Upper San Francisco River and beyond....

Written by J. M. Hill Sun Jun 6 14:00 MST 1999

On Thursday, June 3, we met at Houghton and I-10 at 8:30 and drove to Morenci, AZ. We had a nice burrito lunch at the Kopper Kettle Kafe in Morenci. The participants were Bob and Robbie Peterson in "Free Willy" (Suburban), Mike Drake in "Floater" (Cherokee), John Waack and Skip Bohling in "Dusty Blue" (Jimmy), Ed and Debbi McCullough in "Haven't named that truck yet" (F-250 Super Duty) and John Hill in "The River .... runs through it" (K2500). Then we headed up the San Francisco River from Clifton. There are about 5 miles of dirt road and then the trail drops into the river.

It was pretty windy, but the weather was otherwise perfect. We spent the afternoon driving up the San Francisco River to the confluence of the Blue River. We hung out there for a while and then checked out the cliff dwellings just upstream. We finally set up camp for the night under some cottonwoods about 3/4 mile below Martinez Ranch. The river flow was only 35 CFS so the deepest crossing was only 20 inches. This made it easy going for all the vehicles including the 3 that were stock. We met one other Jeep who told us there are 42 river crossings between Clifton and Martinez Ranch. The river bed is gravel as on the lower San Francisco, so floatation is rarely a problem. The scenery along the way is beautiful with all manner of rocks and cliffs. Wildlife sited included some baby ducks and a few deer.

On Friday morning, June 4, we struck camp and headed out toward Martinez Ranch. We explored the area long enough to see that Martinez really has a nice spread, and that there isn't a well travelled trail farther up river. (The locals tell us that it is possible to drive farther up river than Martinez Ranch, but the going gets rougher. We'll have to try it someday.) Then we headed out the dirt road that comes into Martinez Ranch via Dix Mesa. This graded road has some fairly impressive hill climbs in its own right, and it has some incredibly scenic views.

When we met highway 78, everybody but Mike headed on over into New Mexico. Even on the pavement this area has some fine scenery. (see part 2 of Aldo Leopold's book "A Sand County Almanac".) We hiked up the Catwalk in Glenwood and had lunch there. After lunch we headed up to the old mining town of Mogollon and beyond into the Gila National Forest. We drove on graded roads up to Bear Wallow fire lookout tower. Robbie got to see what a forest lookout does. To this point we hadn't broken anything or gotten stuck. That changed in the next hour. First, Bob broke a hood hinge on "Free Willy". A ratchet tie down strap quickly got the hood back in place. Then John backed his tailgate into a log and popped the rear window. This may give you a hint where the name "Dusty Blue" comes from. Finally we got off the graded roads and headed west on FR 119. This road had been cleared of downed trees on just wide enough to squeeze a full-size truck through. We spent about two hours on this quite technical slalom course downhill through heavy forest. Ed and Debbi got the first significant dent in their new Ford navigating around the end of a fallen tree. The most excitement was following this winding and steep trail without knowing for sure if there was a passable exit. This 3-rated trail could easily change to impassable with a little bit of moisture. We came back out on Highway 180 north of Alma, NM and drove up to Alpine, AZ for the evening. A hot shower and a chicken-fried steak had everybody feeling better by bedtime.

On Saturday, June 5, we took the scenic 2WD roads from Alpine to Show Low via Beaverhead, Buffalo Crossing, West Fork of the Black River, Big Lake, and Sheep's Crossing. We had lunch in Lakeside and then drove back to Tucson via Salt River Canyon. We got the pleasant surprise of temperatures only in the 80's. The only disappointment was that we didn't get an opportunity to use the winches.

Trail Rating for the Upper San Francisco River

Warning: Southeastern Arizona has been very dry in early 1999, so access to the upper San Francisco River 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 (or three) and a winch. Also remember that the San Francisco River drains 2766 square miles, so this is not a place to visit in the rainy season.

The first few miles upstream from the trailhead are easy going and most of the trail has been bladed for ranch access. The crossings get rougher as you proceed up the river. We rate this trail as a 3.0 when the flow is 40 CFS or less. In the dry season, it is passable by stock 4x4s. Add half a point for each additional 20 CFS of flow. The river bed is fairly firm, so the limit of travel is set by deep or swift water.

The lower San Francisco River below Clifton is similar. See our descriptions of the Gila Box.

Trail Location for upper San Francisco River

Travel time from Tucson is 3 hours. From Safford, on US 70 West follow AZ 191 North to Clifton. Turn right just past the metal bridge in Clifton, cross another smaller bridge, and follow the graded dirt road up the east bank of the San Franciso River. The wide graded road is blocked after about five miles and the trail descends to the river. Unless there has been a recent flood, the trail up the river is easy to follow the whole way to Martinez Ranch. At Martinez Ranch (Dix Creek), follow the ranch road out over Dix Mesa to the south and meet AZ 78 (the road over Mule Creek Pass) near Big Lue Spring.

San Francisco River Flow Rate

The USGS Water Resources Information for Arizona page provides historical data and on-line flow data retrieved via satellite for the San Francisco River at Clifton.

Topographic Maps Needed

Clifton, Mitchell Peak, Dix Creek, Harden Cienga, Big Lue Mountains

Adjoining Topographic Maps

GPS Coordinates

Landmark UTM Easting UTM Northing Altitude
Safford (Hwy 70 & Hwy 191) 12 6 21 000 E 36 33 480 N +2915
San Francisco River at the Gila River 12 6 52 150 E 36 46 700 N +3350
Clifton (Hwy 191 @ San Francisco River) 12 6 59 200 E 36 57 900 N +3480
Clifton turnoff for upper San Francisco River 12 6 58 800 E 36 58 600 N +3500
Turnoff to decsend to the river 12 6 60 400 E 36 66 800 N +3820
Blue River at the San Francisco River 12 6 68 500 E 36 75 800 N +3910
Martinez Ranch at Dix Creek 12 6 71 400 E 36 75 500 N +4000
Hwy 78 turnoff for Dix Mesa 12 6 79 240 E 36 61 900 N +6077
Morenci (X Hwy 191) 12 6 56 720 E 36 58 200 N +4030

This web page maintained by
John M. Hill <jhill@as.arizona.edu>
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Last modified: Thu Jun 25 15:57:26 2009