Arizona Rivers

Arizona rivers are not what all may envision. Their numbers are many, for a desert state. Yet 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? 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!


How to Figure Out a River?
Major?  Small?  Stream? Tributary?

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. Think of 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.

Map showing the watershed areas of ArizonaWatershed Areas Help Analyze Which Rivers & Streams
Get Water From What Types of Other Sources of Water.

According to the Center for American Progress, 92% of major Arizona Rivers have been altered for farming, recreation, utility/drinking water, etc.River protection & help is very important. They assist local economies & add to life quality.


Arizona Major Rivers

Which are those major Arizona rivers?

poster showing the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon
  • Colorado River - Named for the state, headwaters are the Green River in Wyoming. Length totals about 1700 miles, 1450 in AZ. Very popular and known throughout the world for boating/rafting, fishing, camping and hiking areas, birding and more.4 Seven river basin states recognized its importance. In 1922 the Colorado River Compact was signed for water management amongst them. In 1963 Native Americans, ignored in that pact, were ensured their water rights.5 Efforts still on, such as 2014's successful pilot program promoting discretional usage cut-backs at Lake Meade and Lake Powell.6 This famed Arizona river is getting more pressures over time.
  • 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 contributions to its flow, including White Mountain's Black & White River headwaters. Four dams create reservoirs, like Canyon Lake & Roosevelt Lake. Recreation includes tubing, rafting/kayaking, fishing, swimming, etc. The Salt River Canyon is reminiscent of a mini Grand Canyon. Quite impressive!
Below is a river in hilly desert surroundings.Gila River, Upper Basin, Flows Through Some Wild Country!
  • 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 NCA, water streams in from San Francisco & Blue Rivers, then Eagle & Bonita Creeks. Leaving the NCA, San Carlos River supplies some, for an Upper Gila basin mean 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Smaller Arizona Rivers

  • 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
  1. Winter storms or large summer Arizona Monsoon events get it running. Then Grand Falls revives. Nicknamed Chocolate Falls! Dark brown water flows over the 181+ foot riverbed cliff at about 1500 gal/min.4,5 Coloring from rushing water picking up riverbed's red sand sediment.
  • Bill Williams River - Totaling almost 449 gal/min. primarily from upstream Big Sandy River & its Burro Creek tributary. Trout Creek meets another branch of Big Sandy, both adding intermittent flow. Bill Williams ends, flowing into Lake Havasu, North of Parker Strip.
  • Black River - Headwaters at SU Knolls springs, White Mountains, adjacent to Crescent Lake. Popular fishing river. 42 cu.ft/sec. output before confluence with White River, both as Salt River tributaries.
  • White River - White Mountain headwaters east of 11,000' Mt. Warren. Rock Creek merges with the river's East Fork. Output 12 cu.ft/sec. between the two. When mingling with the Black, surge averages 61 cu.ft/sec.
  • Eagle Creek - Headwaters east of Freezeout Mountain as Dry Prong Creek. East Eagle Creek joins near Robinson Mesa, dropping east. After Willow & Cienega Creek babble in, mean 59.6 cu.ft/sec., then meets the Gila.
  • Hassayampa River - Headwaters at 7400' of Prescott Forest, adjacent to Dandrea Trail, Southwest of Mt. Davis. Looping to generally southward, through Wickenburg, often dry by then. Following US60 before veering westward until merging with the Gila. Average output 72 cu.ft/sec.
mucky stream slowly flows through wooded areaHassayampa River Looking Pretty Murky!
  • San Pedro River - Lengthy tributary to the Gila, unusual Northward flow. Headwaters almost 4700' near Mexican border, east of Coronado Peak. Before drying up in St. David, its mean issue is 38.1 cu.ft/sec. Savor it>
  • Santa Cruz River - Once a much more mighty river, its cascade has changed. 
  1. Sourced above 5000' at Meadow Valley Tank in Coronado National Forest, south of Sonoita. Southward into similar mountainous region of Mexico. Arcing westward then reentering the U.S. east of Nogales AZ, beginning its northward course. Perennial natural burble then averages 3.66 cu.ft/sec. Crossing Hwy.82 west of Nogales International Airport it begins paralleling I-19's eastside, south of Rio Rico. When arriving at Tubac, mean flow is 16 cu.ft/sec. 
  2. Continuing north, elevation is lowering, coming into Sonoran Desert environment. By Green Valley it's dry. The riverbed jogs west of I-19 northeast of Tohono O'odham Reservation, into Tucson. Where now paralleling west of I-10. 
  3. Sewage waste-water treatment river recharge begins at the Prince Road Exit. Creating Sweetwater Wetlands & also river spurt totaling 77 cu.ft/sec. before Marana's Pima/Pinal County line. Soon after it dries up ending in the desert in Eloy.

Arizona's Smallest Rivers

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.

Creek flows through a canyon-like area of stark rocks and boulders.Chevelon Creek Near Winslow

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. 

We always love driving through Oak Creek Canyon! All the gorgeous red rock scenery, 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!

A woman driving a convertible along scenic red rock cliffs.Here I am - Taking Friends for an Oak Creek Canyon Ride
In the Convertible We Had Way Back in Summer 2009

Many other small Arizona rivers are even throughout 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 the larger river cascade? We've Found Out>

On some maps, many more can be found that are named, including those that are dry washes, or arroyos. These have intermittent currents, that contribute 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.


Arizona Scenic/Wild Rivers &
National Conservation Lands

Sadly, of all Arizona rivers, only 57.3 miles are under 1968's National Wild and Scenic Rivers System's Act. It 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. As 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. Wild Arizona river area, 22.2 miles. Covering from the north boundary of Mazatzal Wilderness south to convergence with Red Creek. Scenic river section begins North of Beasley Flat in Prescott National Forest, 18.3 miles. Southern boundary is the perimeter of Mazatzal Wilderness.7
  • Fossil Creek - Amazing continuous stream for its nearly 19,300 gal/min. travertine flow, originating from artesian springs. Its wild section goes 9.3 miles, then recreational for 7.5 miles.7 Has a very popular swimming hole within Coconino National Forest. Doesn't mean it's easy to get to! But people believe it's Worth It.

National Conservation Area Arizona Rivers

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). 

Looking down at a wild desert river from an overlook.Overlooking the Gila River at a Southern Entry to Gila Box NRA
  • 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. 
  1. In winter higher water levels allow rafting or canoeing. 
  2. Other activities: camping, fishing, shoreline wading, birding, picnicking. Great place to spot bighorn sheep atop cliffs.
  • 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.
  1. We're members of Friends of the San Pedro. We're concerned with developing county areas placing pressure on the river. They sponsor weekly guided nature & history walks, which we highly recommend. (Membership not required.)
  2. River exploration is best from Fairbank AZ, or the San Pedro House, off Hwy.90 SE of Sierra Vista.
  3. An well adjacent to the San Pedro River tested for water table level reflected related ground water pressures. It can be seen the water table is lowering over time. Apparently from pressures in the area requiring more & more groundwater.

Try these, too...


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