Arizona rivers are not what everyone may envision. Their numbers are many, for a desert state with a really varied climate!
We're from Arizona, and have been in nearly every one of the state's climate zones. To all but the Alpine Tundra, found at two of our highest mountain tops, above 11,000 ft.
We love our Arizona rivers. About 90,373 river miles in AZ! Is that amazing?
Think about this - If it weren't for rivers, we wouldn't have many (maybe most) of the southwestern U.S. lakes.
Arizona Rivers and Lakes are related, actually depending on each other. But we're worried about many of them, for their habitat and resources for recreation.
I'm sure you know of the Colorado River. Maybe you know about the Salt River. But have you heard of the San Pedro River? Or the Black River, or the Gila River? They're in different areas of Arizona. Flowing through varied climate zones, meeting various challenges.
This is the Rillito River in Tucson, the town where we live:
No, it doesn't usually look this way! Our Monsoon Season of 2021 was exceptional. But how does this river usually look? Well you'll find out here!
Let's go on a virtual trip to the best Arizona Rivers. See where they are, how their water arises, where it goes. Maybe you'll graduate from virtual to real-world. And then help them out, too!
What is a major river? An algorithm for figuring this out was first created in 1952 by geoscientist Arthur Newell Strahler.
It's like a branching tree. Called the Strahler Stream Order, classifying rivers by their tributaries. Higher classification means a more major river, because of more tributaries. Contributing to its water flow.
Another method expanded this: Shreve. Giving additive credit when tributaries link to each other.
Another way is water flow.
For instance, consistent water flow higher than 163 cu.ft./second defines a major river. Typically that's Arizona rivers on which you can boat or raft.1
Another type of analysis is Watersheds, using Hydrologic Units. Most of Arizona is in the Lower Colorado Regional Watershed. The codes have digits reflecting local waters: rainfall, recharge, snow-melt, etc. contributing to drainage into individual rivers.
According to the Center for American Progress, 92% of major Arizona Rivers have been altered for farming, recreation, utility/drinking water, etc.2 River protection & help is very important. They assist local economies & add to life quality.
What are those major Arizona rivers?
Colorado River - Named for the state, headwaters are amidst the Green River in Wyoming. Length totals about 1700 miles, 1450 in AZ.
Salt River - With median flow of 685.68 cu.ft/sec., this popular river is valuable for many reasons. Although a 200 mile major Arizona river, it's a tributary of the Gila River.
But kind-of a misnomer, as it's dry when reaching Phoenix. Except for the created Tempe Town Lake.
Many upstream contributors to its flow, including White Mountain's Black & White River headwaters. The Salt River Canyon is reminiscent of a mini Grand Canyon. Quite impressive!
Four dams along its length create reservoirs: Saguaro, Canyon & Apache Lakes. Plus the largest, Roosevelt Lake.
Recreation includes tubing, rafting/kayaking, fishing, swimming, etc.
Gila River - Consider its two parts. Headwaters in New Mexico, then getting to the state line, as an Arizona river its flow averages 207 cu.ft/sec.
Going through rural southeastern AZ, entering Gila Box National Conservation Area. Water streams in from San Francisco & Blue Rivers, then Eagle & Bonita Creeks.
Leaving the NCA, San Carlos River supplies some flow, for an Upper Gila basin average of 1,371 cu.ft/sec.
Entering the lower basin, it intermittently gets water from tributaries like Agua Fria & Hassayampa Rivers. From this, total Lower Gila flow at the Colorado River near Yuma is almost 1,496 cu.ft/sec.
Virgin River - Headwaters in Utah. Only coursing through Arizona's far Northwest corner, it's a Colorado River tributary, via entering Lake Meade. Where its volume averages 271.6 cu.ft/sec.
Verde River - Fabulous natural river in upstream areas. Essentially between Perkinsville & Packard Ranch, then from Childs until you get to Horseshoe Reservoir.3
This Arizona river has strong tributaries like Beaver, Oak & Granite Creeks advancing flow means to nearly 1535 cu.ft/sec.
Downstream finds dams creating Horseshoe & Bartlett Lake.
Little Colorado River - Sourced at Mt. Baldy's Wilderness, not long before meeting up with dams. Has an unusual northwest flow. What little's left empties into the much bigger Arizona River: the Colorado.
Flowing pretty well in high county, it's a trickle when arriving at the Navajo Nation.4
Bill Williams River - Totaling almost 449 gal/min. primarily from upstream Big Sandy River & its Burro Creek tributary.
Black River - Headwaters at SU Knolls springs, White Mountains, adjacent to Crescent Lake.
White River - White Mountain headwaters east of 11,000' Mt. Warren.
Eagle Creek - Headwaters east of Freezeout Mountain as Dry Prong Creek.
Hassayampa River - Headwaters at 7400' in Prescott Forest, adjacent to Dandrea Trail, Southwest of Mt. Davis.
San Pedro River - Lengthy tributary to the Gila, unusual Northward flow.
Santa Cruz River - Once a much more mighty river, its cascade has immensely changed.
Consistently flowing small rivers and streams in Arizona are valuable tributaries to larger Arizona rivers. Quite a few notable ones course throughout the state. As primary, secondary, or even tertiary tributaries, they contribute significant water flow into larger rivers.
Some of them are in more mountainous areas, like Show Low Creek, Chevelon Creek, and Granite Creek.
You may have heard of the very popular Oak Creek, which runs through a beautiful canyon. And then through Sedona Arizona. All the gorgeous red rock scenery.
We always love driving through, and staying in Oak Creek Canyon!
There's a wonderful state park, and scenic places to pitch your tent, or pull in your small RV, off the grid. A little too rough? Find cabin rentals all along the route, as well!
Many other small Arizona rivers traverse desert areas. Some of these are Cave Creek, Agua Fria River, Tonto Creek, much of Sabino Creek, and Cienega Creek.
What are all these smaller Arizona rivers and streams contributing to larger river cascades? Most do so intermittently.
On some maps, many more can be found that are named, including those that are dry washes, or arroyos. These have sporadic currents, contributing water during heavy winter rains, or monsoon storms.
Their dry stream beds support wildlife and plant-life, though. So even without steadily running outpours, their riparian river/stream side areas are very valuable to the environment.
Sadly, of all Arizona rivers, only 57.3 miles are under 1968's National Wild and Scenic Rivers System's Act. The criteria says because a river has "outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, [it] shall be preserved in free-flowing condition."7
Why? So the river itself, and surroundings, will be around interminably as a treasure for all. Congress or the Secretary of the Interior can designate rivers. Even portions of a river, optionally including tributaries. Classifying them as wild, recreational or scenic.7 Which Arizona rivers have Been Assigned under this act?
Verde River - Both a scenic and wild river.
Fossil Creek - Amazing continuous stream for its nearly 19,300 gal/min. travertine flow, originating from artesian springs.
Similar to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, National Conservation Areas specify public lands for protection, conservation, recreation, enhancement & resource management when appropriated by Congress. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Gila River8,9 - Year round kayaking (summer inflatable) in this National Conservation Area River in Gila Box NCA.
Over 20 miles of the Gila are designated here, within Four riparian zones.
San Pedro River - Flowing north from the international border, year-round through about 40 miles of Riparian NCA.8 Not long afterwards, around St. David, it dries up; surging intermittently with rain run-off.
See References For Arizona Rivers>
Some Directional Information on This Page May be sourced from Map data ©Google
All River Flow Data from Arizona Water Science Center at waterdata.usgs.gov