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.
Kelvin to US Highway 89 just north of Florence is a low desert, flatwater run of about 27 miles that is landscaped by Grayback Mountain (3,570') on river left and Mineral Mountain (3,351') on river right starting near the middle of this run through Pinal County just southeast of Phoenix. Scenery around the river is a contrast between the near-distant southeastern part of Tonto National Forest a few miles north and Sonoran desert on river left. This reach of the river gets its water from dam releases at San Carlos Lake (Coolidge Dam), occasionally augmented, if only very temporarily, by major rainstorms that can cause the river to flash with possible serious consequences. When it flows at navigable levels the run is beautiful and remote. Few people and fewer signs of civilization will be seen along the way. Some adjoining property is privately owned, so please obtain permission before trespassing or camping on property which is posted as private property (look for signs, purple ribbons on fences and/or purple bands painted around tree trunks indicating private property.)
About 15 miles into this run is the Ashurst-Hayden Dam, a mandatory portage that, for many paddlers will signal the end of one paddling day and the starting point for the next. Avid paddlers can easily run this 27 mile reach in a single day, flow conditions permitting, but others will prefer to make it a 2- or 3-day event. Personally, when an Arizona river flows I want to ride it while it is up, because I know that it IS going to drop again, and probably sooner than later. I do not want to be stuck in the desert on foot with my canoe and gear! Below the dam, the ride to Florence is rather sedate. There are no hazards on this trip other than the desert conditions and the dam, if you should fail to portage it, but you will probably only do that once.
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 80 miles; Phoenix 90 miles; Flagstaff 228 miles; Albuquerque 532 miles; Durango 544 miles; Grand Junction 714 miles; Denver 767 miles; Salt Lake City 1,000 miles; Oklahoma City 976 miles; Dallas 970 miles; Austin 984 miles; San Antonio 965 miles; Houston 1,170 miles; Little Rock 1,290 miles; Kansas City 1,466 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.
Mid-to-late fall months are usually the best time to catch navigable waters in 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.
SH 177 Access at Kelvin at 0.0 miles; US Highway 89 bridge at Florence at about 27.0 miles. There are no other 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 no liveries or outfitters located on or near this section of the Gila River. Rentals and shuttles may be available from local outfitters in Tucson or Phoenix. Otherwise, bring everything you need and be prepared to run your own shuttles.
The Gila River run from Kelvin to Florence is a 27 mile trek through beautiful desert with the outskirts of Tonto National Forest visible a few miles to the north. This remote reach is a desert flatwater trip that seldom is runnable due to low water conditions. Agricultural and municipal taps syphon much of the water released from Coolidge Dam on San Carlos Lake upriver, and rainfall in this area is not reliable, and usually not sufficient to produce navigable flows. But, when the river flashes, LOOK OUT! This one can rise quickly and catch boaters/campers by surprise. It is always a good idea to camp away from a river, and flat desert rivers reinforce that need. This run is at an elevation barely above 1,000 feet msl, so you are paddling close to the center of the earth on the Gila River, and it often feels like it, too! There are no river-related services along the river, but you can obtain rentals, and possibly shuttles, from outfitters in Tucson or Phoenix. Otherwise, plan on bringing everything you will need for boating and camping, and then run your own shuttles. Be careful where you leave a parked vehicle!