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 San Francisco Mountains of Apache National Forest in far western New Mexico. The river begins as three forks (North Fork, Middle 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 Solomon and Bylas the Gila River flows about 38 miles from southeast to northwest in Graham county of southeastern Arizona. This run begins at the confluence with the San Simon River and ends on the San Carlos Apache Reservation about 40 miles southeast of Globe, and a permit is required for non-tribal members below Fort Thomas. The run is mostly flatwater with occasional Class I rapids that can escalate to Class II in high water conditions, which are rare. In fact, any navigable flow in this section of the Gila River is rare, indeed. Topography is very similar to the section above, and those below. The Pinaleno Mountains of Coronado National Forest parallel the river a few miles to the south. As the crow flies, Tucson is about 85 miles southwest of this run. Expect Sonoran desert vistas on this usually slow-moving trip that is best, when it flows, in mid to late fall months. Minor irrigation diversions occur along the entire stretch, most notably west of Thatcher, near the Thatcher Hot Springs area.
Graham County in far southeastern Arizona near the New Mexico border. Tucson is the nearest sizeable Arizona city, and Las Cruces is the closest major city in New Mexico. It flows near the Pinaleno Mountains just north of Coronado National Forest.
Tucson 120 miles; Phoenix 160 miles; Flagstaff 298 miles; Albuquerque 360 miles; Durango 572 miles; Grand Junction 790 miles; Denver 797 miles; Salt Lake City 805 miles; Oklahoma City 902 miles; Dallas 857 miles; Austin 823 miles; San Antonio 804 miles; Houston 982 miles; Little Rock 1,175 miles; Kansas City 1,179 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)
When it flows the Gila is usually clean and sandy brown, turning slightly clear if flows are sustained for several days after a significant rainfall. Flows are usually low and slow except right after a flash flood, in which case the river may flow fast and furious, occasionally running out of its banks.
Late fall is usually the best time to catch navigable waters in the Gila River, but it can become a boatable stream anytime right after a major local rainstorm in the drainage basin. Do NOT drive to Arizona specifically to paddle this river, as it may not have a navigable flow upon your arrival.
Permits, issued by the San Carlos Apache Nation, are required for paddling the Gila River between Fort Thomas and Bylas. River access permit fees are $3.00 per boat per day, and are valid from midnight to midnight. Permits may be obtained on a first come basis by contacting the San Carlos Apache Nation on-line, by calling 928-475-2343 or 888-475-2344, or by writing to San Carlos Recreation and Wildlife Department, P.O. Box 97, San Carlos, AZ 85550.
Other than desert heat during the day, cool to cold nighttime temperatures and the aforementioned snakes and scorpions, there are few hazards in this reach of the Gila River. Flash flooding can produce strong currents and Class II to II+ rapids, but the river is primarily free of obstacles and hazards that pose injury problems for boaters and equipment.
US Highway 70 bridge at Solomon at about 0.0 miles; 8th Av. in Safford at about 5.0 miles; Reay Lane in Thatcher at about 9.0 miles; Bryce-Eden Road in Pima at about 15.0 miles; Eden Road in Eden at about 22.0 miles; US Highway 70 just south of Fort Thomas at about 28.0 miles; US Highway 70 bridge at Bylas at about 38.0 miles. There are no other convenient access points for this reach of the Gila River.
There are no public or private campgrounds located along this section of the Gila River. It is possible to camp alongside the river, but remember that you are in the desert, and take care to avoid desert critters that can harm you, especially at night. If camping on private land or in a public park always leave only footprints and take only photographs. You should always leave the area cleaner than how you found it! Always obtain permission from the rightful owners before camping on private land.
There are no liveries or outfitters located on or near this section of the Gila River. Bring everything you need and be prepared to run your own shuttles.
The Gila River is usually a bone-dry, sandy cut in the surface of the Sonoran desert starting in southwestern New Mexico and continuing across southern Arizona into California. Scenery is awesome in a desert sort of way, and there is much to appreciate about this stream when it flows, which is not frequently. There are some gorgeous mountains and foothills along and near this reach of the river, but few signs of civilization other than where the river flows near some highway or county road, in which case you will see vehicles carrying people and cargo, but not stopping unless there is an emergency. With adequate water this trip can be made in one long day, but most boaters will take 2-3 days for the run. Be prepared for desert riverside camping.