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San Francisco River, New Mexico
Report by Marc W. McCord

San Francisco to Pleasanton
~ 40 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

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.

The San Francisco River, a major tributary of the Gila River, rises in westcentral Catron County, New Mexico near the headwaters of the Gila, then flows south along US Highway 180 to Pleasanton, where it turns west and flows into Arizona in the Apache National Forest of Greenlee County on the way to its confluence with the Gila at Safford, Arizona. Like most desert streams of New Mexico and Arizona, the San Francisco River does not have a long season, but when it flows paddlers are treated to about 40 miles of great Class II to III whitewater between the Towns of San Francisco and Pleasanton. This reach is a gorgeous section of tall trees, boulder gardens, and mountain valleys occasionally punctuated by very small New Mexico towns located a long way from anything resembling modern civilization. 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. The area is part of the former Mescalero Apache Nation, and paddling here gives one a sense of why they would defend it as vigorously as they did from the Europeans who came to conquer and destroy an ancient way of life. Paddling this great river is a truly awesome experience, partly because of its natural grandeur and partly because it is a rare occasion when rivers of the area bordering the Sonoran desert flow at navigable levels. The river is boatable in canoes, kayaks and rafts during mid- to late-spring months, or after heavy rainfall in the Mongollon and San Francisco Mountains.


Westcentral New Mexico, in Catron County on the Arizona border. Albuquerque, the nearest major city, is about 3.5-4 hours to the northeast. Tucson is about 3-3.5 hours to the southwest.

Distance from major cities

Albuquerque 220 miles; Tucson 200 miles; Phoenix 317 miles; Flagstaff 455 miles; Durango 432 miles; Grand Junction 650 miles; Denver 657 miles; Salt Lake City 824 miles; Oklahoma City 762 miles; Dallas 888 miles; Austin 923 miles; San Antonio 950 miles; Houston 1,109 miles; Little Rock 1,101 miles; Kansas City 997 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

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.

Best time to go

Usually, mid-March to late-April is the optimum time to catch the San Francisco 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.

Hazards to navigation

Boulder garden rapids and possibly dead-fallen trees can conspire to create hazards to navigation whenever flows are substantial. The river has a modest gradient that produces somewhat swift currents that can make control difficult around boulders and floating logs. A lack of access means that paddlers are generally on their own in case of a problem, so they should have swiftwater rescue training and at least intermediate level whitewater skills in canoes or kayaks to safely boat this stream. Undercut boulders and boulder sieves can injure those who fail to avoid the traps they set.

River Access Points

Put in off SH 12 between Reserve and Cruzville at 0.0 miles; US Highway 180 at Alma at about 30.0 miles; US Highway 180 atGlenwood at about 35.0 miles; US Highway 180 at Pleasanton at about 40.0 miles. There are no other access points for the San Francisco River in New Mexico.

Campgrounds and accommodations

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. Rainbow Campground (USFS) in Arizona off SH 273 at the headwaters of the Big River and Winn Campground (USFS) just north of Rainbow campground off SH 273 and SH 260 off excellent campsites. Other campgrounds may be available in the near vicinity.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no liveries or outfitters located on or near the Gila River. Bring everything you need and run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The San Francisco River is another seldom-navigable stream that flows whenever snow melts in the mountains of Apache National Forest. The river is a very scenic, class II to III whitewater stream that offers excitement and spectacular surroundings north of the Gila River, into which it flows at Safford, Arizona. Its short springtime season prevents it from being a major paddling destination, but for those fortunate enough to catch it at a navigable level, the San Francisco offers a 40-mile run of exciting rapids, quiet pools and gorgeous forested mountains in a very remote area on the New Mexico-Arizona border. Paddlers should have good intermediate or higher level whitewater skills to run this stream on trips of 2-4 or more days, depending upon flow, how you paddle and how much time you want to spend off the river enjoying the beautiful Apache National Forest.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III
Length 40 miles
Minimum Flow 250 cfs
Optimum Flow 500-1,000 cfs
Maximum Flow 1,800 cfs
First Put-in San Francisco
Lat/Long 33.7178993 / -108.7558975
Last Take-out Pleasanton
Lat/Long 33.2691994 / -108.8795013
Elevation msl
Gradient 25 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: Reserve
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Late-February through April or May
Permits No

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Gila River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Gila River Homepage ] [ Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center to East Fork ] [ East Fork Confluence to FR 809 ]
[ FR 809 to Redrock ] [ Redrock to Virden ]

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