Upper Verde River


As Arizona’s only Wild and Scenic River, the Verde’s mood varies from gentle meanders to white-water rapids as it winds through mountains, upland plains and desert valleys of central Arizona. As much of it flows through federally and state managed land, the Verde provides unique recreational opportunities, including hiking, bird-watching, fishing, and kayaking. Rich in natural beauty, the upper Verde and its tributaries support extensive woody riparian and wetland vegetation that provides critical habitat for native fish, birds and mammals, including several federally endangered and threatened species.

Upper Verde River

The upper Verde River originates in Yavapai County, Arizona, east of Paulden from a series of springs in the remote and rugged upper canyons below Sullivan Lake. Most of the first 22 miles of the Verde’s base flow is dependent on these springs, fed by interconnected aquifers in the Big Chino basin. Below Perkinsville the Verde is joined by additional springs and the ephemeral tributaries of Granite Creek, Big Chino Wash, Hell Canyon, and Sycamore Canyon. Perennial tributaries—Oak Creek, Wet Beaver Creek, and West Clear Creek—as well as ephemeral washes, feed the middle Verde River. Below a 40-mile stretch designated as Wild and Scenic, the Horseshoe and Bartlett dams form two major reservoirs before the lower Verde joins the Salt River south of Fountain Hills.

The Upper Verde River lies within the Transition Zone of central Arizona, between the Colorado Plateau to the north and the Basin and Range zone to the south. The watershed extends from the Coconino Plateau in the north to the Salt River in the south, and from the Juniper and Santa Maria Mountains in the west to the Mogollon Rim in the east. The 140-mile Verde drains 6,615 square miles of Arizona, and is prone to flooding. Until the 1890s, the riparian zone was, in places, over a mile wide, creating a series of marshes and sloughs that provided habitat for a variety of plants and animals. A severe flood event in 1983 incised the river channel. Peck’s Lake and Tavasci Marsh, near Cottonwood, are abandoned meanders of the ancestral Verde River.

Ecological Importance

The Verde supports extensive woody riparian and wetland vegetation, and provides critical habitat for a diversity of native aquatic and riparian-dependent species. Historically the Verde River supported 16 native fish species; only 10 remain. These include the federally endangered razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow, as well as the threatened spikedace. Three sensitive riparian herpetofauna species survive in the watershed: the northern Mexican gartersnake, the narrow headed gartersnake, and the lowland leopard frog. The Verde River supports a high density of breeding birds; over 200 resident and neo-tropical migratory bird species have been recorded. Species such as the federally endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo depend on the river’s woody riparian forests of cottonwood, willow and ash for their tenuous survival. The Verde supports the largest number of bald eagle breeding areas of any river in the state, and is one of only three rivers in Arizona with populations of river otter.

Human History
The Verde River is significant for its history, cultural and biological values, recreational opportunities, and scenery. In the Verde Valley, cliff ruins and pueblos at Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle National Monuments provide evidence of the Sinagua culture dating from A.D. 1000. Earlier cultures may have lived in the valley as much as 10,000 years ago. As in other parts of the Southwest, an extensive drought in the late 1200s probably contributed to abandonment of these sites. Spanish missionaries visited the area in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, but did not attempt to settle there. European settlement began in the 1860s when gold was discovered near Prescott in 1863.


Since the late 1800s, human activities have affected the river’s ecosystems through introduction of non-native aquatic and vegetative species, timber harvest, grazing, fire suppression, mining, agriculture, development, groundwater pumping, and surface diversions. Surface water is heavily diverted for agricultural irrigation. All domestic, municipal, and industrial water comes from groundwater pumping in the watersheds; additional irrigation water also comes from groundwater in the Big and Little Chino watersheds, above the river’s headwater springs.

In 1999, Yavapai County was the fastest growing rural county in the United States. Its population—132,000 in the year 2000—is expected to more than double over the next 50 years. Continued depletion of aquifers through groundwater pumping to support this growth threatens the flow of the springs, and therefore the flow of the upper Verde.  

While water quality of the river is generally good, past mining operations have resulted in high levels of sodium, turbidity, boron, mercury, iron, ammonium, and selenium in some areas.

Twenty-five non-native fish, bullfrogs and crayfish displace, compete with, or prey on native aquatic and riparian species, contributing to declines and loss of native species. However, sport fishing in the Verde River, particularly in the Camp Verde area, is a popular pastime.

Near the headwaters, Arizona Game and Fish Department manages the Upper Verde River Wildlife Area for riparian habitat and native fish diversity. Tavasci Marsh has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society of Northern Arizona. The National Park Service manages several national monuments within the watershed, including Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle, for their pre-historic significance. The Verde River Greenway, a 6-mile stretch of cottonwood-willow gallery forest near Cottonwood, is managed by the State Park system as a natural area. The Fort Verde State Historic Site preserves the first military installation in the Verde Valley. The Wild and Scenic River segments begin at Beasley Flat and include about 40 miles of river, managed for its free-flowing character and wild and scenic values.

Contributing writers
Brenda Smith, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Jeri Ledbetter.

Photo © Jeri Ledbetter



Tuzigoot National Monument
National Forest Service
Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Water Resources

USGS Stream flow and water quality data
Verde River Basin Partnership

Biological Information

Riparian inventories U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Threatened and endangered species in Arizona

Historical Information

Sharlot Hall Museum
Special Collections at the Northern Arizona University Library

Arizona Historical collections at Arizona State University.


Verde Watershed Association
Friends of the Verde River Greenway
National Forest Service
Arizona State Parks
Verde Wild and Scenic Comprehensive River Management Plan


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