Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area
The 23,000-acre Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area is truly an oasis in the desert. It has four perennial waterways - the Gila and San Francisco rivers and Bonita and Eagle creeks, which are the lifeline for this remarkable place. The Gila River canyon section, known as the Gila Box, is composed of patchy mesquite woodlands, mature cottonwoods, sandy beaches, and grand buff-colored cliffs. Bonita Creek, popular for birdwatching, hiking, and picnicking, is lined with large cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows. The perennial creek and riparian vegetation make this a cool year-round desert oasis. Cliff dwellings, historic homesteads, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and over 200 species of birds make this year-round watery desert refuge worth the short drive from Safford.
Available activities include rafting, canoeing, kayaking, picnicking, birdwatching, scenic drives, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, sightseeing, historic interpretation, camping, horseback riding, photography, swimming, wildflower viewing, four-wheel driving, and hunting.
Canoeing, kayaking, and rafting enthusiasts take advantage of the spring run-off to enjoy an easy to moderately difficult floating adventure down the Gila. Many people also float the river in inflatable kayaks during the low water of the summer. Lower water also affords hikers the opportunity to safely enjoy the scenic canyon. Numerous prehistoric and historical structures can be viewed.
A network of primitive roads provides hours of backcountry adventure for four-wheel-drive and mountain bike trekkers. The Bonita Creek Watchable Wildlife Viewing Area provides a bird's-eye view of the riparian canyon below, with over 100 species of birds recorded here. A homestead cabin, rock art and cliff dwellings, show evidence of the occupation of this important perennial stream by earlier inhabitants.
A short, paved trail leads from a parking area to a wildlife-viewing platform; sidewalk is wheelchair accessible but has a gentle slope. Safford-Morenci Trail is 21 miles long from Clifton area to Safford area but can be accessed from a road near Bonita Creek and Midnight Canyon; moderate hike. Primitive roads along Bonita Creek also provide hiking access.
Bonita Creek has the easiest access and provides a clifftop wildlife- viewing platform. In addition to more than 150 bird species, there are opportunities to view bighorn sheep, beaver, javelina, and mule deer. Mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, and several fox species also inhabit that canyon, but are rarely seen. Birders can see canyon wren, common black-hawk, and ladder-backed woodpecker. Numerous beaver dams are found along Bonita Creek; five native fish species inhabit the crystal-clear waters of the creek. Wildlife viewing is good year round. Birding is best during spring and fall migration and the summer nesting season. There is distant viewing of bighorn sheep along the canyon cliffs in the upper canyon and along the Gila River. Look for javelina and Coues white-tailed deer along roads.
Horseback riding is available.
Visitors can hunt for mule and white-tailed deer, javelina, Gambel's and scaled quail, mourning and white-winged dove and black bear. A valid hunting permit issued by the State of Arizona Game and Fish Department is required.
Developed campgrounds include the 13-unit Riverview Campground and the 7-unit Owl Creek Campground. Each has tables, shade structures, grills, restrooms, and trash cans. Riverview also has potable water. Fees are charged at both. Camping is also permitted on adjacent public lands, but no facilities are available. Camping is not permitted in riparian areas and designated picnic sites. Lodging is available in Clifton and Safford, AZ.
Rafting, canoeing, kayaking, and swimming are available.
Accessible year-round, though temperatures can reach extremely hot in the summer and quite cold in the winter.
WEST SIDE:From Safford, travel 5 miles east on State Highway 70 to Solomon-- turn left on the Sanchez road and follow that to the end of the pavement. Follow signs to Bonita Creek.
EAST SIDE-- From Safford take US 70 east 10 miles to AZ 191. Follow 191 29 miles to milepost 160. Turn left and follow signs four miles.