Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Granite Reef Recreation Site

Fast Flight Facts

Target Species:  An amazing variety of desert, riparian, and aquatic birdlife

Elevation: 1300'

Habitat:  Desert Riparian habitat along a wide part of the Salt River

Overall Birding Rating: 5 (Top 10 Maricopa County Hotspot)

Difficulty: 2 (Fairly Easy)

Birding Type: Easy to Moderate Hiking

Facilities:  Parking and Restrooms

Fees/Ownership:  Six dollar Tonto National Forest Fee

Closest Town or City/How far from Phoenix:  Mesa/23 miles east-northeast of Phoenix

Getting there:  Accessed just off the Bush Highway to the parking area

Overview: If there was a birding wonderland in Maricopa County, that title would go the Granite Reef Recreation Site.  The Granite Reef Recreation Site is the first stop if coming northbound to the Salt River on the Bush Highway.  It is one of the very best spots to bird in Maricopa County (easily the best at the Salt River), where one may have an excellent bird list during any visit.  The habitat is excellent here for resident, migrant, and wintering birds alike.  Mesquite Bosque forest, willows, and tamarisk surround this recreation area riverside, and the river itself is very wide and is almost lake like in most ways, especially at the very west end where Granite Reef Dam is located.  Desert habitat surrounds the riparian and mesquite habitats.  Trails run to the east and the west for probably a quarter to a half mile both ways of the parking area. 

What makes Granite Reef so spectacular is the combination of great habitats along the Salt River.  It's basically all crammed into a stretch that is less than a mile long, where outstanding bird numbers will be found.  Any day is productive here in all seasons, especially during the migrations, late fall, and all of winter.   Other than Saguaro Lake, Granite Reef is the only other reliable place in the Salt River Area to see wintering waterfowl in abundance, so be sure to bring a scope!  This is a great site to observe Canvasbacks, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneye, and other waterfowl in large numbers.  Granite Reef is also a great spot for raptors, as Bald Eagles and Ospreys are both commonly seen here, sometimes both at the same time.  Common Moorhens are present year round, and Soras can often be seen in migration.  Migration here provides excellent habitat for many passerines, so keep eyes and ears out for that rare songbird.  Spring time brings in birds that include Ash-throated Flycatchers, Lucy's Warblers, and Bullock's Orioles for the breeding season until most birds leave close to early fall.  The mesquites in the parking lot area are excellent in winter for Gray Flycatchers, and are usually good for the stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher as well.  At Granite Reef, it is very common to have days where anywhere between fifty and seventy species can be observed in only a few hours.  Bird life can change by the hour at this promising site. 

Birding Tip: Start early, especially in the warm months.  A higher amount of species are seen and heard in the morning here, although this spot is often a success at all times of the day.  If you have a scope, it would be a good idea to scan the waters for waterfowl, especially in the winter.  The trails can be covered rather quickly, and the waterfowl can usually be scoped in a timely manner, depending on the abundance of species on the river.  Once checking on the waterbirds, put the scope away and focus on landbirds in the riverside habitat, mesquites, and willows along the trail.  Songbirds can be just as abundant as waterbirds at this spot, and should require a careful search as well with hands being scope free.  In spring and fall migrations, warblers and vireos are very common.  Hiking in the western end of the site gets you into very thick vegetation that is often good for birds like Crissal Thrashers.  In winter, this vegetation was good enough to harbor a Winter Wren which spent the winter.  Bobcat and Javelina also reside in these dense thickets.  Near the western border of the recreation area also lies several open grassy areas, which are often great for different sparrows and buntings.  At the parking lot, by looking south across the street, the typical desert species may be observed.  Making a few visits to Granite Reef during the day is also a great idea.  What one might see one hour may completely change in a few hours.  This is truly a site where birds come and go.

Directions:  If coming north on the Bush Highway from Power Road, the Granite Reef Recreation Site will be your first stop, as the road turns to the right.  This site is located between mile markers 21 and 22, and the parking area is just west of marker 22.  Vise versa, if coming southbound on the Bush Highway (from Highway 87), Granite Reef will be your last stop. 


Granite Reef Maps

Granite Reef Recreation Site eBird Data


Scenes and Sights from Granite Reef Recreation Site:

Typical River Views

Parking and Picnic Area

Typical Trail Views

View of Granite Reef Dam

Birdlife of Granite Reef Recreation Site:

Tundra Swan (rare in Maricopa County)


Common Goldeneye

Bald Eagle


Winter Wren (rarity)

Yellow-rumped "Myrtle" Warbler

Pacific Loon (rarity)

White-throated Sparrow (uncommon to rare winter visitor)


Back to Area 2-Lower Salt River Recreation Area

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