The Gila River is a major waterway for Arizona, though significant flows are rare. This reach usually runs year-round, depending upon local rainfall, but the best conditions are normally found in the early to late spring, when snows melt in the San Francisco Mountains of Apache National Forest in far western New Mexico. The river begins as three forks (North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork) north of Silver City and west of Truth of Consequences. From its headwaters the Gila River flows west through Safford, Florence, Glendale and Yuma, then into California along the Mexico border to the Colorado River. The Gila River has three major tributaries in the San Carlos, San Francisco and San Simon Rivers in southeastern Arizona.
From the Virden, New Mexico access off SH 92 (SH 75 in Arizona) to Solomon Pass Road low-water bridge take-out just north of Solomon, the Gila River flows about 65 miles. The first 40 miles is in a southeast to northwest direction, turning northeast to southwest about a mile above the Eagle Creek confluence, then flowing about 13.5 miles to the Dry Canyon boat take-out (BLM) and finally about 11.5 miles more to the Town of Solomon at US Highway 70 near Rope Lake State Park. Like most Arizona waterways, the Gila spends most of its life as a dry, sandy riverbed with a lot of small to large rocks holding it down, but this reach is generally navigable year-round, and after any significant local rainfall the stream can rise quickly to a Class II to III river with a moderately strong current. It is free-flowing from its New Mexico headwaters to Ashurst-Hayden Dam about 15 miles below the Town of Kelvin, including the entire run described in this report.
The Gila is very typically Arizona topography - all around the riverbed is miles of Sonoran desert, rolling hills, small, sandy mountains with scrub brush foliage and a lot of snakes, scorpions and other unsavory critters that paddlers would usually rather not encounter. The Gila Box area is rife with an abundance of Arizona sycamores, Goodding willows, Fremont cottonwoods, walnuts, mesquite and numerous species of ground vegetation that create a green ribbon of plant life along the river corridor. The Box is home to about 42 mammal, 175 bird, 34 reptile and 10 amphibian species of wildlife that are supported by native vegetation and the river. Black bears, mule deer, javelina, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, beavers, mountain lions and other such creatures may be seen by a lucky visitor to this area.
Late fall rains sometimes provide the most dependable flows for boating, but this river can rise anytime it rains hard, then drop again almost as suddenly. Sustainable flows seldom last for more than a few days to a few weeks. There are no river-related services along this reach of the river.
Greenlee and Graham Counties in far southeastern Arizona near the New Mexico border. Tucson is the nearest sizeable Arizona city, and Las Cruces is the closest major city in New Mexico. It flows through the Peloncillo Mountains just south of Apache National Forest.
Tucson 170 miles; Phoenix 210 miles; Flagstaff 348 miles; Albuquerque 310 miles; Durango 522 miles; Grand Junction 740 miles; Denver 747 miles; Salt Lake City 855 miles; Oklahoma City 852 miles; Dallas 807 miles; Austin 773 miles; San Antonio 754 miles; Houston 932 miles; Little Rock 1,125 miles; Kansas City 1,129 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)
When it flows the Gila is usually clean and sandy brown, turning slightly clear if flows are sustained for several days after a significant rainfall. Flows are usually low and slow except right after a flash flood, in which case the river may flow fast and furious, occasionally running out of its banks.
Late fall or early to mid spring are usually the best times to catch navigable waters in the Gila River, but it can become a boatable stream anytime right after a major local rainstorm in the drainage basin. This reach of the Gila River generally has a navigable flow almost year-round except during periods of extended drought conditions.
Permits are not required for paddling most of this reach of the Gila River. Fees, however, are required by the BLM for paddling through the Gila Box Riparian Area (Gila River Riparian Natural Conservation Area) between the Owl Creek Campground at the Old Safford bridge and Dry Canyon boat take-out, a distance of about 22.5 miles. The fee is $3.00 per person, and there is a maximum five (5) consecutive days that you can stay in the Gila Box RNA. Pay stations are located at either end of this section. See the BLM web site for information and details.
Other than desert heat during the day, cool to cold nighttime temperatures and the aforementioned snakes and scorpions, there are few hazards in this reach of the Gila River. One such hazard is the very dangerous Solomon diversion dam, with its rolling currents and numerous natural and man-made snags, some of which include 2-inch rebar. Flash flooding can produce strong currents and Class II to III rapids, but the river is primarily free of obstacles and hazards that pose injury problems for boaters and equipment. Optimum levels are from 1,500 to 3,500 cfs, but the river can be navigated by experienced boaters at flows up to 10,000 cfs. Paddling the river when flows exceed 10,000 cfs is NOT recommended!
SH 92 bridge at Virden, New Mexico at 0.0 miles; Bridge on road between US Highway 70 and Arizona SH 75 at Duncan at about 7.0 miles; US Highway 191 bridge near Guthrie at about 25.0 miles; Owk Creek Campground on the south side of the river west of the Old Safford Bridge at about 31.0 miles; Dry Canyon boat take-out on the south side of the river just north of Solomon at about 53.5 miles; Low-water bridge at the end of Buena Vista Road (San Juan Road) just northeeast of Solomon at about 56.0 miles; Solomon Pass Road just north of Solomon at about 65.0 miles. There are no other known convenient access points for this reach of the Gila River.
Owl Creek Campground, off Black Hills Back Country Byway at the east end of the Gila River RNA, offers 7 campsites with restrooms, tables, grills and covered ramadas about 31 miles below the Virden, New Mexico put-in. Riverview Campground, near the west end of the Gila River RNA, offers 13 campsites with the same amenities. Fees for use of either of these campsites are $5.00 per day. It is possible to camp alongside the river anywhere except in designated riparian areas, but remember that you are in the desert, and take care to avoid desert critters that can harm you, especially at night. If camping on private land or in a public park always leave only footprints and take only photographs. You should always leave the area cleaner than how you found it! Always obtain permission from the rightful owners before camping on private land. There are also three day use areas within the Gila River RNA - see the BLM web site for information and details.
There are no liveries or outfitters located on or near this section of the Gila River. Bring everything you need and be prepared to run your own shuttles. Vehicles can be left in the parking lot at the Dry Canyon boat take-out (BLM) near Solomon.
The Gila River is usually a bone-dry, sandy cut in the surface of the Sonoran desert starting in southwestern New Mexico and continuing across southern Arizona into California, but this reach almost always has enough water to paddle. At lower to moderate levels it is great in canoes, kayaks and inflatable kayaks, while at moderate to high levels it is best suited for experienced kayakers and rafters. Rafts need a flow of at least 500 cfs for a decent trip with minimal dragging. Scenery is awesome in a desert sort of way, and there is much to appreciate about this stream when it flows, which is not frequently. There are some gorgeous mountains and foothills along and near this reach of the river, but few signs of civilization other than where the river flows near some highway or county road, in which case you will see vehicles carrying people and cargo, but not stopping unless there is an emergency. Canyon walls in the Gila Box area rise 500 feet or more above the river, often straight up from the banks. Motor vehicles are restricted to designated roads ONLY within the Gila River RNA. This would be a great place to have a camera and lots of film or digital media. It is sometimes a popular place to paddle in the Sonoran desert, so be considerate of other paddlers, campers and day-use area visitors.