The "Free Willy" Expedition on the Gila River via the San Francisco River

Written by J. M. Hill Fri Sep 15 13:45 MST 1995
Last modified Sun Oct 15 12:44 MST 1995

Now that we're back from our impromptu vacation in the Gila valley, I can provide you with the 4x4 trip report on what has become known as the "Free Willy" expedition. (get it, the connection to a marooned killer whale?)

As you remember from the previous episode (Sept 8/9), our hero "Willy" (Bob Peterson's suburban) was left 12 miles deep in the Gila Box with a burned out transmission. On Wednesday afternoon, Bob Peterson, John Waack, Hal Halbedel and John Hill headed out across the desert with a new (remanufactured) tranmission, a transmission jack and a whole lot of tools. We were in my (John Hill's) Chevy and John Waack's Suzuki both equipped with winches. At this point it was looking pretty grim for "Willy" since there were rain showers on the horizon in every direction and a forecast for 3 days of rain. In fact, "Willy" wasn't in that much danger since he was parked on a bluff above the river safe from all but the 50-year flood. The flood control monitors in Clifton showed that the entire drainage of the San Francisco River was dry, so we decided to go for it on Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that the Suburban was parked only about 8 miles from downtown Clifton and only 7 miles from the nearest road access to the river. Bob had scouted the area on Tuesday and found that driving down the San Francisco River from Morenci was supposed to be far faster and easier than coming up the Gila from Bonita Creek. Faster and easier is clearly good when your truck has an extra 500 pounds of transmission and tools in the back.

We got to the Suburban about sunset on Wednesday. John W. and Hal set about removing the old tranmission along with all the other stuff (driveshafts, transfer case, exhaust system, etc.) that has to come off. The old tranmission was out in three hours. At that point we went to bed figuring to start the installation of the new transmission in the morning. Camping on the Gila is much more pleasant when you have a full complement of camping gear and food. And its the most scenic transmission shop I've ever seen. After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and green chili/salsa/cheese omlets by chef Hill, the crew installed the new transmission in 4 hours. (I'm sure they could get the whole operation down to 5 hours if they practiced. You may question whether the breakfast increased or decreased the time required.) With the Suburban running by noon and only a little winching across the mud flats on the way out, we had time for a nice swim in the San Francisco River on the way home. We also give high marks to the burros at the Kopper Kettle cafe in Morenci. Needless to say, Bob is quite happy to have his Suburban, "Willy" back out on high ground; especially now that Tropical Storm Ismael is raining on eastern Arizona.

We highly recommend the Gila River Box as a good place to get away from it all. If you take Hal along, he can also provide some spiritual guidance: "Yea though I drive through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no transmission. I lie down beside thy torque converter. Thy dipstick and thy driveshaft they comfort me. ....." (He went on for several verses, but you get the idea.)

As for this crew, they are taking a couple weekends off from wheelin' to get the trucks cleaned out and fixed up for future expeditions. See you then on the trail........

Trail Rating for lower San Francisco River

Warning: Southeastern Arizona has been very dry in 1996, so access to the lower San Francisco and the Gila Box area is relatively easy for a well-equipped 4x4. Beware that travel gets very tricky when the water is higher. Make sure that you go with a friend and a winch. Most spring seasons would require a boat rather than a truck to visit the Gila Box.

The first few miles downstream from the trailhead are easy going, but the going gets rougher as you approach the Gila. In the dry season, the trail rating going downstream is 2.5 at the start increasing to 3.0 as you near the Gila. Add half a point for coming back upstream climbing the sandbanks. The river bottom along the San Francisco is mostly solid gravel, so even deep fords are relatively easy if you don't take on water. Stock 4x4s can make the trip, but wide tires and low air pressure are extremely useful. Beware that the river bottom along the Gila River is often very soft sand, so river crossings are much tougher than along the San Francisco.

Trail Location for lower San Francisco River

To reach the lower San Francisco River trailhead: From Safford, follow AZ 191 North along US 70 East. Turn left onto AZ 191 North toward Clifton/Morenci. AZ 191 takes another left turn before you arrive in Clifton. Continue through Clifton and up the hill to Morenci. At the traffic light at the top of the hill, turn left. Follow this street about a half mile and then bear left on the road to the Morenci horse corrals. Continue past the corrals down to the river and turn right to proceed downstream. There is a relatively well-worn trail to follow down the river. Driving time from Tucson is about three hours. It is about 6 miles to the Gila River.

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Last modified: Sat Feb 22 11:46:17 1997