Verde River: Turning water into wine

Map of Gila River watershed, including the Verde River

The Verde River is already about halfway through its 180-mile journey before it really becomes recognizable as a river. But by the time it accumulates enough of Arizona’s patchy precipitation about 30 miles southwest of Flagstaff, it blossoms into a perennial gem that passes through one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Just beyond the burgeoning Sedona-Verde Valley, the Verde grows large enough for mild whitewater boating in a unique and breathtaking landscape rich with wildlife and steeped in history.

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Several stretches are ideal for canoeing, kayaking, or SUP adventures, but maybe none more enticing than the 40-mile segment recognized as the first of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona, along with downstream tributary Fossil Creek.

The shallow, rugged canyon below Beasley Flats combines slightly spicier whitewater with stunning desert scenery rimmed by red rock bluffs and tiered with cactus-covered hillsides above a lush riparian corridor along the river’s edge.

Making its way into the Mazatzal Wilderness, Arizona’s largest, the Verde is a magnet for waterfowl and dozens of other bird species dependent upon its vital oasis amidst arid desert uplands. The high-quality habitat supports more than 50 threatened, endangered, sensitive, or special status fish and wildlife species.

Hikes galore offer chances to see ancient cliff dwellings in side canyons and trails that climb nearby ridges, including Montezuma Castle National Monument near Camp Verde. Like the early inhabitants that first made their home there, newer communities surrounding the river corridor depend upon the Verde still. Rather than irrigating subsistence crops, though, the modern focus is on tourism established in part through river recreation and a growing local wine industry, high yield harvests that keep more water in the river than row crops like cotton and alfalfa that have depleted the resource historically.

The Backstory

Much of the Verde Valley’s history can be traced back to a legacy of copper, gold, and silver mining in the surrounding hillsides, with little emphasis on the river once the hunter-gatherer Hohokam and Sinagua people disappeared. Market collapses led to yet another cultural shift as the spirit of mining towns abandoned in the 1950s has been rekindled through eco-tourism and a new-age metaphysical subculture.

Doug VonGausig
Verde River Paddling | Sinjin Eberle

Where nearby Sedona and the Oak Creek tributary of the Verde have long been on the tourism map, the greater Verde Valley has only recently begun to come into its own. The influx of visitors is a big boon to local economies, but it can put significant strain on natural resources already stretched thin by overuse and excessive withdrawals for outdated agriculture and growing municipalities.

Downstream, booming southwestern cities with scarce water sources render rivers like the Gila, the Salt, and its largest tributary, the Verde, almost entirely used up by the time they pass through the megalopolis of Phoenix. Should water levels in Lake Mead continue to drop, the remainder of the Verde River could easily become a target for central Arizona water supply.

The Future

In the wake of Wild & Scenic designation, small towns like Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, and Camp Verde have come to embrace the river and are actively seeking ways to connect it to their communities as a lifestyle amenity. Those efforts are paying off.

Recognizing the economic benefits and lifestyle draw of a healthy river, even local businesses are getting on board. Mining conglomerate Freeport-McMoRan has set aside a conservation easement on the upper Verde River as a contribution to the quality of life the surrounding community hopes to maintain and carry into the future.