In the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, about 20 miles northeast of Safford, visitors can enjoy boating, fishing, hunting, birdwatching, sightseeing and more.
The area includes the Gila Box canyon, with sandy beaches and cliffs towering more than 1,000 feet above the Gila River. Here, wildlife watchers can spot Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that live among the cliffs. Over 200 species of birds make this year-round riparian area a rewarding destination for birdwatchers.
Tall trees — cottonwood, sycamore and willow — line the Gila River and Bonita Creek, two of the area’s four waterways. The San Francisco River and Eagle Creek also run through the Gila Box. Rafting, kayaking, fishing and swimming are some of the activities visitors can enjoy.
There are also camping and picnic areas, a wildlife viewing area at Bonita Creek, cliff dwellings and historic sites like the Serna cabin, built in the 1920s. Hikers can enjoy the scenic landscape when the water is low enough, and there are plenty of primitive roads for four-wheelers and mountain bikers.
The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The area’s two developed campgrounds, Riverview and Owl Creek, have fees of $5 per vehicle per night; there is no charge for primitive camping, which are areas that don’t have bathroom facilities, tables, shade structures and trash cans. In either case, campers can stay for up to 14 days. Camping is not allowed in riparian areas or designated picnic areas.
The agency also charges a $3 per person river floating permit fee. All other activities are free. There is no charge at the Flying W Day Use Picnic Area, but it can be reserved for a fee; $50 for groups up to 50 and $100 for groups from 51-100.
To reach the area’s west entrance from Safford, head east on U.S. Highway 70 to Sanchez Road, turn left and follow Sanchez Road until the pavement ends. From Morenci or Clifton, head west on Highway 70 and turn right on Sanchez Road. Signs will direct you from there. The road is unpaved at first, but soon becomes paved again as it winds through hills high above the Gila River. At the west entrance, there is an information kiosk and a bird’s eye view of the river.
To reach the east entrance from Safford, head north on U.S. Highway 191 about 29 miles to milepost 160, then turn left onto the Black Hills Country Byway. The east entrance is four miles from there. From Morenci or Clifton, head south on Highway 191; milepost 160 is about four miles south of Clifton.
For more information on the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, contact the BLM Safford Field Office at (928) 348-4400.