Wheelin' in the Gila Box

Written by J. M. Hill Mon Sep 11 14:11 MST 1995

Here's a quick trip report on the 4x4 trip we took up the Gila Box on Friday extending into Saturday. The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area was created in 1990 and is managed by the BLM.

Participants included Bob Peterson and John Waack in Bob's 87 Chevy Suburban (lifted, 33-inch tires), John Hill in his 94 Chevy K2500 Extended Cab (31-inch tires, XD9000 winch) and Jeff Rill in his 86 Toyota extended cab (rear locker, 31-inch tires)

We entered the Gila River at Bonita Creek east of Safford, AZ. This is a very scenic stretch of river. The trail is just rough enough to provide a challenge and to keep the crowds down. There was plenty of opportunity for winching if you forded where the sand was too soft. In fact, my truck has now been christened with a new name "The River .... Runs Through It". This name was assigned by Bob, John and Jeff because I had my floor mats wet (submerged) three times by mid-afternoon. The fun wheelin' challenge was to get your truck across the river and still have enough momentum to scramble up the sandy bank on the far side.

Besides the scenery, this was a fabulous trip for wildlife viewing. We saw a herd of about 40 bighorn sheep twice, the second time from a distance of only 50 yards! I never figured I would even see a bighorn in the wild, let alone from a distance as short as 50 yards. This made the entire adventure worthwhile. We also have photographic evidence that rattlesnakes sleep in trees. Remember that the next time you're strolling down a wash at night! We also saw a 2+ pound catfish and some carp/suckers landlocked in a pool near where Eagle Creek enters the Gila.

On one of the ford crossings, Bob got the Suburban up to the tailights in water. We winched it out and dried it off, but either in this crossing or the next one, he sucked water into the tranny. We made it another mile or so up river with the Suburban blowing smoke and steam out of the tranny, but it finally refused to go any farther. The river crossings were too rough and/or muddy for me or Jeff to tow another heavy vehicle, so we decided to head back to town for some fresh transmission fluid and a filter. This was where the heavy duty adventure really got going.

After more fording and winching, we found the first exit road that appeared on the map at about 9PM. Unfortunately, this road was completely washed out and wasn't passable by any kind of vehicle. That meant we had to go a few more miles upstream to get out. You definitely haven't winched until you've winched your truck out of a river at 3AM! We stopped for 2 hours of sleep before dawn and finally found our way out by 9AM at the place where Old Safford Road crosses the Gila. I can definitely offer a strong endorsement for my Warn winch (XD9000 on multimount) which did some serious pulling even while submerged in sand and/or water.

On Saturday we drove back into Safford; reloaded on food, water and transmission fluid; and set out up the Gila again. Travel was much faster on day two since our river crossing skills had been practiced alot on the same route the previous day. Bob put fresh fluid in the transmission and we managed to get it about a mile downstream, but it quit again. We finally surrendered and parked the Suburban on a little bluff along the river. The way out Saturday evening was made more exciting by the presence of some monsoon thundershowers. Fortunately, the big storms all missed us. Bob says, "When the Suburban died the second time on Saturday I felt that it might as well be on the moon, the remoteness of the area and the size of the problem seemed unreal." We got home (to Tucson) about 5AM Sunday morning having done about a year's worth of wheelin' in only two days.

In light of this adventure, I think you can look for this crew to plan a few tame and relaxing trips in the near future which are suitable for beginners and two-wheel drive vehicles. But, the Suburban is still up there along the Gila, so there is one more heavy-duty trip coming in the near future.

Bob is now trying to get together a recovery team to deliver and install a rebuilt transmission sometime in the next few days or weeks. One possible plan is to go in by way of the Ranch Road that heads in off of the Old Safford Road, the Suburban is 5 miles from the Ranch, it's 12 miles from Bonita Creek. Going in that route will get us past most of the mud flats and deep water that the lower river has. There should be little or no winching going in, and three winchings on the way out. John W. and Hal H. have volunteered to install the transmission. John will be taking his Suzuki. Volunteers with transmission experience or those who would like to learn are welcome.

Report on the Rescue Mission

Trail Rating and Topographic Maps for the Gila Box

This web page maintained by
John M. Hill <jhill@as.arizona.edu>
Steward 4x4 page

Last modified: Thu Jun 25 16:21:11 2009