Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

January 30, 2022 – near Safford, Arizona

Riparian areas, or habitat on or near flowing rivers, have historically constituted only 2 percent of the state of Arizona’s landmass. According to the Bureau of Land Management, in the last 200 years almost 95% of that meager acreage has disappeared due to human development from grazing, farming, and diversion projects

The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, located between Safford and Clifton in southeast Arizona, was established in 1990 to protect 23,000 acres (about 36 square miles) of wildland river habitat and the surrounding area.

This photo is from an overlook above the Gila River as it briefly splits before rejoining downriver, looking to the southeast. The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area has plenty of very long vistas of natural spaces. The section of the Gila River that runs through the NCA is a very popular destination for kayakers, canoeists, and rafters during high-flow season, and there are several developed areas along the river for putting in and taking out watercraft.

The word “Gila” is found in many, many placenames and other references in New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s thought to be derived from a Spanish contraction of “Hah-quah-sa-eel,” which is a Yuma Native American word that means “running water which is salty.” The river starts near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and flows almost 650 miles along an watershed of nearly 60,000 square miles in the two states before emptying into the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, where the Colorado forms the state’s western border with California..

The Gila Box Riparian NCA includes more than 20 miles of the Gila River as well as sections of three other waterways that flow year-round in southeast Arizona. Gila Box is one of only two riparian NCAs in the United States; the other is San Pedro Riparian NCA, located in extreme southeastern Arizona along the border with Mexico.

The waterways provide food, shelter, and water for a huge variety of wildlife, including fish, mammals, and birds as well as invertebrates.

The importance of preserving these lands can be seen in the variety of animals that call Gila Box home, including at least:

  • 175 permanent and migratory bird species
  • 42 mammal species, including bighorn sheep, black bear, javelina, mountain lion, and cougar
  • 24 reptile species
  • 17 fish species, including the endangered Gila chub and razorback sucker
  • and 10 amphibian species.
This is Bonita Creek, which flows southeast from the San Carlos Apache Reservation, now home to about 10,000 Apache, northwest of the National Conservation Area to enter the Gila River near the NCA’s western edge. This riparian environment is certainly atypical habitat for the mostly desert state of Arizona: Fremont cottonwood, Goodding’s willow, and Arizona sycamore trees are prevalent along with uncommon large bosques of mesquite, which is a very common tree/shrub in the drier areas of the desert but there grows in sparser groupings.
One of these days I’ll stop being surprised at seeing blooming flowers in January, but today was not that day. This is a plant called brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which has several interesting characteristics: it derives its name from having very fragile stems; depending on where in the stem the sap is collected the sap can be used as a glue or as a resin to hold seal pottery vessels; or the sap can be melted to use as a varnish. There were a lot of bees collecting pollen from this plant.
It’s difficult to be sure, but I’m fairly certain this raptor is a redtailed hawk perched on an ocotillo. A few minutes after this photo, the bird took off and immediately rose a hundred feet in the air to soar over the desert. The mountain in the background is Mount Graham (elev. 10,724 feet), the southernmost peak in the continental United States to exceed 10,000 feet. Mount Graham dominates the landscape in southeastern Arizona: it’s visible from nearly everywhere. It and other tall mountains are referred to as “sky islands” in the American southwest because their different elevation zones support a number of varied habitats for wildlife and plants. Beyond this bird and the bees, we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on our visit to Gila Box; we’d especially hoped to encounter Gila monsters, which we’d been advised by Arizonans were common in the NCA.
Here’s another view of Mount Graham taken at a different time of day in the NCA, with part of the city of Willcox seen at its base. It’s barely visible in the previous photo with the raptor, but this image better shows a box-like structure in a mountain saddle at the right: that’s one of several telescopes maintained in the Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO), which is operated by the University of Arizona along with other partners. The one viewable here is the Large Binocular Telescope; the other two MGIO telescopes are the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (the “Pope ‘Scope,” if you will, and maybe you won’t) and the Submillimeter Telescope. The clear skies due to the high elevation and sparse populations in the immediate area lend themselves to excellent telescope operations. The Large Binocular Telescope is about 30 miles from this viewpoint; it is indeed large. Regrettably, the MGIO only conducts tours from mid-April through mid-October because of road conditions so we weren’t able to check it out. We had a great view of Mount Graham from our campsite, and enjoyed seeing the changing weather conditions across the mountainside during our stay.
The abundant water of the Gila Box area (by Arizona’s standards, at least) supported ranching operations, including by the Apache, beginning in the 1870s. Cattle, sheep, and goat production peaked in the 1880s and early 1890s as the Southern Pacific Railway was completed across this part of Arizona, but later droughts and land mismanagement led to a near-total collapse of the industry. Ranchers may still graze stock on the NCA, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, but must restrict their herds to upland parts of the area and no grazing is permitted on public lands near the riparian areas. This structure’s roof has seen better days.
From a geology point of view, there’s a lot going on in these cliffs about 100 yards away from the Gila River. Between 25 and 16 million years ago, volcanic eruptions created lava flows that resulted in layers of basaltic rock. Later eruptions formed layers of sedimentary and conglomerate rocks, all of which the Gila carved through to make a spectacular canyon over millions of years. These cliffs are probably about 100 feet high.
And here is that canyon, which is the Gila Box. This is a few miles upstream from the overlook where I took the first photo of this posting. I really wish the sun had been shining on the canyon walls when we were there, but canyons and sunlight rarely have good timing together. The color of the rocks is still spectacular. Water is an amazingly destructive force, especially given enough time: this is the other side of the canyon formed by the cliffs in the previous photo, which are at least 100 yards west of this standpoint. Nancy and I were somewhat frustrated with the lack of established hiking trails in the NCA, but we did enjoy a short walk along the banks of the Gila River and experiencing this canyon wall, several hundred feet high, was especially rewarding. Gunther wasn’t able to join us next to the river; he kept getting spooked by something in the underbrush as we approached the river – it could only have been a lair of writhing, snapping Gila monsters, we believe – so we took in this sight individually while the other held the leash of our big baby.

Despite not being able to find any trails on which to stretch our legs (and it’s very possible that trails exist in parts of the NCA we didn’t see), we did enjoy the visit to Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. It would be really interesting to see it in spring, when the water’s really flowing. Maybe we’ll find Gila monsters somewhere else in Arizona.

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