Verde River, Arizona
U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest
U.S. Forest Service, Prescott National Forest
U.S. Forest Service, Tonto National Forest
August 28, 1984. Scenic River Area: The northern boundary of the Scenic River Area is the section line between Section 26 and 27, T13N, R5E, Gila-Salt River meridian. The southern boundary is the boundary of the Mazatzal Wilderness which is within Section 11, T11N, R6E. Wild River Area: The northern boundary of the Wild River Area is the boundary of the Mazatzal Wilderness which is within Section 11, T11N, R6E. The southern boundary is at the confluence of Red Creek with the Verde River within Section 34, T9 l/2N, R6E.
Wild — 35.7 kilometers/22.2 miles; Scenic — 29.5 kilometers/18.3 miles; Total — 65.2 kilometers/40.5 miles.
The Verde River is a unique and important resource in Arizona. In a southwestern state where perennial flowing water is rare, the riparian oasis of the Verde River stands in stark contrast to the arid uplands through which it meanders. Indeed, "Verde" is the Spanish term for the color "green." Aboriginal cultures have been present in the area since at least 12,000 BC; Anglos began to settle the region in 1865. The Verde River continues to serve as a magnet for humans. Many people visit the Verde for its outstanding recreational opportunities including boating, hunting, fishing, birding, hiking, picnicking and photography.
The Verde River is situated in central Arizona. It heads at Sullivan Lake in the Big Chino Valley (south of Paulden) in Yavapai County, and flows generally south for 170 miles through private, state, tribal and National Forest System lands to the confluence with the Salt River. The cities of Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Camp Verde are located along the river and constitute the primary population centers.
Two Bureau of Reclamation storage reservoirs are located near its terminus. Water is stored in these reservoirs before being discharged into the Salt River for use by downstream municipal, agricultural and industrial entities.
The river and associated riparian vegetation provide high-quality habitat for many wildlife and fish species. Thirty-one native and sport fisheries occur in the Verde River. Many aquatic, terrestrial, arboreal and aerial animal species depend directly or indirectly upon the river and its tributaries. Included within the Verde River's flora and fauna are plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered by Arizona or the federal government.
Before a river corridor can even be considered for designation as either a Recreation, Scenic, or Wild River Area, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (P.L. 90-542) requires a determination that the river and its immediate environments possess one or more specific "outstandingly remarkable values." The Environmental Impact Statement approved in 1981 for the Verde River found that this portion of the river corridor contained outstandingly remarkable scenic, fish & wildlife, and historic & cultural values.
Climate in the region surrounding both the Scenic River Area and Wild River Area is characterized by hot summers, mild winters, moderate precipitation, and abundant sunshine. Weather records have been maintained at Childs, Arizona (near the dividing line between the Scenic and Wild River Areas) since 1915. The highest temperature was recorded in 1958, when the temperature reached 48 Celsius/118 Fahrenheit! The coldest temperature of record was -17 C/2 F in 1937. July is typically the hottest month, with an average daily maximum of 39 C/102 F. January is the coldest with an average daily minimum of 0 C/32 F.
The Verde River is situated within the Central Highlands Physiographic Province, a mountainous transition zone located between the uplifted Plateau Uplands to the northeast and the Basin and Range Lowlands to the southwest.
The Verde River exits the Verde Valley between the Black Hills and the Mogollon Rim. Beasley Flat, the beginning of the Scenic River Area, represents the transition from the broad alluvial plain associated with the Verde Valley to a more constricted canyon.
The highest elevation within the Scenic River Area is 3,484 feet (south-west of the confluence of Sycamore Canyon Creek with the Verde River); its lowest elevation is 2,590 feet (river-level at the wilderness boundary). The river drops an average of 20.8 feet per mile during its journey through the Scenic River Area.
The highest elevation within the Wild River Area is 3,280 feet (a point west of Ike's Backbone); its lowest elevation is 2,180 feet (river-level at the confluence of Red Creek with the Verde River). The river drops an average of 18.5 feet per mile during its journey through the Wild River Area.
The uplands bordering the Verde support three major plant communities — semi-desert Grassland, Great Basin Conifer Woodland and Sonoran Desert Scrub.
Within the Scenic River Area, the Verde flows through the Semi-desert Grassland from Beasley Flat (river mile 60) to near Brown Springs (two river miles above Childs). These grasslands typically occur between the higher elevation Great Basin Conifer Woodland and the lower elevation Sonoran Desertscrub. This community was historically dominated by perennial grasses such as black grama, and tobosa grass but has been invaded by introduced annuals like red brome. Historically, trees were rare in this community but have become more common. Today, common plants include scrub mesquite, one-seed juniper, snakeweed, and cholla and prickly pear cactus. Cat's claw mimosa, yuccas, catclaw acacia, agaves, ocotillo, and other native species are also present. The semi-desert grassland has a naturally high floral diversity.
Downstream from Brown Springs (river mile 51), the Verde enters a deeper canyon formed by the incision of Central Highland mountains. The increased precipitation associated with these mountains supports the Great Basin Conifer Woodland community, althrough Interior Chaparral intrudes near Fossil Creek. The Great Basin Conifer Woodland is characterized by an overstory of one-seed juniper and pinon pine. Not surprisingly, it is often called pinon-juniper or simply "PJ." Important schrubs include cliffrose and Apache plume. Common herbs and grasses include Buckwheat, penstemon, globe mallow, lupine, and brome. This community continues to the southern end of the Scenic River Area (river mile 42) and on into the Wild River Area; it ceases near the Goat Camp Creek confluence (river mile 31).
The Sonoran Desertscrub is the dominant community type throughout the remainder of the Wild River Area. At higher elevations, foothill palo verde and saguaro cactus dominate the overstory. Creosote bush is more common at lower elevations. Whitethorn acacia, ocotillo, jojoba, and desert hackberry occur throughout. Annuals such as red brome and filaree are present during the rainy seasons.
Riparian refers to the vegetative communities that occur in stream alluvium and floodplains. Environmental tolerances and hydrologic requirements differ among individual riparian plant species, but they are united by the need for shallow groundwater. The availability of water permits high productivity and complex structural development. Riparian communities possess a distinctive species composition compared to surrounding uplands.
Deciduous riparian woodland and emergent marshland communities occupy the river's banks and floodplain. Mixed broadleaf and cottonwood-willow gallery forests are relic communities adapted to early Tertiary climates and have retreated to pockets where the warm temperate (ancient) climate persists together with suitable water regimes. Mesquite stands are well represented in the instream flow reach.
The mixed broadleaf community occurs where the stream bed is composed of rock and rubble. Primary overstory species include Arizona sycamore, velvet ash, Fremont cottonwood, Arizona alder, Arizona walnut and willows.
Cottonwood-willow communities are dominated by Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willow. They are relatively short-lived associations (not a climax community) that are typically encountered and reach their peak development in alluvial sands, clays and gravels on floodplains. In mature stands, canopy heights can reach 30 meters, providing for park-like understories. Stands may also be comprised of dense thickets of young trees.
Velvet mesquite forms the primary component of the mesquite bosque ("forest" in Spanish) community. It reaches maximum development on the alluvium of old dissected floodplains, especially those found at the confluence of larger tributaries. These habitats exist on secondary floodplains and terraces between one and six meters above the river. Mesquite trees posses a tap-root system capable of reaching deep water supplies. Trees can reach heights of more than 30 feet. Mesquite bosques are the dominant riparian community throughout the Wild River Area.
The strip immediately adjacent to the river's edge supplies habitat for seepwillow, horsetail, bulrushes, rushes, and sedges. Stands of giant reed are also present at some locations on the river.
In Arizona, riparian vegetation has become scarce largely because of the diversion and consumptive use of water resources. It is estimated that up to 85 percent of the historic acreage of riparian vegetation has been lost in desert areas. It is estimated the total area of Riparian Forest comprises less than 0.4 percent of Arizona's land area. Within the Tonto National Forest, riparian areas (Verde and others) represent less than one percent of the Forest's three million acres. Given the scarcity and vulnerability of riparian vegetation, the acreage of riparian forest present in this reach is of utmost ecological significance.
Native and Introduced Fishes
The fishes of the Verde River have been extensively surveyed. Thirty-one fish species exist in the Verde River's watershed. Eight native fish species occur in the Verde and its tributaries. Published data indicate that at least five of these species are present in the Scenic or Wild River Areas—Colorado squawfish, razorback sucker, desert sucker, Sonora sucker, and roundtail chub. The desert and Sonora suckers are federal C2 candidate species (for listing under the Endangered Species Act). The roundtail chub is threatened in Arizona and is also federal candidate (C2). Longfin dace and speckled dace are present in reaches of the Verde. Federal C2 status has been recommended for these two species. Loach minnow occurred historically but were last collected from the Verde in 1938.
Twenty-three introduced fish species have been recorded on the Verde and/or its tributaries. Though some of these fish are sought by anglers, their effect on native fishes has been overwhelmingly negative. (Verde River species commonly pursued by anglers include rainbow trout, channel and flathead catfish, Centrarchids such as smallmouth and largemouth bass, and several species of sunfish.) Introduced fishes have had drastic impacts upon those species native to the Verde. Predatory fish, particularly the green sunfish and the smallmouth and largemouth bass, have been implicated as serious threats to native fish populations. Roundtail chub are subject to predation by smallmouth bass and flathead catfish. Channel and flathead catfish are voracious predators and can reach great size (50 pounds or more).
Carp are a hardy, introduced European cyprinid. These fish occur seemingly everywhere. They can attain large population sizes which place substantial pressure of native species with similar ecological requirements. Carp do, however, play an important role in the prey bases of bald eagles, common black hawks and osprey. Along with desert and Sonora suckers, carp comprise the largest part of the eagles' food supply. Observers have noted that carp comprise 100 percent of the fish prey base of the eagles using a nest site within the Scenic River Area.
Even relatively small introduced fishes can do harm to native fish populations. The red shiner is abundant in the Verde and competes with native fish (i.e., Loach minnow and spikedace). Mosquitofish were introduced into mosquito-infested waters in an effort to control malaria. These livebearers possess very high fecundity, and rapidly attain high population densities. Mosquitofish are primarily responsible for the endangerment of the native Gila topminnow, but Mosquitofish introductions continue.
Birds represent the most diverse and visible vertebrate group in the Verde River riparian corridor. Breeding bird densities in some mature cottonwood stands along the Verde River have exceeded one thousand pairs per 100 acres. This is the highest avian density per unit area ever recorded in North America. It was also determined that 19 of these species, representing 56.4% of the nesting birds, were obligate riparian species. Regrettably, birds also possess the greatest number of endangered, threatened, candidate and sensitive species.
All manner of ducks, waterbirds and shorebirds have been recorded on the Verde. The great egret, snowy egret, white-faced ibis, and green-backed heron are present in the instream flow reach. Great blue herons are common. Belted kingfishers are often observed on the Lower Verde.
Falconiform birds typically associated with riparian areas include the endangered southwestern bald eagle as well as peregrine falcon, common black hawks, osprey, and grey hawks. There are several resident nesting pairs of the endangered southwestern bald eagles on the Verde and 200 to 300 individuals (not of the southwestern variety) that overwinter in the immediate area.
Passerine birds of concern include the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and western yellow-billed cuckoo. Neotropical migratory passerines that use the Verde for breeding or as a migration corridor include the vermillion flycatcher, common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, summer tanager, blue-throated hummingbird, and others. Violet green swallows, white throated swifts, and other aerial insectivores feed upon insects associated with the river and adjoining vegetation. These birds are important prey items for peregrine falcons.
Many mammals benefit from the river and neighboring riparian vegetation. Beaver and muskrat are aquatic rodents that utilize the Verde in limited numbers. Native southwestern and introduced Louisiana subspecies of river otter are obligate riparian mammals that occur with the Scenic and Wild River Areas. Several bat species feed in the insect-filled airspace over the river, while raccoons forage along the water's edge.
Amphibians depend on the availability of surface water. The Verde provides habitat for a variety of frogs and toads. The list includes the bullfrog, canyon treefrog, southern spadefoot, couch spadefoot, woodhouse's toad, red-spotted toad, great plains toad, and the Sonoran desert toad. Three species of concern occur within the reach — the Arizona toad, northern leopard frog and lowland leopard frog.
The Verde is one of the largest perennial rivers within the state. Sullivan Lake, an artificial reservoir at the confluence of the Big Chino and Williamson Valley Washes, is the headwater of the Verde River. From Sullivan Lake, the Verde flows freely for 125 miles before encountering Horseshoe Reservoir.
The Verde is perennial throughout both the Scenic and Wild River Areas, though flow varies considerably during the year. Flows are affected by changes in precipitation, upstream diversions, ground-water pumping, and evapotranspiration. Precipitation in the Verde watershed, and consequently runoff, are bimodally distributed. High runoff occurs from winter cyclonic storms, and (to a lesser extent) from convectional monsoon storms in later summer (July, August, early September). Flows peak irregularily in the winter and spring months of January through April, and reach a minimum in the summer months of May through July when precipitation is low to nonexistent and irrigation diversions are high.
Historically, monthly median flows are highest in March and lowest in July. Flows at the gage below Camp Verde (river ilem 69) only exceed 1000 cfs less than 10 percent of the time. The minimum flow recorded at the gage above Horseshoe Reservoir (river mile 9) was 48 cfs on June 17, 1958. The peak instantaneous flow at this gage was 145,000 cfs on January 1, 1993!
Virtually the entire Wild River Area is within the Mazatzal Wilderness, which is the largest wilderness area (now over 250,000 acres) in the Southwest that survives in one piece.
The Mazatzal Wilderness Area was established on May 27, 1938, and is thus one of the oldest in the Country. It became part of the National Wilderness Preservation system in 1964, and was expanded by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. This expansion took in 31 miles of the Verde River.
Several restrictions have had to be imposed within this Wilderness (and thus for the Verde Wild River Area as well): (1) length of stay is no longer than 14 days; (2) group size is limited to 15 persons; and (3) no more than 15 head of livestock are allowed per group.
A maximum number of outfitter/guide permits available and a maximum number of customer-days have also been established.
While the Verde River can be floated practically any month of the year, its primary river-running season is parts of March and April. Because the amount of run-off is so unpredictable, a minimum optimal flow may provide a primary river-running season of 30 days – or 3 days – or in some years, zero days. To obtain daily flow reports, call the Salt River Project, (602) 236-5929, for a recorded message.
You will be pleased to learn that no permit is required for private parties to run this river; however, with added freedom comes added responsibility. We ask that you conduct your trip so that virtually NO TRACE is left of your presence along this unique river. With your cooperation and help, we hope to be able to continue to welcome visitors without requiring a permit. Remember that no more than 15 persons are allowed per group within the Wild River Area.
While permits are not normally required, under certain circumstances they are. For example, if money changes hands for any reason (except sharing of all costs by all particip ants) a permit would be required. If you have any question concerning this or if you are approached by a "pirate outfitter" (or if you would like a listing of authorized outfitter/guides), please contact a local U.S. Forest Service office.
It is difficult to generalize about this river since much depends on the time of year, water level, boat involved, and certainly the skills of the river-runner. Within both the Scenic River Area and the Wild River Area, this river very definitely is not meant for beginners or novices.
This river is usually run in rafts and kayaks. It is possible to run it in a whitewater canoe; however, the number of wrecked canoes that have been left along it clearly show that this can be a high-risk trip in a flat-water canoe.
During the late spring and early summer when the water is more manageable, the portion of the river above Beasley Flat (river mile 60) is popular with canoers.
Below 400 cfs (into Horseshoe Reservoir), you will begin having trouble with rocks and other obstacles. It is run at lower levels but can be very hard on equipment if certain rapids are not walked. Inflatable kayaks can also successfully negotiate the river at lower levels. Above 3,000 cfs, trees, brush, etc., along the side and in the channels become even more of a hazard, and river-running becomes significantly more dangerous.
Always be aware that water levels can change very rapidly. An optimal flow can drop off to a slow and rocky level within a day or so. An optimal flow can also raise to flood levels in even less time than that.
All safety precautions should be taken when preparing for a trip on this river. Although it does not have the big whitewater of some rivers, it does have special hazards such as trees and vegetation blocking channels, etc. Since these change from flood to flood, it is not possible to accurately show the locations of these hazards on a map.
It should also be recognized that because of the isolated nature of much of this river, little problems can very quickly become big problems.
The Verde Falls (river mile 56.8) presents a special hazard to river-runners. It can be a "Class V" under certain conditions and must be approached with extreme caution.
Safety equipment if crucial. Your personal floatation device (life vest) should be high quality and provide floatation equal to at least 10 percent of your body weight. It should be worn at all times when on the river. Because the water in March is snowmelt and very cold, full or partial wet suits can be important. Kayakers should have rescue lines installed on their boats; rafters should have a good throw-rope and know how to use it.
A Word To The Wise
The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not meant to be taken as an invitation, nor as a statement of conditions at any one time. Conditions can vary greatly in relation to temperature, weather, water level, and other factors. All persons intending to run this river are responsible for personally assessing these conditions, as well as their own ability to cope with them. You should be aware that all recreational use of this type involves a degree of risk, and persons engaging in this activity assume the risk associated therewith.
Recreation Opportunity Guide
If you plan to do some river-running on this river, we strongly suggest you request a free copy of the Verde River Recreation Opportunity Guide which has been written especially for that activity on this river. It gives detailed directions to River Access Points, shows locations of rapids, etc., and provides other important information. Copies may be requested at local Forest Service Offices or from the Forest Supervisor's Office of the Tonto National Forest (telephone: 602-225-5200).
Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that OTHER WORLD which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse—its implacable indifference. – Edward Abbey (1927 - 1989)