The Gila River begins in the mountains of western New Mexico, crosses Arizona, and finally merges with the Colorado River in southern Arizona 649 miles later, not far from Mexico. The Gila used to be a major river, navigable by large riverboats from its mouth upriver as far as Phoenix and by smaller boats nearly to New Mexico. Today, however, irrigation and thirsty cities drain the river dry.
In 1944, German POWs built a collapsible boat, dug a tunnel under Papago Park prisoner of war camp, and escaped. Based on their stolen copy of an Arizona highway map, they planned to float the Gila to the Colorado and escape into Mexico. What they didn’t know was that the Gila River, a continuous blue line on the map, was mostly dry. They were recaptured. Read more here.
It’s a sad dusty river, gone to cotton fields and towns, but the eastern part of the river, before it reaches Phoenix, usually has some water. We floated a 22-mile stretch called the Gila Box in November 2015. The BLM’s advice to boaters captures the flavor of the Gila Box: “Float boaters are discouraged from navigating the river trail on inner tubes and inflatable swimming pool toys.” Gila Box River Trail website here.
Like many rivers, when you’re in the canyon, it’s easy to forget that just above are roads and cars and people. We spent two days and one night on the river and didn’t see another soul. And even though the river would soon be diverted for irrigation and leave the Gila dry, we forgot about all that as we floated this pretty desert stream.
You can see the Gila Box River Trail put-in here: Google Map of the Gila Box River Trail.