Sunday, May 21, 2017

And now for something different: Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

Over the years the S.O. and I have been to a lot of National Park sites, National Forests, US Corps of Engineers campgrounds, state forests, state parks, county parks, even township parks, but until we spent the winter in Arizona we'd never knowinglyh gone near anything managed by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM oversees huge swaths of land out West -- big chunks of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and other states. But you know what I think when I hear "BLM?" I think grazing leases. Or mineral leases. Or truly barren ugly wastelands beloved by boondockers who are so anxious to camp for free that they're happy to ignore the fact the location that's free looks depressingly similar to the surface of the moon. You know, basically places that only starving cows and hard core rockhounds are willing to go.
Gila River. It's the longest river in Arizona and at various points has a fair amount of water in it. Every time I saw it, it looked  muddy and disgusting even though it is supposedly a trout stream.

I did not know BLM also does recreation, as in actual developed recreation. Day use areas with scenic vistas and picnic tables and the cleanest comfort stations I have ever seen. Real campgrounds with fire rings, ramadas over the picnic tables, and potable water available. Hiking trails, including hiking trails that are so developed they're handicapped accessible. Live and learn.
Paved accessible trail to "wildlife viewing area." The pavilion in the distance has several benches so you can sit, relax, and hope something other than a squirrel shows up. There are supposed to be bighorn sheep. We never saw any.

It turned out there was a fair amount of BLM land in the Safford area. There were areas that were open to dispersed camping (aka boondocking), and there were developed recreation areas like Hot Wells (an area south of Safford popular with people who have ORVs) and Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area on the Gila River northeast of town. We went out to Gila Box a couple times. You can canoe or kayak on the river, although I'm not real sure why anyone would want to (but maybe I just saw it at the wrong time of year), you can hike, you can picnic, and there are actual campgrounds. Dispersed camping is permitted, too, but when the daily use fee for a nice site within easy walking distance of a super clean privy is only $5 ($2.50 for those us with geezer passes) I don't much see the point of true boondocking.
Historic cabin restored (sort of) by the BLM.

On one of our trips to Gila Box, we visited the sites close to Safford: a day use area on Bonita Creek that includes a picnic area right down by the creek where it joins the river and a wildlife viewing area that's up higher overlooking the Bonita Creek canyon, and the Riverview Campground, which perches on a bluff overlooking the Gila River. I will confess the drive out to Bonita Creek made me a tad nervous. It was the first time I'd ever seen a steep hill warning sign informing me that the drop ahead was a 20% grade. Fortunately, it wasn't a particularly long hill.

Roads within Gila Box overall were in good condition, but were definitely narrow, winding, and with a lot of up and down. There were sections where you do keep your fingers crossed you won't meet any oncoming traffic. We did meet other vehicles a couple times, but in each case visibility was good enough that one car was able to pull over to the side and allow the other to get past the tight curve or steepest part of the grade before passing each other.
Old Safford Highway bridge. It's a really nice Luten concrete double arch built in 1918 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It does feel a bit odd -- the bridge looks great, but the road on either side of it is one lane dirt.

The old Clifton to Safford highway goes through Gila Box. It parallels the river, more or less, and has a nifty concrete bridge on the Clifton end. That road is now known as the Black Hills Back Country Scenic Byway. It's also one where drivers are warned not to take it unless they're in an ORV or have a vehicle with high ground clearance. When we visited the Clifton end to check out the day use areas and the Owl Creek campground, we did not go beyond the bridge. We were in my Focus, and I had no desire to try rock climbing with it.

Both campgrounds at Gila Box struck me as being pretty nice. Neither is very big -- according to the BLM web site, Riverview has 13 sites, Owl Creek has 7 -- but they're nicely designed. They're spaced far enough apart that even totally full it would not feel crowded, each site has a ramada over the picnic table, and there's both a fire ring and a grill at each site. I was surprised they weren't busier. If I recall correctly, Granville had one camper at the far end of the campground while Riverview had maybe 2 or 3 plus a campground host. The host's site struck me as being pretty nice. It was tucked off to one side instead of being the first thing you saw when you pulled into the campground, which means the host doesn't end up feeling like he or she is living in a fishbowl. That's a real positive when BLM hosts (just like NPS, Forest Service, and Corps of Engineers) are expected to sign up for longer stays than the hosts at state parks.
Camp site at Owl Creek campground

I don't know if we'd ever try camping at Gila Box. I know we wouldn't have any trouble getting the Guppy in to the Owl Creek campground, but can't think of a reason why I'd want to be closer to Clifton than to Safford. And the Riverview campground is nice, but there were one or two sections of road that come down a steep hill and almost immediately start climbing another steep grade. The Guppy is only 27 feet long, but there's quite a bit behind the back axle. I saw a school bus get hung up trying to climb a steep driveway into an apartment complex on Buford Highway. The back end of the bus hit the pavement before the whole vehicle was far enough up to keep moving. Not a pleasant situation for the bus driver -- if he tried backing up, he'd damage the bus, but he couldn't go forward. I had visions of something similar, or worse, happening if we tried bringing the Guppy out to Riverview. It's a bit odd -- it's one of the few situations I can think of where a Leviathan might be able to go where the Guppy couldn't simply because the typical Class A has a longer wheel base/less overhang on the back end..
View from one of the campsites at Owl Creek campground.

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