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.
Between FR 809 and the Town of Redrock is the 18 mile "Middle Box" run on the Gila River. This reach features Class II to III+ whitewater on an average gradient of about 10 fpm, with its steepest section at about 25 fpm, which means the current will be moderately fast. If you are looking for an E-ticket ride without too many dangers, then this is one. The channel is very rocky, very narrow and almost non-stop rapids that test both paddling skills and stamina. This would be a great place for some river Viagra to get you ready for a few hours of wilderness joyriding. The verdant forests along the banks on the upper part of this reach are just gorgeous, and attest to the remoteness of this area where signs of civilization are non-existent. 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. This run begins the transition from the mountains of Gila National Forest to the low desert of far western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. The only real drawback is the brevity of navigable flows. It is unlikely that you will be sharing the river with many, if any, other boaters. Those fortunate enough to catch this great river when it flows will have campfire stories to tell for a long time to come!
Northcentral Grant County in the Burro Mountains of Gila 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 210 miles; Las Cruces 100 miles; Tucson 210 miles; Phoenix 260 miles; Flagstaff 400 miles; Durango 422 miles; Grand Junction 640 miles; Denver 647 miles; Salt Lake City 814 miles; Oklahoma City 752 miles; Dallas 872 miles; Austin 913 miles; San Antonio 940 miles; Houston 963 miles; Little Rock 1,091 miles; Kansas City 987 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.
This reach of the Gila River is less hazardous than those above, but still offers places where boaters can encounter trouble if they are lax in their boat control. Log strainers and barbed wire fences are not a problem. The gradient is a much shallower 10 fpm average, though it does still have some areas where the elevation drop approaches 25 fpm. There are many class II to III+ boulder garden rapids and drops that can challenge boaters and pin or wrap a boat if not carefully negotiated. The upper reaches of this run begin in the lower Gila National Forest, where the steeper gradient and last of the log strainers will usually be found, then ends at the start of the desert floor in the Burro Mountains near Redrock. Cold water is a potential hazard for swimmers. Most of the rapids can be run without much concern by picking a good line, then hitting it, but don't let down your guard, especially in the first 8-10 miles.
Put in at FR 809 near Gila at 0.0 miles; Take out at Redrock at SH 464 at about 18.0 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 18 mile run can easily be made in a day by competent whitewater canoeists and kayakers because of the non-stop nature of the rapids. Secure everything in your boat, get situated, then as golfers sometimes say, "Grip it, and rip it!" The ride is wild and exciting as you plow through boulder garden rapids with haystacks and pillows, sometimes pouring over the tops of the rocks and into small holes that usually are not keepers. Strong intermediate or higher level whitewater boating skills are recommended for negotiating the rapids and drops on this section where quick decision-making skills are as important as good boating skills. This is not a run for back-paddling and apprehension because the rapids come so quickly, one after the other, that it is almost like one non-stop rapid for most of the trip, especially on the upper end. Be prepared to get wet even if you do not capsize, because the spray alone will chill you to the bone unless you are dressed for cold water conditions. This is the last of the big water runs on the Gila River, which leaves the forests for a desert run across Arizona and California to the Colorado River along the California-Mexico border.