Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

a river runs at the bottom of a canyon with steep walls

The 23,000-acre Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area includes four perennial waterways, the Gila and San Francisco rivers and Bonita and Eagle creeks. This region is a very special riparian ecosystem abounding with plant and animal diversity. A canyon section, known as the Gila Box, is composed of patchy mesquite woodlands, mature cottonwoods, and sandy beaches. Impressive Gila Conglomerate cliffs tower more than 1,000 feet above the Gila River, and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted. Bonita Creek, a key tributary of the Gila River, is lined with large cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows. 

Lower water 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. The perennial creek and riparian vegetation make the NCA a year-round desert oasis.

 

 Warning to Gila Box Float Boaters

Two smooth-wire fences connecting private land parcels are now in place across the Gila River within the Gila Box. The fences are located 1.3 and 2.7 river miles downstream from the Old Safford Bridge boat put in which boaters can reach from the Black Hills Back Country Byway. Although these fences are designed to accommodate rafts and kayaks, float boaters should exercise caution upon approaching them, especially at water levels above 100 cubic-feet per second. We recommend scouting from shore.

 

Directions

The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area is 20 miles northeast of Safford in Graham and Greenlee counties.

From Safford to reach the west side, travel five miles east on U.S. Highway 70 to Solomon. At Solomon, turn left on the Sanchez Road and follow the road to the end of the pavement. From there, follow the signs to Bonita Creek and the lower end of the Gila Box. To reach the east side from Safford, take U.S. 70 east 10 miles to its junction with U.S. Highway 191. Turn left and follow U.S. 191 about 29 miles to milepost 160, which is four miles south of Clifton. Turn left onto the signed Black Hills Back Country Byway, and follow the road four miles to the conservation area.

Getting Around

You can usually get to major access points by passenger car, but other roads may be rough at times because of infrequent maintenance. You will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle on many roads. Check with the Safford Field Office for up-to-date road conditions.

Things to Do

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.

Camping and Lodging

Developed campgrounds include the 13-unit Riverview Campground and the seven-unit Owl Creek Campground. Each has tables, shade structures, grills, bathrooms, and trash cans. Riverview also has potable water. We charge fees at both campgrounds. Camping is also permitted on adjacent public lands, but no facilities are available. Camping is prohibited in riparian areas and designated picnic sites. 

Lodging is available in Clifton and Safford.

Floating the River

Canoeing, kayaking, and rafting enthusiasts take advantage of the spring runoff 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.

Permits, Fees, Limitations

  • We charge fees at two developed campgrounds, Riverview and Owl Creek
  • Use of the Flying W Group Day Use Picnic Area is free of charge, but you can reserve it for a fee.
  • Those floating the river also pay a permit fee. 
  • Camping at developed sites—and primitive camping elsewhere—is limited to 14 consecutive days. You do not a permit or to pay a fee for primitive camping. Camping is prohibited in riparian areas or designated picnic sites. 
  • All other activities, such as fishing, hiking and backcountry driving within the Gila Box are free of charge.

Accessibility

Both Riverview and Owl Creek campgrounds, the Bonita Creek Wildlife Viewing Area, the Flying W Group Day Use Site, and all picnic areas are wheelchair accessible.

Food and Supplies

Food and supplies are available in Clifton, Morenci, Safford, and Thatcher.

Safety

Summer temperatures can be extremely hot, and some winter days quite cold. Flooding may occur during winter and summer rainy seasons, as well as during spring run-off. A portion of Bonita Creek supplies the town of Safford with its municipal water. No first aid is available on-site. The nearest hospitals are in Morenci and Safford.

Additional Information

A large color brochure with map is available free from the Safford Field Office. Elevations range from 3,100 to 4,400 feet. The conservation area is open year-round. 

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Gila Box Riparian NCA
Safford Field Office