Floating the Gila
March 2009
by Rich Henke

The Gila River (pronounced HEE-lah) is one of the longest rivers in the West. Starting at the Continental Divide in Southwestern New Mexico, the Gila flows some 500 miles west to join the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona. The area it drains is larger than the Green River Basin, in Utah and Colorado, and 4 times larger than the Salmon River Basin in Idaho. It is quite obscure and almost unknown to river runners outside of New Mexico and Arizona. The reason for this is that it has very little water. And the water it does have is generally used up by people along the way. However, the headwaters of the Gila still flow freely. In most years, it is possible for small boats to float some of the river and occasionally, with good timing, there is enough water for rafts.

I had been thinking about floating the Gila for several years. After floating both the Dirty Devil and Escalante rivers in Southern Utah, I was looking for another low flow river suitable for my SOAR inflatable canoe. And based on the difficulty I had in obtaining information, the Gila might provide an adventure.

After looking at guidebooks, making several phone calls, and doing some research on the web, I divided the river up into 7 different sections, from east to west. A short description of each section follows.

(1) Wilderness Run from Grapevine Campground near Gila National Monument, NM to Mogollon Creek. (41 miles, class 2 (3 at high water), 3-4 days). This section is very rocky and the minimum flow required for canoes or inflatables is 200 cfs. There wasn't enough water to float this section. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Gila was very low in the Spring of 2009.
(2) New Mexico Middle Box from south of Cliff, NM to the Redrock Bridge. (18 miles, class 3+, 1 day). We were not looking for a technical run so we did not pursue this section.
(3) New Mexico Lower Box from Redrock Bridge to just east of Virden where Highway 92 crosses the river. (19 miles, class 1-2, 1-2 days). This section sounded interesting.
(4) Unnamed section from Hwy 92 bridge to the start of the Arizona Gila Box. (42 miles, class 1, 3-4 days). We decided that this section traversed too much private land.
(5) Arizona Gila Box from the Old Safford Bridge to the Spring Canyon Picnic Area in the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. (23 miles, class 1-2, 1-3 days). This section, located in eastern Arizona, was well documented and appeared to receive regular use .
(6) The next section of river flows through private land and ends at the reservoir formed by the Coolidge Dam. It did not appear to be a good candidate to float.
(7) The Lower Gila - Coolidge Dam to Florence, Arizona. (67 miles, Class 1-2, 3-5 days). This section starts below the dam and continues until the water is diverted by the diversion dam just east of Florence. The river is dry from that point on. Water levels are determined by the dam releases which are forecasted on the web.

In March 2009, Armando Menocal and I decided to drive to Southern Arizona and try some of the above. Armando drove from Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I drove from Redondo Beach, CA. We ended up attempting 3 of the sections and were successful on 2 of them.

Arizona Gila Box - 3 days
Armando and I met at the BLM office in Safford, Arizona on the morning of March 23. BLM Ranger Rich Law gave us maps and a draft copy of a "Gila Box Floaters Guide". We drove to the put-in at the Old Safford Bridge via the Black Hills Backcountry Byway, a high clearance dirt road passing through a historic and scenic area east of the river. After stopping at the various viewpoints and reading all the interpretative signs, we reached the Old Safford Bridge and camped nearby.
We launched the next morning with water levels slightly below 100 cfs and spent 3 days and 2 nights on the river. Our boat was a 14-foot, 2 person inflatable SOAR canoe with a self-bailing floor. We had to get out and push several times, but this was not difficult and we could have done the float at even lower water levels. In the first few miles, we passed through some private property which included two fences that spanned the river. Well marked signs were posted before the fences and the SOAR was able to slip under both of them at the low water levels we encountered. The fences were not barbed wire. At mile 7, the San Francisco River entered from the north which effectively doubled the flow in the river. The first camp was at Eagle Creek (mile 9.5) and the second at the end of the Orange Cliffs (mile 18.5). We explored several side canyons, finding flowing water in some of them. This section of the Gila passes through a beautiful deep canyon and is very worthwhile. We had the river to ourselves the entire time except for a couple in a canoe who launched just before we did, and a solitary hiker.

New Mexico Lower Box
After finishing the Gila Box, we drove into New Mexico and tried to float the Lower Box starting at Redrock, New Mexico and ending at the Hwy 92 bridge across the Gila just east of Virden, New Mexico. Leaving a car at the finish, we drove to Redrock but were unable to access the river because of private property. It is surprising that access to BLM land is restricted. We were told by a resident that this closure had occurred several years earlier. Since Redrock is also the take-out for the New Mexico Middle Box, we wondered whether access to that section is also restricted. I made some phone calls after returning home but I still don't have an answer.

The Lower Gila - 4 days
Failing on the Lower Box, the next section of interest was the portion of the Gila River below the Coolidge Dam. Earlier I had talked to someone in the Apache Indian Reservation about the possibility of launching at the dam. They had no problem with that as long as I paid the daily recreation fee that they charge on the reservation. But I was told that I would not be able to access the river below the dam since all the roads were gated and locked. Supposedly, this was a security measure that was in effect since 9/11. Someone thinks that terrorists might want to attack central Arizona!
We were able to launch further downstream at a river access point called Christmas, located about 7 miles north of Winkleman on Highway 77. The amount of water being released from the Coolidge Dam was about 600 cfs which was more than enough flow for us. We spent 4 days and 3 nights floating the Lower Gila. There was an almost constant wall of tamarisk and brush on both sides of the river for most of the 40-mile float. Some of the hundreds of sweepers we negotiated were quite challenging. The river passed through BLM and private land but we didn't see much development due to the heavy brush. Between Winkleman and Kelvin, the river passed through an enormous, active copper mine. Huge piles of tailings were visible in the distance, but close up we saw only trees, birds, and wildlife (otters, beavers, and javelina). The occasional non-brushy areas close to the waters edge provided us with campsites. There were no other people on the river which was not surprising. This section of the Gila doesn't get visited very often. We took out at the old ghost town of Cochrine, which has high-clearance road access from the Kelvin-Florence Road. Cochrine is located about 6 miles east of the Ashurst-Hayden diversion dam where the flow of the Gila effectively ends.
Our major complaint concerns cattle fences across the Lower Gila. We encountered four of them.
(1) The first one was just 1/4 mile below the Christmas access point and was constructed of vertical slats of some kind. We were able to pass through a 4-foot wide gap but rafts would not have been able to get through. The slats were fastened at the bottom so they did not "swing free".
(2) The second was immediately after the highway bridge across the Gila at Winkleman. This fence could be pushed through very easily by any kind of craft. It was fastened only at the top.
(3) The third was located a short distance downstream just after the railway bridge. Luckily we saw it ahead of time. It was constructed of wire, but not barbed wire. We had to portage this fence since the water flow was too fast to allow us to slip under it.
(4) The 4th fence was barbed wire, and it was a problem and quite dangerous. We encountered it on BLM land about 2/3 of the way between Kelvin and Cochrine. It was installed at a curve in the river where the current was moving fast and came without warning. We were very lucky to be able to grab onto a tamarisk bush just inches before we hit the fence. Had that bush not been there, our boat would have been damaged and we could have been injured.
We understand the need for fences to control cattle, but there is no excuse for not having a warning sign. Signs should be posted before all fences so that future paddlers do not risk getting hurt. It is easy to post signs during the time of year that the water levels are low. And why barbed wire? Non-barbed wire seems to work fine in the Gila Box area. We reported the problem to the BLM but have not heard of any resolution of the problem yet.

Paddling the Gila is certainly an adventure. It was nice to paddle "away from the crowds", but look out for the fences.

Sources of Information
(1) Western Whitewater. Book was published in 1994 so information is outdated.
(2) Rivers of the Southwest. Book was published in 1987 so it is even more outdated.
(3) A map of the Gila Box area published by the BLM and available from the Safford BLM.
(4) A draft copy of an excellent new guide to the Gila Box area published by the Safford BLM called A Guide to the Gila River.
(5) A brochure entitled 'Black Hills Back Country Byway', published by the BLM.
(6) Five 1:100,000 maps published by the BLM, entitled Globe, Safford, Mesa, Silver City, and Clifton.
(7) Rich Law ( 928-348-4400) at the Safford BLM - helpful for the Arizona Gila Box.
(8) Francisco Mendoza (520-258-7226) at the Tucson BLM - helpful for the Lower Gila.
(9) John Kramer (575-536-9461) at the Gila National Monument Visitors Center - helpful for the Wilderness Run.
(10) Two recreation road maps: Tucson and Southeast Arizona, and Phoenix and Central Arizona published by North Star Mapping.
(11) Southwest Paddler website. Contains some old trip reports. http://southwestpaddler.com/docs/gila.html
(12) All About Rivers website www.allaboutrivers.com
(13) 5 day forecast of river flow rates below Coolidge Dam
(14) Arizona river flow rates
(15) New Mexico river flow rates
(16) Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area
(17) Weather
(18) Western snow levels as percent of normal
(19) Information about SOAR canoes

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