March 8-10, 2015
When David and Rogil had an unusual free weekend, we quickly recruited them for further explorations of a couple of our favorite streams in eastern Arizona. We arranged to meet them at a campground on the Gila River, and were quite surprised that on a balmy Friday night in May, only one other site was occupied. We arrived in time to explore the area from the (empty!) picnic area, past a be audacious swimming hole, to the confluence with Bonita Creek.
"Confluence" is a bit of a misnomer, since Bonita Creek arrives at its rendezvous with the Gila in a brush-clogged and bone-dry side canyon, its entire flow apparently siphoned off upstream to supply the City of Safford.
It was a delightfully peaceful night beside the river, and after breakfast we were off to bash our way to the next confluence. Our objective was an extremely remote section of a tributary of the Gila River. We wandered into the area two years ago on our way home from a grand loop through western New Mexico, and determined to return with at least one other off-road capable vehicle. The first half of the route is a reasonable gravel road, but the last six mile is some of the worst 4WD we've ever experienced.
The word "vertiginous" hardly covers it, and there seemed to be a whole lot more loose and exposed rock than on our first foray. I got my exercise jogging along behind the TacoMa, since I could not handle the g-force on the steeper slopes.
After two hours of bone-rattling 4WD, we finally slid off the far end of Dix Mesa, and dropped into a red-walled canyon outlined with lime green Fremont cottonwoods. Years ago the BLM apparently constructed an actual campground in the bottom on the site of an abandoned ranch. An old workshop serves as a picnic shelter and there are picnic tables half-buried in silt and hidden in a tangle of mesquite.
There are ruins of several buildings nearby, and just upstream, a significant dam creates a reservoir that feeds an aqueduct that supplies water to a ranch more than a half-mile downstream. The aqueduct wraps around and actually tunnels through a cliff, creating an accidental waterfall along the way.
We set up camp in a lovely meadow under two sprawling cottonwoods and set off to explore the area. Upstream the river threads its way through a narrow canyon between cliffs of red and black basalt over 1000 feet high. The stream margins are choked with brush, but by crossing and re-crossing the gray-green stream in thigh-deep water, we always managed to find an open area a short distance inland. We passed through so many lovely stream-side meadows shaded by ancient cottonwoods. Were there ranches here in the past? A stone cabin in this canyon would be a little slice of heaven, albeit a very very long drive to the nearest town.
I was surprised to see so few signs of flood damage from the violent storms that swept down out of the Mogollon Mountains in September 2013. There were a few impressive snags, but overall far less destruction than we observed in western New Mexico.
The canyon opened up and flattened out as we worked our way upstream, and we entered an area where beavers were hard at work on a poplar forest at the mouth of Coal Creek, a very significant drainage that forms the precipitous eastern slope of Dix Mesa. Although conical red mountains beckoned just around the next bend, we reluctantly turned back to have time for a splash in the waterfall before dinner.
It was so quiet and so delightfully cool beside the stream that night. Arond 3:00 a.m., I closed up the TacoMa because it actually felt a bit chilly. In the morning there was frost on the grass, meaning there must have been nearly a 50-degree temperature spread between day and night. Only in Arizona!
Next morning we explored downstream, aiming for the confluence with the Blue River. Here we were following an old jeep track that apparently ran all the way to Clifton some years ago, but the canyon is broader here and recent flooding has obliterated the old road, and the last of the ATV tracks petered out at the fifth crossing.
All too soon, it was time to head back up and out of the canyon. I feel so fortunate to have experienced a bit of this remarkably beautiful and wild river. A big "thank you" to David and Rogil for being so willing to wander WAY off the beaten path!