The Gila River is a major waterway for Arizona, though flows (and especially navigable flows) are rare. It usually runs 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.
At the bottom of San Carlos Lake, about 30 miles below Bylas, is Coolidge Dam, which regulates Gila River flows with its releases, supplemented by very occasional thunderstorms that give the river a temporary bump. Access is via the county road that veers left off US Highway 70 at Bylas, then driving about 30 miles to the river just below the dam. (NOTE: Access near the base of the dam MAY be restricted, or banned completely, by order of the Department of Homeland Security amid concerns that terrorists may attempt to damage or destroy dams, causing floods that kill many and cost billions of dollars to repair. Check with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Coolidge Dam for information regarding river access below the dam.) Take a visual cue off the water level, current and dam outflow to get a feel for downriver conditions. Water will almost always flow in this section, though not always at navigable levels. Expect the best flows about 1-2 days after a major rainstorm event in the drainage basin above San Carlos Lake that prompts a dam release, though this reach of the river is usually navigable from May through September.
The upper part of this run begins on a winding river canopied by shade trees of the sycamore, cottonwood and alder species before opening into the typical Arizona desert topography that we all know and love. Many birds, including the Great Blue Heron, call this place "home". Jerusalem Mountain (5,294') is on river left, and the Mescal Mountains are on the right side, about 5-6 miles below the put-in. Runs descend on a very shallow gradient with a normally slow current as the river flows to the desert floor between Phoenix and Casa Grande about halfway between its headwaters and its rendezvous with the Colorado River. With a good current a strong paddler could run this reach in a day, though most will take 2-3 days for the entire run. Take along plenty of drinking water! Hayden, a small town about midway through the run, has access, food, supplies, and accommodations for those not wanting to camp in a tent. Trips can end or start here depending upon downriver conditions. Kelvin is about 15 more miles downriver.
Pinal County in southcentral Arizona near the Mexico border. Tucson is the nearest sizeable Arizona city, Nogales, Mexico is just a few miles south of Tucson and Las Cruces is the closest major city in New Mexico. It flows near the Mescal Mountains in southeastern Tonto National Forest on river right (north) and Sonoran desert floor on river left (south).
Tucson 120 miles; Phoenix 125 miles; Flagstaff 263 miles; Albuquerque 448 miles; Durango 579 miles; Grand Junction 749 miles; Denver 918 miles; Salt Lake City 1,034 miles; Oklahoma City 990 miles; Dallas 970 miles; Austin 989 miles; San Antonio 970 miles; Houston 1,175 miles; Little Rock 1,295 miles; Kansas City 1,471 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 controlled by releases at Coolidge Dam several miles upriver, and 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.
May through September is usually the best time to catch navigable waters in this section of the Gila River, but it can become a boatable stream anytime a significant dam release occurs at San Carlos Lake or right after a major local rainstorm in the drainage basin. Do NOT drive to Arizona specifically to paddle this river!
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. Flash flooding can produce strong currents and Class II to II+ rapids, but the river is primarily free of obstacles and hazards that pose injury problems for boaters and equipment.
Pinal County Road to the left off US Highway 70 at Bylas about 30 miles to the river at 0.0 miles; Christmas Access, off SH 77, at about 17.0 miles; Winkleman Access, off SH 77, at about 25.0 miles; SH 77 at Hayden Access at about 28.0 miles; Kearney Access at about 34.0 miles; SH 177 Access at Kelvin at about 40.0 miles. There are no other known convenient access points for this reach of the Gila River.
There are no public or private campgrounds located along this section of the Gila River. It is possible to camp alongside the river, 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 at least two commercial outfitters providing rentals, shuttles, guided trips and river information on this reach of the Gila River. Unless contracting with one of them for services bring everything you need and run your own shuttles.
This reach of the Gila River usually has a navigable flow from May through September except during extended drought periods, and almost no navigable flow at other times. 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. The trip begins in an area of tree-lined banks that are home to many species of birds, and where shade is often available. However, it ends in a wider plain of desert scrub and lots of Arizona sunshine. With adequate water this trip can be made in one long day, but most boaters will take 2-3 days to enjoy the scenery and the leisurely current. Be prepared for desert riverside camping. The Gila is prone to flash flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, so be prepared, especially when choosing a campsite on overnight trips.