The East Verde River begins its journey at the top of the Mogollon Rim north of Payson, Arizona, flowing generally southwesterly through the Tonto National Forest to its confluence with the Verde River deep in the Matzatal Wilderness.
Along the way, the East Verde undergoes a remarkable change of elevation from just over 7,000 feet down to just less than 2,500 feet. With every move away from its headwaters toward the confluence with the Verde River, the East Verde experiences a gradient of habitat and climate change – from tall cool Ponderosa pine forests down to the warm desert with Saguaro cactus.
The flow of the East Verde River is dependent on rainfall, snowmelt, and supplementation from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The Salt River Project supplements the natural flow of the river with water pumped from Blue Ridge Reservoir located on East Clear Creek via a 15-mile pipeline. East Clear Creek and the Blue Ridge Reservoir are actually not in the Verde Watershed; they are in the Little Colorado Watershed. The Salt River Project website relays the full history about this interesting supplementation.
Near the middle of its course, the river flows near Payson, Arizona, providing the town with recreational activities such as swimming holes and fishing. Among the fish that are stocked in the East Verde River are rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass, and sunfish. There are also remaining, but struggling, populations of native fish in the river including roundtail chub, headwater chub, speckled dace, and Sonora sucker.
This major tributary of the Verde River also provides many other recreational opportunities such as hiking, camping, hunting, kayaking, birdwatching, and various other activities. In addition to recreation, many communities in the area also rely on this tributary for water.
Among one of the most popular motorized trails in the area is East Verde River Trail, which goes into the Matzatal Wilderness. This is a 14-mile route along the river that includes swimming holes, lakes, canyons, and ruins. The petroglyphs located along the route in Hieroglyphic Canyon ties the land to the history of the cliff-dwelling early Native Americans in the area. It is common to come across treasures such as ruins, petroglyphs, potshards, and grinding stones while exploring along the East Verde River.
Near Payson, walks along the river riparian zone provide lush vegetation and reed-rimmed beaches that attract locals and visitors. Hiking is primarily a wandering adventure as there are not a lot of marked trails in the area. In this case, bushwhacking, wading, and walking along sandy beaches are necessary and provide for a memorable and enjoyable experience.
Hiking along the river is recommended, as the river is an easy feature to follow to avoid getting lost. Many established trails, which either cross the East Verde or explore the greater watershed, are found in the Matzatal Wilderness or the Tonto National Forest.
Paddlers from all over come to kayak the East Verde for its remote desert setting. Among the most popular runs is a 34-mile challenging segment that includes numerous Class IV to V+ rapids and drops that test the skills of expert whitewater kayakers, while providing enjoyable canyon scenery. This particular section is seasonally navigable April through June if there was sufficient snowpack over the preceding winter. Small gorges and waterfall drops characterize the East Verde River, which keep the paddlers returning.
The area around the East Verde River has much to offer in terms of sightseeing. A drive to the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a scenic stop into a travertine bridge that stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot natural tunnel. This bridge is viewable from the parking lot and hikes are available down to this beautiful geologic wonder. Other sites such as Dead Cow Canyon and Walnut Spring are great stops while near the East Verde River.
One admirer of the East Verde River describes its changing allure through the seasons as the “the angular austerity of winter, the green haze of the first leaves, the riotous green of August, the brilliance of fall, the ritual mourning of the fallen leaves, the exhilarating rush of summer floods, the cold, sullen fury of winter storms, the smell of damp earth and new grass and decaying leaves and approaching storms.”