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.
From Mongollon Creek near the East Fork confluence to Forest Road 809 is about 39 miles of very exciting Class II to III whitewater that has the added bonus of man-made hazards in the form of small diversion dams and barbed wire fences, just in case the near-continuous boulder gardens are not enough excitement. This tremendously scenic run, sometimes referred to as the "Wilderness Run", requires quick mental dexterity, efective control maneuvers and the good judgement to know when to run and when to portage. Dead-fall strainers are commonplace, and often take away good lines through rapids and drops. However, this run is not only about avoiding disaster on the river. There are many places to explore along the banks and in side canyons, some of which provide views of petroglyphs dating to before Spaniards invaded this beautiful place that was the ancestral home to tribes of the Apache and Commanche Nations thousands of years ago. Wild animals and birds of many species far outnumber people, and the quantity of river hazards probably do, as well. The admonition about rattlesnakes given for the Cliff Dwellings to East Fork run applies here, and to all runs on the Gila River in New Mexico. The river cuts through a geological wonderland of igneous, sedentary and metamorphic rock 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. Leaving the "wilderness" area, the river flows through open ranchland and private property from the Little Burro Mountains down to the top of teh "Middle Box" area, so please avoid unnecessary trespassing. Bring your best paddling skills, and don't forget to pack the camera, when winter snows begin to melt in the mountain forests of southwestern New Mexico.
Northern Grant County 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.
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 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.
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.
The "Wilderness Run" on the Gila River is rife with natural and man-made hazards including barbed wire fences strung across the river, small diversion dams with hydraulic currents and log strainers, boulder garden rapids that are occasionally clogged with dead-fallen trees, rock ledges and outcroppings, and off the river, rattlesnakes of several species in the mountains and forests. The steep gradient creates moderately swift water conditions that require precise control skills to avoid entanglements and to avoid accidentally running a small dam below which may lie peril in several forms. The channel is narrow and occasionally twisting, with plenty of blind spots to hide hazards on the approach. Be sure to scout anything about which you are not sure, and especially anything that you cannot clearly see. When hiking off the river be sure to carry a long stick and avoid stepping over or lifting rocks and logs unless you have first determined that there are no snakes waiting to bite you. Visit the Safety section of this guide for information regarding prevention and treatment of snakebites. Boaters should have swiftwater rescue training and at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills to safely paddle this reach of the Gila River. Some experience on narrow creeks would also be very helpful.
Put in off SH 15 near Mongollon Creek and the East Fork confluence at 0.0 miles; Take out at FR 809 near the Town of Gila at about 39.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the Gila River.
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.
There are no liveries or outfitters located on or near the Gila River. Bring everything you need and run your own shuttles.
This reach of the Gila river is long - 39 miles, and requires overnight camping along the river. Private property lines the banks in many areas, so be sure to obtain permission before camping on there, and ALWAYS leave the area cleaner than you found it! Of course, much of the riverbank is US Forest Service land where camping is legal. The run is about as scenic as it gets! The beautiful conifer forests and mountain valleys provide an awesome backdrop to a river that is seldom navigable, but that flows as a great whitewater stream when snows start to melt in this southwestern New Mexico area. Unfortunately, you need to catch the river at or near peak snowmelt, which usually portends a season of a few months from late-February through April, and possibly May. The general area is very remote, and other than a few very small towns in the vicinity, there are no residental or commercial centers to spoil the work of Mother Nature. Bring your camera to this place if you come, and leave those Tripper and Tripper XL's at home! Long boats don't cut it on this reach of the Gila River. Have a good First Aid kit, swiftwater rescue training and at least intermediate level whitewater skills for canoeing or kayaking the Gila between the East Fork confluence and FR 809.