On our way to Safford in eastern Arizona, we stopped to look at Coolidge Dam. A couple sitting in their car asked where we were from and offered stories from their youth, when studly boys jumped from the dam into the sparkling water of San Carlos Lake. Together we studied the high water mark, a grimy ring far above the brown water of the lake. The woman claimed that in the nineties a tribal leader sold the Gila River water rights to the city of Tempe so they could build Tempe Town Lake.
We peered over the downstream side of the dam. In place of the lively river that once carved gorges through the desert, a trickle of chocolate colored water seeped from beneath the towering cement walls. Despite the changes, great blue herons still fished in the shallows and cormorants sunned on boulders far below us.
Just east of the dam turnoff, in the tiny town of Bylas, a Basha’s grocery stood at the edge of the highway. I went in and found the aisles crowded with young Native American families doing their Saturday morning shopping. They pushed carts loaded with 20 pound burlap sacks of dry beans and vats of cooking oil, and their non-perishables came in cans and containers in extra large sizes. These people don’t make it to the market every day or two like us city folks.
In Safford we checked into the Cottage Bed and Breakfast. The charming bungalow nestles in the back garden of the historic Olney House, a grand home built in 1890. Despite the temptations of the Cottage Bakery also on property, we refreshed our water bottles and headed out for our expedition to Gila Box.
We drove east of town, following the Gila River upstream. Neat farms rested smugly in the narrow valley, their croplands laid out like pieces in a carefully stitched quilt. When the road turned north we left the farmland to climb into stark rolling hills of limestone that bristled with ocotillo. Creosote bushes provided sparks of green.
At the West Entrance to the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, a paved overlook with stone pillars provided an information kiosk and a view of the river and its attendant greenery. Water draws a verdant line in a desert landscape. In every direction wrinkles of tan hills filled the space while distant blue mountains anchored the horizons.
We continued along the maze of well maintained dirt tracks. Our next stop was a picnic area, shady and cool with several picnic tables tucked beneath tall sycamore trees. I followed a trail through dense undergrowth and emerged at a silty patch of beach dotted with river rock and watched over by stately cottonwood trees. The Gila rushed by, but my attention was drawn by the multitude of animal tracks crossing the mud. No breeze stirred the leaves but the water pushed and gurgled its way and insects whined nearby. Here was a world completely different than the stark landscape that lined the road above. I could easily imagine a mountain lion crouched here, lapping at the river.
We drove on and at the next turn off spiraled down a steep incline to Bonita Creek. The track ended abruptly in a sunlit clearing. Trees elbowed each other in the narrow canyon, nearly obliterating peach colored cliffs. Shrubs and grasses grew to the very edge of the shallow stream and bright flowers shined their yellow faces in the clear water. It was very still, incredibly quiet.
There are four perennial waterways at Gila Box, thus the protected status. Bonita Creek and Eagle Creek add their waters to the Gila, and the confluence of the San Francisco River is just upstream. One of only two Riparian National Conservation Areas in the country (the other is the San Pedro River), Gila Box encompasses 23,000 acres and is managed by the BLM. The Area was designated by Congress in 1990. Since then a management plan has been drawn up to deal with the challenges of encouraging recreation while protecting the unique habitat.
The area has a lot to protect. We arrived a bit unprepared for the unmarked roads, so we didn’t find the cliff dwellings, the historic homestead cabins or the petroglyphs. But it was easy to see that this is a mecca for wildlife. The riparian refuge is home to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain lions, black bear and over 200 species of birds. I look forward to returning for another visit, to enjoy more of the solitude and beauty of this rare place. And I wouldn’t miss another dinner at Casa Manana in Safford.