The June 1998 Lower Gila Box Expedition on the Gila River

Written by John Hill, Mon Jun 15 18:54:03 1998

Here's the wheelin' trip report for our prerun of the Gila Box on Saturday June 13, 1998.

John Hill, Bob Peterson plus Anna and Robbie, Mike Drake and Jeff Rill left Houghton & I-10 at 7AM. We met up with John Waack in Safford, AZ at 8:40AM and we were at the Gila entrance at Bonita Creek by 9:30AM.

It was immediately apparent that the Gila River was running MUCH higher than the USGS Streamflow web page was indicating. That is probably why the web page says "Provisional Data Subject to Revision" in big letters at the top of the page. Based on the depth of water I'd say the flow was more like 150 CFS rather than the 90 CFS showing on the Gila River/Solomon gauge. Passable flow is something around 110 CFS. We followed a group of about 10 sand rails up the river. The first few crossings are fairly shallow so they were still easy going, but it wasn't long before we came to a crossing where no vehicles had previously crossed this year. A modest amount of strapping and winching soon got all the sand rails and all the trucks across the water and up the steep dunes on the far side. We note that it is much easier to tow a sand rail up the dune than a full-size Chevy.

We ate lunch in a mesquite bosque while John W. tried to regrease the front axle on his S-10 Blazer after the rubber boot had torn off.

By the next major crossing we were about 5 miles up the river. At this point I relived the "River Runs Through It" episode by very quickly getting 8-inches of water on the floorboards of my lifted full-size Chevy. The water was only knee deep, but seems much deeper after you sink in to the axles in soft silt. "Free Willy" came pretty close to making it across, but he too had to be extracted by the winch. Another attempt on my part also required the winch. It is a good thing that the winch works while under water. At this point we decided that discretion was more fun than winching, and we headed back downstream. The sand rails did make it farther up river. There are several crossings up near Eagle Creek that are much tougher than the one we were working on, so it was apparent that we would never make it the whole way to Morenci.

On the way back downstream, Jeff sucked water into his Toyota engine. We stopped for a while to dry that out, and we winched a stray sand rail out of the river. The weather was sunny and in the mid-90s, so all this splashing around in the river was quite pleasant.

John H. and John W. went back into Safford to work on the Blazer axle, while Bob, Mike and Jeff went wheeling up Bonita Creek. The Bonita Creek trail is open much farther than it was previously, so they got into some serious boulder fields. Mike tore his skidplate off, and Bob crushed his steering stabilizer and broke an A/C line.

A good time was had by all, and everybody was back in Tucson for dinner. Later that evening I shampoo'd the carpet in my truck and washed it out with the garden hose. This keeps it from smelling so much like "the river".

We are still planning to attempt this run again on July 3/4. Hopefully the water level will be lower by then. The locals say it has been dropping about 3-inches per week.

The July 1998 Gila Box Expedition via the Gila River and the San Francisco River

Written by John Hill, Tue Jul 7 08:41:52 1998

Here's the wheelin' trip report for Friday/Saturday July 3-4, 1998. This trip was to the "Gila Box" on the Gila River east of Safford, AZ.

The participants were John Hill and Luciano Miglietta in "The River ... Runs Through It" (1994 full-size Chevy pickup with rear locker and 35-inch tires), John Waack (a.k.a. "Over Easy") in his "weenie" Chevy (1985 S-10 Blazer with rear locker and 31-inch tires), and Bob, Anna and Robbie Peterson in "Free Willy" (1987 Suburban with rear locker and 33-inch mud-terrain tires). We met at Houghton & I-10 at 8AM and picked up Luciano in Safford at 10AM.

Even before we made it to the trailhead at Bonita Creek, we had to stop for repairs. John's weenie Chevy tore apart another front axle boot on the trip over from Tucson. (Before we blame Chevrolet for faulty boots or John for faulty maintenance, we must point out that these were aftermarket boots less than a year old.) After a quick trip to the parts store, we sent John off to the observatory base camp to install the new boots.

There were several benefits to this two hour delay:

1) The rest of us had a nice lunch in Safford. (Chalo's mexican food on 6th Ave or McDonald's).

2) Luciano got to learn that France defeated Italy 4-3 in penalty kicks after being scoreless after extra time in the World Cup Quarter Finals. Our original departure time did not allow for overtime.

3) We got to look at the recently arrived bogies for the rotating building of the Large Binocular Telescope. The 4 bogies have a total of 20 1-meter diameter wheels and can carry a total load of 2000 tons. Talk about serious iron!

4) We were not on the trail in the hottest part of the day.

We actually made it to the entrance to the Gila Box at Bonita Creek by about 2:30 PM. By the second river crossing the tow straps were already required. "The River"'s electric front axle had failed to engage, and it is very easy to sink in the silt with only 2-wheel drive.

There are two reasons why this trip was completely crazy:

a) the forecast was for a high temperature of 105 F.

b) monsoon thunder clouds were already building.

Fortunately, the second reason partially cancelled the first reason by keeping the afternoon temperature a little cooler. You'll also note that all the participants had closed cockpits and A/C. We were also carrying food and water for at least three days.

By 4PM we were winching trucks up a sand dune in the middle of a monsoon-induced dust storm. Do we have fun or what? John W. earned the "wave of the day" award by rolling a wave over his hood and halfway up the windshield. The only trail damage of the trip was that we rearranged the front bumper of the S-10 Blazer with the winch cable. This was at the crossing that had stopped us on June 13, but the water was about 8-inches lower this time (flow about 110 CFS). We also learned that my alternator's output voltage drops significantly when the alternator temperature is above 240 degrees. This made winching a rather dubious proposition for a while.

We were surprised that the "cool" river water was about 85 degrees, so it was hardly even refreshing when you splashed in. John H. high centered himself once on a gravel bar, and some guys in sandrails were entertained as we winched him off. They said that big trucks would never make it up the river, but they clearly didn't appreciate the value of a lead foot and a 350-V8. John W. says he had more fun when he got high centered last week in the Mississippi River --- in a boat!

After a questionable start, we made rapid progress up river with thunderstorms cruising all around. For the well equipped vehicles that we had, the wheelin' challenge was just right. Stock vehicles might have repeated the "Free Willy" scenario of past years. BFG Mud Terrains clearly were the tires of choice as we never had to free Willy on this trip.

We stopped to camp at the confluence of Eagle Creek and the Gila River. The topography of the river bed at Eagle Creek has dramatically changed compared to previous years. It used to be a narrow and deep crossing on a big gravel bar. Now it is an easy shallow crossing. Camping was lovely as expected as the storms had died down. Mesquite broiled steaks certainly did hit the spot. Certain rocks in the Eagle Creek watershed are known to explode when exposed to the heat of a fire. This turns the camp fire into a real July 4 extravaganza! One explosion launched a hot rock 35-feet through the air and burned a 1.5 inch hole in the side and floor of John W's tent. There's nothing quite like the "thwapp" of a hot rock on nylon. We all sat farther away from the fire after that! Fortunately the temperature was about 80 degrees, so you didn't mind sitting 30 feet from the fire.

The clouds cleared off before midnight, so we got to enjoy sleeping under the stars without the threat of rain. The temperature was down to about 75 by morning, so shaking off the morning chill wasn't really a problem.

After breakfast on Saturday, a couple more winch extractions got us to the mouth of the San Francisco River where we had a nice swim. We were in Morenci by 11AM. We drove up 191 to the mine overlook to watch the really big trucks working in the open pit. We had another nice Mexican lunch at Casa Manana in Safford on the way home. We got to Tucson in time for the first big gully-washer storm, so a trip to the carwash was not necessary.

We didn't see any bighorn sheep on this trip. The main wildlife interest was a few hundred thousand freshly hatched toads.

Let's hope that the BLM continues to keep this exciting trail open for years to come. (see the press release linked below)

Total Off-road miles: ~30
Total Highway miles: ~300

Trail Rating and Topographic Maps for the Gila Box

Preserve Access to the Gila Box

February 1998 BLM Press Release about the proposed management plan for the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. The proposed management plan excludes off-road vehicles from the entire Gila Box. We encourage you to write to the BLM and ask them to maintain off-road vehicle access to the Gila Box.

The October 1998 Deep Water Gila Box Expedition

Written by J. Waack, Thu Nov 5 1998, editted by J. Hill (from the verbal accounts)

Well, you missed one of the most exciting trips ever down the Gila River! It all began with several people camping at the outlet of Bonita Creek on Friday night, October 30th. On Halloween morning, 2 more vehicles arrived and we walked down to check out the river flow. We decided that the Gila was was too high to run, so we took plan "B". After driving to Clifton, 7 vehicles (4 were stock) entered the San Francisco River taking it downstream to the Gila River. We will call the participants Bob, John, Mike, Ed, Jack, Curt and Jeff, and they were driving Suburban, Samurai, Cherokee, 4Runner, Jeep CJ, Suburban and Toyota respectively. All went well and we reached the confluence of the San Francisco and the Gila in short order, although it was raining when we got there.

At this point, the Gila didn't look so bad. We thought we could take it down to Eagle Creek and exit up the Eagle. That part of the Gila is fairly shallow, so the deep crossing were not too deep and all the vehicles made it to Eagle Creek. However, by that time things were going so well, we figured going out downstream on the Gila would be much shorter. This is where the fun really began!

We had hoped to be "out" to pavement before dark. Yeah, right! At one deep crossing, after dark, some people weren't as careful as others and did not follow the line. Picture this: Several pairs of headlights are pointed at the crossing, a red Cherokee enters at the wrong place. He suddenly starts floating down river backwards, his wife is jumping out the window, people are yelling. Then the Jeep is drawn into an "eddy" and forward (backward) motion stops. It is just bobbing up and down as it slowly sinks. Quickly a Suburban hooks on to it, but the Jeep (full of water) is too much for the Suburban in the sand. A Samurai happens to be behind it and hooks onto the Suburban to help. Between the two of them, the Jeep is pulled to safety. No one is hurt, only badly shaken. (or were they shaking because of the cold water?) After a couple of that mechanic stuff, the Jeep is running and we continue our trek down river. A couple of crossings later, we come to another deep one. Once again, people try to drive through water which is too deep. (Was there a choice?) This time we have three more vehicles with the engines full of water. We pulled the red Cherokee across this time. By midnight, we have two of them running and decide to set up camp.

The next morning, in an attempt to start the Toyota, we hook onto it and start to pull it around the sand bar with the Suburban. Space would permit a curcular towing pattern. It looked like a race with one vehicle chasing the other around in circles. The truck, however, would not start. It had to be towed back to town. In the meantime, one of the other injured vehicles dies and also has to be towed to town. As is, one vehicle limped home and three others were left in Safford.

Through all of this, I don't think anyone lost their sense of humor and every one had a good time. Hey, it's the "price of wheeling"......... so says the guys who could drive home!

How deep was the water?
The Gila River was flowing at just over 200 CFS. This means that some of the crossings are more than 3 feet deep.

Why would anyone do this?
I think what happened on this last Gila Run was that by the time we made it to Eagle Creek we had this false notion (adrenalin) that we could beat the river, it was like we were drawn or suckered past the point of no return - leading us to the big sucker hole that swamped 4 of the 7 trucks, also it was Halloween, possibly the last Gila Run, and a pretty bright moon. What else can I say?

Are they crazy?
That's a big 10-4. However, maybe they aren't too crazy. A stock Chevy Suburban made this whole trip without getting stuck or swamping the engine. Before you try this in your stock truck, remember to pack your rescue equipment, check your bank balance, and to go with someone who has experience on the River.

What did this trip cost?
Let's just say that the cost was well into 5 figures........

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Last modified: Thu Jun 25 16:22:17 2009