Gila Box - Think Inside The Box!
Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area offers gorgeous scenery, fun floating, bird watching, picnicking, great hiking, and more.
February 15, 2015
A few months ago I wrote about some hikes near Safford in the Pinaleno Mountains, and the hiking and fishing available at Roper Lake and Dankworth Pond. The Safford area has a lot to offer, and it's a great place to visit this time of year because the weather is gorgeous and it's the perfect time to hike or just camp somewhere beautiful.
If you take Highway 70 east from Safford for ten miles or so, you will come to Highway 191. Follow 191 to milepost 160, four miles south of Clifton, and turn onto the Black Hills Country Byway. If you want to take a nice day drive, you can follow this historical road for 21 miles and see some beautiful scenery.
You should allow at least a couple of hours for this drive, as the road isn't paved and it can be quite narrow. Also, there are places where there are abrupt drop-offs alongside the road, as well as places where there are steep cliffs on both sides.
You need a high-clearance vehicle, and if you plan to take any side roads you'll need a 4WD vehicle. There are lots of places where you'll want to take a few snapshots, so allow extra time and be sure to bring along water.
Float The Gila Box
Anyway, when you take the Byway from the east end, it's only about 4 miles to the Conservation Area. The road is well marked, and just before you cross the concrete bridge you'll come to Old Safford Bridge Gila River Float Boat Put In. If you want to float through the Gila Box, this is where you put in.
There is parking for your vehicle and a nice sandy area where you can launch. This is also a fabulous place for a picnic, with big shady trees, a pit toilet, and that lovely bridge to look at. There are plenty of birds, too. Riparian areas in Arizona are magnets for Wildlife.
Floating the Gila Box can take a single day if the flow is high, but if you want to relax and look around, or the water is low, your trip will most likely take three days or so, and two nights. When the water is very slow you'll probably have to get out and walk it through a few spots.
There are also now two fences across the river that you need to watch out for. They are not barbed wire, and they are easy enough to go under, but you should still keep your eyes open. The first one is 1.3 miles DOWNSTREAM from the Old Safford Bridge, and the other is 2.7 miles DOWNSTREAM from the bridge. About seven miles DOWNSTREAM the San Francisco River flows into the Gila, and the water gets a lot higher and faster.
Know Before You Go
The river passes through a beautiful canyon and there are also some little side canyons you can explore. There are signs at the kiosk at the Old Safford Bridge Put In, and they explain what kinds of boats do best at various flow levels, but you need to know what those levels are before you go. The USGS has a website that will give you that information: water.usgs.gov/realtime.html.
The cliff walls soar up to 500 feet high along the route, and there are over 150 species of birds that take up residence here at various times of the year. Mostly, you will enjoy solitude and beautiful scenery.
There is a $3 fee per person for floating the river, and there is primitive camping at Bonita Creek and along the river. Fees are paid at self-service stations at the campgrounds and at the put-in area at the Bridge.
Visit The Bridge
The Old Safford Bridge Put In is a great place to visit even if you aren't planning to float the river, but you can also get in and enjoy the river from the west side of the Gila Box. From Safford, just go 5 miles east on 70 to the town of Solomon and turn left on Sanchez Road.
Follow this road to the end of the pavement and then just follow the signs to Bonita Creek and the lower end of the Gila Box. Here you'll find another kiosk and a great view of the river. This is also the place where floaters will get out of the water, and there is plenty of parking there.
An Easy Little Hike
If you fancy an easy little hike, the Cottonwood Trail is a 2-1/2 mile easy loop that links the Serna Cabin Picnic Area, Riverview Campground, the Fly W Group Day Use Area, and the Kearny Camp Monument. Campground fees are just $5/day and you can have two vehicles at each site. There's a maximum of five days. You'll have to pack in all your own supplies, because there are no services at the sites.
Because it is a riparian area, the Gila Box is a wonderful place for birding. If you go to the BLM Web site, you can print out a birding list.
Even if you're not planning to float the river or camp, you will really enjoy a day trip that includes both of the areas I've just told you about. We actually visited the Old Safford Bridge area first, then headed north on Highway 191 and visited Clifton, Morenci, and the world's largest cypress tree, which I also detailed in the previous story about the Safford area.
Next On Our List
I have always hunted and explored, ever since I was a kid and my dad would take us all over the state. I also have a love of maps, and I really hate to get rid of them, even if they are old and outdated. That's how I discovered that Highway 191 used to be Highway 666, nicknamed "The Highway to Hell."
My old map actually still had it marked 666. If you plan ahead, you can make a reservation to visit the Morenci copper mines - we're going to do that next time. And there is a great looking bridge in Clifton that has a tiny park next to it - plan to stop there and take some photos and maybe have a bite to eat.
A Fantastic Corner Of Arizona
This is a fantastic corner of Arizona, and if you haven't been there yet, make plans to go soon before it gets too hot. Of course, floating the river can be fun in the summer, but use common sense: A couple of years ago, two ladies decided to float down the river on inner tubes - with no supplies and wearing nothing but swim suits! They had assumed it would only take a couple of hours.
They were rescued by helicopter after family and friends reported them missing - found alive, but dehydrated and sunburned. Do your homework, and always take plenty of water with you.
River Flow Recommendations For Floaters
January through April are typically the months with the highest flows, from snow melting and rain. The water is really cold at this time of year, and the flows can range from 100,000 cubic feet per second to just 250.
When the CFS is over 10,000, they suggest you don't try the river. At 6000 to 10,000, rafts of 14 feet or better, with experienced boaters are best.
From 3,500 to 6,000 CFS, 12-foot rafts or very experienced hard-shell kayakers can tackle the river, but at all these rates there could be a lot of whitewater and quite a bit of debris in the water, some of it big enough to do a lot of damage.
A flow of 1,500 to 3,500 is best for beginners with rafts and a challenge for kayaks.