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.
Leaving behind the mountains, forests and larger rapids of upstream reaches, the run between Redrock and Virden, on the New Mexico-Arizona border, is a much more gentle ride of Class I to II pool-and-drop water. The shallow gradient of about 6 fpm provides a much slower current where paddlers with less experience can enjoy themselves without the constant worries about pinning and/or wrapping a boat, swimming in cold water or having to portage obstructions. Depending upon your agenda, this can be a 1- or 2-day run of 20 miles that can be extended by taking some time off the river to enjoy Mother Nature's handiwork. This is the start of the desert run of the Gila River, so expect much warmer temperatures than those of the forested mountains above.
Southwestern Grant and northwestern Hidalgo Counties in the low desert near the Arizona State Line. Albuguerque is about 6-6.5 hours northeast and Las Cruces is about 2-2.5 hours to the southeast.
Albuquerque 352 miles; Las Cruces 129 miles; Tucson 177 miles; Phoenix 250 miles; Flagstaff 388 miles; Durango 564 miles; Grand Junction 782 miles; Denver 789 miles; Salt Lake City 956 miles; Oklahoma City 897 miles; Dallas 1,020 miles; Austin 1,055 miles; San Antonio 1,082 miles; Houston 1,205 miles; Little Rock 1,233 miles; Kansas City 1,129 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.
Other than typical desert conditions, this reach of the Gila River offers few significant hazards to navigation. Rapids are rock garden Class I to II obstacles that usually can be easily avoided, even by boaters with less experience.
Put in off SH 464 at Redrock at 0.0 miles; Take out in Virden off SH 92 at about 20.0 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.
If you enjoy desert paddling, then the Redrock to Virden run of about 20 miles will be right up your alley. This is a flatwater section with occasional small rock garden rapids that pose no serious threat, even to novice boaters who use good judgement and a little bit of control effort. The real threat here may be dehydration. Even in the spring, when the Gila flows, daytime temperatures can be very warm to hot, so take along plenty of drinking water. There are snakes in the desert, but I have never encountered one in the hundreds of hours I have spent roaming the area. They avoid direct sunlight whenever possible, and usually hide under rocks, trees (which are few and far between here), cacti, yucca and other vegetation that offers shelter and protection from the elements. Unfortunately, there is not much shelter for mortals like paddlers, so wear a hat and use a lot of sunscreen to prevent sun damage. The desert topography is very scenic, and is a stark contrast to the forested mountains where the Gila River begins. Be sure to take some photos to show your friends, but check the gauges before going, because the Gila is NOT a perpetual flow river by ANY stretch of the imagination.