Canyons of the Lower Gila Box

March 7-10, 2024

Four whole days in the Lower Gila Box, with no real itinerary. Total freedom to just go wherever our feet could carry us!

dark clouds above Caprock

The forecast called for a week of sunshine and warm weather, but apparently the Gila didn't get the memo. Inky clouds blanketed the eastern horizon, and strong winds battered and buffeted our camper all night long.

White Rock Canyon

On previous trips we were thunderstruck to discover that with a bit of scrambling, it was possible to hike both Box Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon all the way to the Gila. This time we we set our sights on White Rock Canyon.

huge boulders

It started out broad and sandy, lined by its namesake white volcanic tuff. But we soon encountered a stone dam that required a big detour, followed by an impassable rock pile.

up and out of the canyon

Undeterred, we scrambled up out of the canyon, over the ridge and into an adjacent side canyon.

looking down the side canyon

But after downclimbing another half mile or so, we dead-ended at another dry waterfall.

scrambling over a dry waterfall

So we skittered up the side once again, and dropped into an unnamed canyon that we hoped might run us all the way to the Gila River.

venerable juniper

Somewhere in this canyon we found ourselves in a sweet oasis shaded by ancient junipers and house-sized boulders.


There were a couple of caves nearby, but no evidence of habitation.

short-eared owl

A single silent shadow winged overhead, followed by its mate. One of them sat in the juniper long enough for me to snap a photo. We assumed they were great horned owls, but later learned they were long-eared owls. We found owl pellets and plenty of scat on the rocks, so perhaps they had a nest nearby.

cliffed out again

So near, yet so far away! We could see the yellow-green leaves of cottonwoods along the Gila a quarter mile away, but our route ended with a 30-foot drop over steep and rocky terrain.

curtain of rain on the horizon

By then it was getting late, and there was a serious storm brewing. We stayed high on the ridges and made a beeline for the camper.

setting up the shower tent

By lashing the shower tent to as many big rocks as we could find, we kept it from blowing away long enough to get our showers.


Sunset with Cañador Peak in the distance.

Spring on the Bluff

The next morning we made our way to Spring-on-the-Bluff, where the newer maps show a faint trail along the headlands.

patches of poppites

On the edge of the bluff we were delighted to find a clutch of poppies — the first of the year for us!

Mexican poppy redstem stork's bill

Other early wildflowers included blue dicks and redstem stork's bills.

tuber anemone

Tuber anemone.

view of the Gila from above

The BLM describes this route as "a fishing access trail down to the river". All our attempts to reach the river ended in sheer drop-offs, but for one steep and stony path that we spotted on our way back to the camper.

sandy cutoff meander

Of course the sandy beach we had admired from above was a cutoff meander, and the riverbank was choked with thick brush and driftwood.

rocky side canyon

The trail eventually rolls away into the mouth of a side canyon.

reflecting pool in a side canyon

Rather than go back the way we came, we headed up the side canyon.

hiking overland above the river

Then peeled off at another side canyon to amble cross-country back to the camper.

It was still early, so we decided to head around to explore a road on the north shore between Lower Gila Box WSA and Blue Creek WSA. Near the junction of Fuller Road and US 70, we flushed a herd of pronghorn antelope.

Steeple Rock panorama

By then it was spitting rain and snow. The road went to Hell just as it passed through some gnarly cliffs of red rhyolite and we caught a glimpse of the rain-shrouded south shore below us. I ran ahead to scout the route, but found it blocked by a rock fall. We turned back and camped on a side road near Cañador Peak. We had a dramatic sunset view of Steeple Rock.

poppies in the foreground

Old maps showed this road leading to the Gila, so down we went the next morning.

carpet of poppies

We could practically hear the poppies popping! Is this the start of a super bloom?

view of Canador

As usual, the faint track dead-ended at a cliff. We continued cross-country along the bench above the Gila to check out some petroglyphs.

petroglyph panel animal figure female figure below sandstone cliffs

Cliff notes. It was a long and surprisingly warm walk back to the camper. Now I know why most trails run along the headland, dropping in and out of steep canyons rather than heading overland through a mine field of basalt bombs and club cholla cactus.

looking west toward the end of the box

Looking west toward the end of the box. What a great place! In four days, we'd seen only three other people!