Riding the Desert Runoff

In the desert southwest, patient paddlers are rewarded with world-class whitewater kayaking.

Boatable flows are elusive in the desert southwest. Paddlers must await the right year, right snow pack, and right rainfall if they are to pick off some of these little-known whitewater runs. Tyler Williams struck gold this year, notching runs on several rare creeks in Arizona.

Agua Fria with high water.

Agua Fria

Chasing water in Arizona is an exercise in persistence. Often you get skunked by too little water, and sometimes it’s the other way around. In 2017 we had the better of the two dilemmas. Here, Jonathan Olsen portages one of the Agua Fria’s signature rapids—Rail Slide—at a roaring 2,500 cfs. We portaged a dozen times on this day. Olsen and Tom Herring returned later in the season to find a perfect 700 cfs, and they flashed the run in record time. Sometimes persistence pays off.

Tom Herring boof Hellsgate.

Tonto Hellsgate

Climate change is shifting paddling seasons in the desert Southwest. Tonto Creek’s Hellsgate run was once a snowmelt affair in March or April, but in recent years the “season” has shifted backward into February, or earlier. This year, a January high water cycle forced paddlers to get creative. In order to avoid the snowed-in upper reaches of the run, downstream tributary Spring Creek was explored, offering access to Hellsgate’s lower gorges.

Ted Decker on upper Oak Creek

Oak Creek

The standard put-in for a run down Oak Creek is located 5 miles above Sedona, Arizona, where a major side stream boosts the flow. In 2017, there was enough water to make upstream stretches runnable, and rarely paddled sections became commonplace. Here, Ted Decker finds the light on the newly anointed Cave Springs run.

Paria River


—Read the full story about packrafting the Paria on C&K.

—Read about more desert paddling in Seldom Seen Floats on C&K.