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.
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.
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.