Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area has many cliffs, canyons, and historical sites to explore. This 23,000-acre BLM property is in eastern Arizona. Within the conservation area, the Gila and San Francisco rivers flow through the area in addition to Bonita and Eagle Creeks. Hiking, rafting, wildlife viewing, and much more await Gila Box visitors.
While the beauty of the conservation area can be enjoyed at any time of year, spring and fall are said to be the best seasons to visit, especially if planning to hike or camp. During these months, you’ll miss the extreme heat of the summer and the freezing low temps the winter can bring. There are two developed BLM campgrounds as well as dispersed campsites at the conservation area.
Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area is a primitive, remote location. Visitors will want to ensure they come with plenty of fuel and water as it is quite a drive to the nearest communities. The roads are gravel and dirt, even those leading to the developed campgrounds. Those with RVs and travel trailers will want to take extra caution along some of the narrow roads. In dry conditions, the roads should be mostly hazard-free.
Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area is a BLM property in eastern Arizona. To access the east end of the conservation area, head east from Safford on State Highway 70, take a left on Sanchez Road and follow the road until the pavement ends. Signs will lead you to Bonita Creek. To access the west end from Safford, take AZ 191 to Black Hills Back Country Byway. From there, you’ll want to follow the signs.
All of the roads within the conservation area are gravel and dirt. The main roads can be navigated by smaller cars and RVs. Many of the side roads are primitive and tend to be rougher. High clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive are recommended in many areas. The roads become slick and muddy in heavy rainfall. Check weather reports before your trip. You can check road conditions at the BLM office.
Many areas at Gila Box are remote and it can take nearly an hour to access services. Be sure to stock up on fuel, water, and other necessities before arriving at Gila Box. Safford, Morenci, Clifton, and Thatcher are the closest communities.
Riverview Campground is a developed campground in the conservation area. This BLM campground is accessible for those with RVs or trailers though drivers should be cautious on the road leading to it. The road has multiple 15% grades, along with a few blind curves. It's narrow, so be sure to share the road with other drivers that may pass by. The roads are dirt and gravel and can become slick and muddy in wet conditions. Cell phone service is spotty in an near the campground.
The campground has 13 campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The campsites are well spaced with plenty of distance between each. A sheltered picnic table and grill are at each campsite. Though Riverview is a dry camping destination, it does have a few amenities, including restrooms, trash cans, and potable water. The campground is surrounded by many different types of vegetation that is unique to the area. Campers will see plenty of birds and other wildlife during their stay.
Owl Creek Campground is a stop on the scenic Black Hills Back Country Byway. Located about 4.5 miles away from a paved road, RVers will need to drive down a narrow road leading to the campground. There are a few single-lane bridges along the dirt road. While RVers shouldn't have much trouble when it’s dry, it may be too hazardous to drive on in rainy, wet conditions.
There are seven campsites within Owl Creek Campground. All are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table and a grill. There are shade structures at the campground, however, the campground is mostly open. Pit toilets and trash cans are on-site. Campers should come prepared with extra supplies for boondocking. There are no services nearby and the campground does not have any hookups.
Are you looking for a more remote camping experience away from close neighbors? There are many dispersed camping areas at Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. These free campsites do not require permits. There is no camping permitted in riparian zones or at designated picnic sites.
Depending on where you are within the conservation area, it can easily be an hour’s drive to services and supplies. Make sure you come prepared with plenty of fuel, water, and food. You’ll truly be roughing it while boondocking at these dispersed campsites.
While many areas can be accessed even by those with RVs and travel trailers, there are some areas where high clearance vehicles are recommended. Even the passable areas can become treacherous in wet conditions. Know your limits and keep an eye on weather conditions if planning on camping at a dispersed site.
The Safford-Morenci Trail is a difficult hike at 18 miles in length one way. It winds along Gila Mountain canyons and Turtle Mountain. Bonita Creek runs along part of the route. However, the creek’s water should be treated prior to consuming.
There are two trailheads, one on the east end and one on the west. High-clearance vehicles are recommended to access either trailhead. The trail is remote, rugged, and can be difficult to follow at times. Permits are required to cross into some sections that are under mixed ownership.
For visitors looking for a more leisurely hike, Cottonwood Trail is a 2.5-mile loop that connects to several interest points in the conservation area. There are some hills and a few unstable spots along the trail.
There is plenty of fun and sight-seeing to enjoy along the Gila River. Canoeing, kayaking, and rafting are popular, especially during the spring. During the hot summer, bring a tube along for your trip. Tubing is a perfect way to beat the heat of the summer and take in the scenery of canyons, cliffs, and unique vegetation.
There are two wire fences downstream of Old Safford Bridge Boat Put In. One is 1.3 miles south of the put-in while the other is 2.7 miles downstream. Rafts and kayaks should drift by these with no issue. However, use caution when approaching.
There are many picnic areas around this BLM property. Many of these picnic sites are located along the river, cliffs, and Bonita Creek. All feature scenic views.
There is a group day-use area that is free of charge but can be reserved in advance for a fee. All of the picnic areas at Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area are ADA-accessible. Camping is not permitted at any of the picnic sites.
Visitors to Gila Box planning to birdwatch or hoping to catch a glimpse of other wildlife won’t be disappointed. Over 100 species of birds are known to Gila Box, including many migratory birds. Bonita Creek Watchable Wildlife Viewing Area is a great spot in the conservation area for birdwatching. Visitors will also want to keep an eye on the cliffs where bighorn sheep are often observed. Many other types of wildlife are occasionally seen, including bears and mountain lions. While out hiking and camping, be sure to follow proper protocol and keep a safe distance from wildlife.
Many historical, and even prehistoric, structures can be observed in the conservation area. Whether you’re on foot, on a mountain bike, or off-roading there are several points of interest you may encounter. Cliff dwellings and rock art can be seen within the cliffs.
At the Serna Cabin Picnic Area & Historical Site, visitors can see Serna Cabin which was originally built in the 1920s, then later restored by the Bureau of Land Management.
There are many remote roads throughout the BLM property providing many miles of off-roading adventures. Whether you’re in a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, a mountain bike, or quad, the rough, dirt roads provide access to many remote sections of the conservation area. Make sure you have plenty of fuel and know weather conditions. The roads can become muddy, slick, and hazardous for even the most prepared visitors.