the only time you can be reasonably sure of having adequate water for boating these two streams is during the spring snow melt. March and April are the best bets, although the season almost never lasts for that entire time period. Both streams, especially the Blue, sometimes reach boatable levels during the summer monsoons, but the problem with this highly unpredictable event is that, even if you do happen to be in the right place at the right time, the streams are usually too high to run until they're too low. In other words, they come up very fast and they also go back down very fast.

Whitewater A to Z
With all that in mind, if you choose to come in the spring, and if it's been a good year for snow, you could very well be rewarded with a unique and enjoyable boating experience. Both streams are very picturesque in quite difference ways, and both offer their own unique challenges to the whitewater boater. You shouldn't sell either of them short. They are bona fide whitewater streams and deserve all the respect that comes with the title. Bring sturdy equipment and the skills necessary for negotiating free-flowing streams. You'll see the whole gamut of whitewater challenges here, including tight passages, frothy drops, strainers, hydraulics, barbed wire, and undercuts. If you don't recognize chose names, the Alpine District may not be the place for a first lesson. Rapids on these runs range all the way to Class IV and V. In some cases portages are the only wise course. The Black River is by far the more technical of the two, although the Blue River has some challenging spots as well.

Black River

Features: Very remote mountain stream
Facilities: Three campgrounds nearby; bodacious rapids; watchable wildlife, especially bighorn sheep.
Season: March or April (during snowmelt)
Elevation: 7,500-7,100 feet
Access: Drive south from Alpine 14.5 miles on U.S. 666 to FR 26. Follow FR 26 about 9.5 miles to FR 24. Turn right (northeast) 3 miles to FR 25 and the put-in at the bridge below Buffalo Crossing. Drive 12.5 miles west on FR 25 to the take-out at Wildcat Bridge.

This tree-lined mountain stream flows out of Big Lake and off of Mt. Baldy on the Springerville District of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. Along with the White River, which flows from these same highlands, it forms one of the major headwater streams of the Salt River. The Salt is one of Arizona's most renowned and most challenging whitewater streams. That portion of the Black River on the Alpine District, which is sometimes big enough to be run during peak seasonal flows, stretches between Buffalo Crossing Bridge on FR 25 and Wildcat Bridge also on FR 25. Along this 13-mile segment the Black drops 400 feet and provides a pleasant pool and drop run with ample gradient and complexity to challenge experienced boaters. Rapids here range to Class IV and V, and in some places a portage is the wisest way to proceed. Hazards include drops, strainers, and undercut rocks. Between March and April, flows can range as high as 400 cfs, but are more typically in the 200 cfs range. At these levels the run is suitable for kayaks, small rafts, and one- to two-person inflatables.

The river is quite remote along this stretch and access other than at the put-in and take-out is limited to two points, both of which require a half-mile hike from the river to a forest road. The shuttle to the takeout is a 13-mile drive over a well maintained forest road, which leads right to the river. The area of the Alpine District along the Black River has a number of developed campgrounds that officially open in mid-May but are accessible as early as April. If you come earlier than mid-May, you may still camp here without the conveniences such as drinking water and garbage pick-up. Also take note that the district is moving to pull camping back from the streamside because of its impact on riparian areas.

Water flows are not recorded on this river, just as they have not been for the past 15 years. Call the Alpine district for the best information on water levels and road and boating conditions. (The Wilderness Ranger is the best source.) The Phelps Dodge pumping station on the San Carlos Apache reservation may have current flow information. Contact the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

In addition to whitewater, this run offers great scenery and notable wildlife. The Black River (especially the stretch that flows across the Alpine District) has long been recognized as one of the most beautiful in the southwest. At the time this account was being written the Black River was being considered for designation by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River. While you're enjoying all that scenery, keep an eye out for equally picturesque wildlife residents such as black bear, elk, bighorn sheep, and osprey.

Black River is runnable below Wildcat Bridge, but a half-mile hike up a steep canyon slope is required to get to the nearest shuttle point at the boundary of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. A permit from the Apache Tribe is required to cross that boundary. Little information is available concerning the Black River on the Apache Reservation. This portion has been successfully run by experienced kayakers. Fishing on national forest waters requires that you follow all appropriate rules and regulations established by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. A valid Arizona fishing license is necessary.

Blue River

Features: Sweeping curves and spreading cottonwoods. Watchable wildlife, great birdwatching. Riverside road on the upper screech; remote setting on the lower.
Season: March or April (during snowmelt)
Elevation: 6,400 to 4,000 feet
Notes: There is a lot of private property in this area. Please be considerate of these forest neighbors.
Fishing: Rules and regulations established by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. A valid Arizona fishing license is necessary.
Access: Blue River flows alongside FR 281. A number of access points are available from this road. Some people put in as far upstream as the confluence of the Campbell Blue and Dry Blue. FR 281 ends 21 miles below this confluence. From this point the Blue has no roads leading to it for approximately 20 miles. For access to the downstream end of the remote Blue River run, drive 65 miles south of Alpine on U.S. 666 to Juan Miller Campground. Turn easy here on FR 475. It's 12.5 miles to the river.
Facilities: Two campgrounds along the Blue River. Bait, cackle, and supplies in Alpine.

As with running any small desert stream, you've got to be flexible enough to catch this river when it's up. That usually happens during the best part of the snowmelt, which may vary and frequently makes the river boatable for only a few days. Some years have no season at all. Rare summer opportunities to run this river after monsoon thunderstorms come only once in a blue moon.

In spite of all this (or maybe because of it), those who have been lucky enough to catch the Blue when it's up and running say it's an experience everyone should try at lease once. Rapids here are not big or technical. They actually rate no higher than a Class I or II (unless you run the Blue Box with its low water bridge, landslide, e-curve, and bottleneck, which may be beyond classification). If you walk around the box (as you should), you'll still have to stay on your toes and watch out for hazards that give the Blue its own unique character. Undercut rocks loom along the big sweeping curves this stream has cut at the base of the high cliffs that border it. And you'll have to keep an eye out for man-made hazards such as fences and pieces of old farm machinery that have found their way into the streambed. Log jams and strainers present a more serious hazard at very high water. The good news is that the stream isn't extremely pushy, and boaters with moderate experience should have no trouble avoiding these hazards, especially if they've been forewarned.

While you're not watching the river for submerged horse-drawn hay-mowers, you'll want to keep your eye out for the interesting animals that make their home here. Watch the skies for everything from ospreys to hummingbirds and if you're lucky you might get to see a bighorn sheep come down to the stream for a drink. If you've brought along your fishing pole, upper stretches of the river yield an occasional trout, while downstream reaches are good for channel cats and smallmouth bass.

Another interesting aspect of this river is that where it's accessible, it's very accessible (a road runs alongside it) and where it's remote, it does that in rare fashion, too. That part of the river that doesn't have a road along it is just about enough for a good long day-run.

You can put your boat on the river just about anywhere downstream of its origin at the confluence of the Campbell Blue and Dry Blue rivers. The riverside road ends just below the confluence with KP Creek. With the exception of the Blue Box, the river is runnable all the way down to and beyond FR 475, which leads to the river from the Juan Miller Campground near U.S. 666. The 25-mile run between FR 475 and Clifton, which includes a stretch of the San Francisco River, is well worth the effort, too.


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