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Gila River, New Mexico
Report by Marc W. McCord

Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center to East Fork
~ 7 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

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 Black, Mimbres, Elk, Mangas and Mongollon Mountains of Gila and Apache National Forests in far western New Mexico. The river begins as four forks (North Fork, Middle Fork, East 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.

When snow melts in the four mountain ranges around it the Gila River begins its season of boatable flow. Above the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center the channel is just too choked with tree debris and boulders for safe and enjoyable boating, but starting at the Visitor Center, and continuing about 7 miles to the East Fork confluence, is the first of several Class II to III+ whitewater runs on an absolutely gorgeous New Mexico stream that few have experienced. This very remote area is rich in forested canyons, natural springs, boulder garden rapids out the wazoo and an abundance of birds and wildlife. The river cuts through a geological wonderland of igneous, sedentary and metamorphic rock in the higher elevations above 7,000 feet msl in mountains covered with beautiful pinon juniper, ponderosa pine and evergreen fir trees down to about 5,500 feet msl. Riverbanks are lined with equally gorgeous growths of sycamore, cottonwood, and alder trees, as well as indigenous grasses and brush. There are many side canyons begging to be explored, and photographic opportunities are endless, though not from the river. Boating the Gila River demands full attention to the task at hand. There is potential trouble waiting at every rapid, drop and downed tree. Canoeists and kayakers should have solid intermediate or higher level whitewater skills, and swiftwater rescue training would be an extra measure of caution that might pay a big dividend when this river flows. Leave the beer in the car and keep your eyes wide open, doing a whitewater version of Emmett Smith dodging the "hazards" out to get him.


Southern Catron and northern Grant Counties in the Mongollon Mountains of Apache National Forest near the Arizona State Line. Albuguerque is about 4-4.5 hours northeast and Las Cruces is about 2.5-3 hours to the southeast.

Distance from major cities

Albuquerque 250 miles; Las Cruces 135 miles; Tucson 250 miles; Phoenix 300 miles; Flagstaff 438 miles; Durango 462 miles; Grand Junction 680 miles; Denver 687 miles; Salt Lake City 854 miles; Oklahoma City 792 miles; Dallas 912 miles; Austin 953 miles; San Antonio 980 miles; Houston 1,003 miles; Little Rock 1,131 miles; Kansas City 1,027 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is excellent, but not drinkable without purification. The water is clean, clear and cold sourcing from snowmelt in the mountains above this reach. Flow is usually adequate for boating from late-February into April, or possibly May, depending upon the density of the winter snowpack in the mountains surrounding the headwaters.

Best time to go

Usually, mid-March to late-April is the optimum time to catch the Gila River with navigable flows, but that can change according to seasonal temperatures and the amount of winter snowpack above the headwaters of the four forks. Monsoonal rains may occasionally offer temporary boatable flows in fall. Daytime high temperatures are generally in the 70's, though they occasionally reach the 80's to 90's during the season. Snowfall is possible until late-March or early-April. Nighttime temperatures are commonly in the lower 30's. Climate and temperature changes can occur in a few hours time with little or no warning, so be prepared for whatever conditions you might encounter.

Hazards to navigation

Aside from boulder garden rapids, dead-fallen tree debris, a swift current on a steep gradient and a narrow channel, there are almost no hazards on this reach of the Gila River. Danger is everywhere on this run, and boaters need to pay close attention to the river in front of them. Narrow, forested canyons produce tight bends, rock ledges and outcroppings, as well as a fair share of dead-fall to trap and injure boaters who are lax in their boat control. This reach would not be good for rafting. Off the river, and particularly when exploring side canyons and the mountain forests around the river, boaters are advised to keep a wary eye out for rattlesnakes sunning themselves on warm rocks or hiding under them. The navigable season is also the time when snakes are exiting from winter hibernation, during which time they give birth to many baby snakes that are looking to bite something for the first time. Visit the Safety section of this guide for information regarding prevention and treatment of snakebites.

River Access Points

Put in near the end of SH 15 close to the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center at 0.0 miles; Take out at the East Fork confluence off SH 15 at about 7.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the Gila River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds adjacent to the Gila River. However, there are several excellent campgrounds located just a few miles away from any New Mexico reach of the river. Mesa Campground (USFS) is located southeast of the fork at SH 15 and SH 35 near the East Fork confluence in Gila National Forest; Iron Creek Campground (USFS) is located north of SH 151 between Hanover and Kingston in Gila National Forest about 45 miles east of Silver City; City of Rocks State Park is located about 30 miles southeast of Silver City off SH 61 from US Highway 180. Other campgrounds may be available in the near vicinity.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no liveries or outfitters located on or near the Gila River. Bring everything you need and run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The Gila River is usually a rock and sand river that occasionally has a navigable flow. Actually, the New Mexico reaches maintain a modest flow most of the time, but are far too low to boat except during spring snowmelt or after a heavy local rainfall. Its four forks begin high in the mountains of Gila and Apache National Forests, then cascade down the mountains toward the desert floor in Arizona on the way to the Colorado River confluence along the border between Mexico and California. This river is just gorgeous! The forested canyons and boulder gardens offer good class II to III+ whitewater runs when it has sufficient flow to support canoes and kayaks. The area is VERY remote and equally scenic, but a season of a few months (at best) and the distance from anywhere paddlers probably live makes it an unlikely destination for most boaters most of the time. It bears many similarities to the characteristics found on Colorado creeks and streams, which flow at about the same time. If you are in southwestern New Mexico when the snows start to melt in the forest mountains, then take a look at the Gila River, where great paddling and exploration opportunities await those who venture here. If you like to be away from crowds of people, then this is the place to go!

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III
Length 7 miles
Minimum Flow 200 cfs
Optimum Flow 500-1,500 cfs
Maximum Flow 2,500 cfs
First Put-in Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center
Last Take-out SH 15 @ East Fork Confluence
Elevation msl
Gradient 10 fpm av. / 25 fpm max.
USGS Gauge Web: Gila
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Season Late February through April or May
Permits No

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico - For the Love of Rivers

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Gila River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Gila River Homepage ] [ East Fork to FR 809 ] [ FR 809 to Redrock ]
[ Redrock to Virden ] [ San Francisco to Pleasanton ]

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Last updated September 13, 2014

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