Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society
You can learn about the Native Americans and pioneers of the area from this large collection (Pima, nine miles west of Safford on US 70, 928/485-9400 or 928/485-3032, 2–4 p.m. Wed.–Fri., 1–5 p.m. Sat., free) in a 1915 bank and town hall building. Visits can be arranged at other times too.
Cluff Ranch Wildlife Area
The Arizona Game and Fish Department maintains the 788-acre Cluff Ranch (928/485-9430) as a wildlife and recreation area. Birding is good and you're almost sure to see some free-roaming deer or javelina. Strips of grain crops are planted for wildlife. Streams from Mt. Graham fill two or three ponds and support lush riparian vegetation. Anglers catch trout in winter and largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, and bluegill year-round. Boats—oar, sail, or electric—can be used. Visitors may do primitive camping at the ponds; there's a vault toilet near Pond Three.
From US 70 in Pima, nine miles west of Safford, turn south 1.5 miles on Main Street; the road curves west and becomes Cottonwood Road; continue another 0.4 mile, then turn south 4.5 miles on Cluff Ranch Road.
Roper Lake State Park
The shores of this pretty lake offer camping, picnicking, swimming, and fishing. A walking path leads out to the island, a day-use area with grass, shade trees, and a beach. Anglers can launch boats (electric motors okay) and try for trout (in winter), catfish, bass, bluegill, and crappie; a boat ramp is on the east side of the lake. Hedonists can relax in the hot tub, fed by a natural spring. Mariah Mesa Nature Trail begins near the hot tub and makes a half-mile loop up the mesa with good views; a trail leaflet and numbered posts identify desert plants. The park (6 miles south of Safford off US 191, 928/428-6760) stays open all year and provides showers and a dump station. Visitors pay $6 day use, $12 camping, $19 w/water and electric, $35 cabin up to 6 people. There's usually room, though hookup sites can fill in winter; only groups can reserve areas. The visitor center offers a gift shop, laptop jack, and free loaner fishing rods.
Warm water from an artesian spring feeds Dankworth Ponds Unit, a day-use area that also offers good picnicking, fishing, and hiking. A 1.75-mile-roundtrip trail winds along the pond, crosses riparian areas and a mesquite bosque, climbs a little mesa to replicas of Native American dwellings, then continues to a dry wash. Admission fees cover both units of the Roper Lake State Park; Dankworth lies 2.7 miles farther south on US 191 (0.7 mile south of the Swift Trail junction).
THE MOUNT GRAHAM RED SQUIRREL
This subspecies (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis) lives only in the Pinaleños Mountains (Mt. Graham) of southeastern Arizona. It became isolated here at the end of the Pleistocene glacial periods when the surrounding plains no longer supported conifer forests. In the 1950s, scientists thought the subspecies had become extinct, but small numbers were rediscovered in the 1970s. The population has continued to recover despite construction of the Mt. Graham International Observatory, which some experts thought would threaten the squirrels' survival. Work on the observatory seems to have no effect on the squirrels. Rather, their numbers correspond to the availability of conifer seeds, their primary food. The squirrels prefer the mixed conifers on Mt. Graham between 8,500 and 10,000 feet, but they also live in the spruce-fir forest at the higher elevations on the mountain. They're only 12-14 inches in total length, with dark gray fur tinged with red and with white under parts; a narrow black stripe runs down each side where the gray and white meet. You may hear their noisy calls in the forest.
The Mt. Graham International Observatory Controversy
Environmentalists decried the cutting of trees that might drive the Mt. Graham red squirrel and other wildlife into extinction. Apache protested that sacred land would be desecrated by buildings and made inaccessible to tribal members who wished to collect herbs and water for ceremonies. Legal actions to halt construction began with a nine-claim lawsuit by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1989. Community support from local towns and the Board of Supervisors of Graham and Cochise Counties weighed in on the side of the observatory. Eventually the University of Arizona and it partners survived the claims and appeals by opposing groups. Construction has gone ahead and the first instruments have become operational. The University of Arizona continues to work with the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize harmful effects on the land and wildlife; officials have also met with Apache groups to provide access to land near the observatory. A team of biologists funded by the university monitors the Mt. Graham red squirrels.
Mount Graham Drive and the Pinaleños Mountains
Mount Graham (10,720 feet) in the Pinaleños Mountains soars nearly 8,000 feet above Safford—the greatest vertical rise of any mountain in Arizona. Visitors enjoy the views, cool breezes, hiking, picnicking, camping, and fishing. A gate just past Shannon Campground closes during the snow season of Nov. 15 to around April 15 or later.
A good road, the 35-mile-long Swift Trail Parkway (AZ 366), ascends the eastern slopes through a remarkable range of vegetation and animal life. Starting among cactus, creosote bush, and mesquite of the upper Sonoran Desert, you'll soon arrive at pygmy forests of juniper, oak, and pinyon pine. Higher on the twisting road, you'll enter dense forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen, and white fir. Thick stands of Engelmann spruce dominate the highest ridges. The Mt. Graham red squirrel, Mt. Graham pocket gopher, white-bellied vole, and Rusby's mountain fleabane (a wild daisy) are found only in the Pinaleños Mountains.
Fire-lookout towers on two peaks offer superb views. Heliograph Peak (elev. 10,028 feet) offers one of the best panoramas in the region; on a clear day you can see most of southeastern Arizona. The 2.2-mile road to the lookout is gated, but you can walk up it or take Arcadia Trail #328 one mile from Shannon Campground, then turn up Heliograph Trail #328A one mile. The army built a heliograph station here in 1886 using mirrors and sunlight to relay messages to troops.
Columbine Visitor Information Station, at mile 29 on the Swift Trail, is in an old CCC building that once housed forest workers and firefighters; it may be open in summer.
Webb Peak (elev. 10,086 feet) offers a better view of the Gila River Valley and surrounding mountains; you can reach the summit by going up one mile on Web Peak Trail #345 from Columbine public corrals, by walking on a 1.7-mile gated road, or by making a loop on both.
You can stop for a picnic along the way at Noon Creek (seven miles up; elev. 5,200 ft.), Round the Mountain (7.5 miles; elev. 5,300 ft.; also has corrals and popular trailhead), Wet Canyon (10 miles; elev. 6,100 ft.), or Clark Peak Trailhead (36 miles; elev. 9,000 ft.). There's no water or charge at these places, but you would have to pay if picnicking at a campground. If you're driving AZ 266 south of Mt. Graham, you could stop at Stockton Pass Picnic Area, which offers views and water at an elevation of 5,600 feet; free. To get there, head south 17 miles from Safford on US 191, then turn right (southwest) 12 miles on AZ 266; it's also the lower trailhead for the Shake Trail #309, which descends from the Pinelenos.
Six developed campgrounds have drinking water and a $10 fee from mid-May to late October. Campground elevations range from 6,700 feet at Arcadia to 9,300 feet at Soldier Creek. Anglers can camp and try for trout in Riggs Lake, near the end of the Swift Trail.
Equestrians can use corrals, trails, camping, and parking at Round the Mountain, Cunningham, Columbine, and Clark Peak Trailhead. Round the Mountain may have stock water; Columbine offers both drinking and stock water.
To reach the start of the drive, go seven miles south from Safford on US 191, or 26 miles north from I-10, and turn west at the sign. The first 21 miles is paved, followed by 14 miles of gravel to Clark Peak trailhead. This last section of road is gated Nov. 15–April 15 because of snow and the need to protect the red squirrel habitat. The drive from Safford and back takes about 4.5 hours; be sure to stock up on gas and supplies before leaving town.
The Safford Ranger Station (711 14th Ave., Suite D, Safford, AZ 85546, 928/428-4150, www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado, 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) has an auto tour on the features of the Swift Trail, maps of the Coronado National Forest ( Pinaleños Range), and information sheets on picnic areas, campgrounds, and trails. Hikers can choose among many trails but should be prepared for steep sections; ask about conditions, as fires have damaged some trails.
Mt. Graham International Observatory includes the 1.8-meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, the 10-meter Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Radio Telescope, and the Large Binocular Telescope, which uses two 8.4-meter mirrors to achieve the light gathering of an 11.8-meter and the resolution of a 23-meter instrument. See the Discovery Park description above for tours and website links. Protecting red squirrel habitat is a major concern—and controversy—in the development of the telescope site. High Peak, the summit of Mt. Graham, is closed to protect the red squirrel.
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness
A jewel in the desert, Aravaipa Canyon is renowned for its scenery and variety of wildlife. The waters of Aravaipa Creek flow all year, a rare occurrence in the desert, providing an oasis for birds and other animals. Giant cottonwood, ash, sycamore, and willow trees shade the canyon floor. Rocky hillsides, dotted with saguaro cactus and other desert plants, lie only a few steps from the lush vegetation along the creek. Birders have sighted about 200 species in the canyon, including bald eagle and peregrine falcon. Mule and white-tailed deer, javelina, and coatimundi frequent the area; you might even see a mountain lion or bighorn sheep. Remember to keep an eye out for any of several species of rattlesnakes.
Although there's no established trail, hiking is easy to moderate along the gravel creekbed. Tributary canyons invite side trips—Hell Hole Canyon is especially enchanting. You'll be wading frequently across the creek, so wear tennis shoes or other shoes that can get wet. Grassy terraces make inviting campsites.
To visit the 11-mile canyon—even for day-hikes—you must get a permit from the BLM office in Safford (711 14th Ave., Safford, AZ 85546, 928/348-4400, www.blm.gov/az/aravaipa/, 7:45 a.m.–4:15 p.m. Mon.–Fri.). You can make reservations online or by phone or mail up to 13 weeks in advance; spring and autumn weekends are especially popular; be sure to cancel if you or any of your party won't be coming. Permits cost $5 per person per day and are payable by credit card online or by check if paying by mail; note that fees cannot be paid at trailheads. Only 50 people per day are permitted in the canyon, and there's a two-night (three-day) stay limit. Hikers have a ten-person group size limit. Horseback riders are welcome but, on overnight trips, must camp with their horses on the uplands above the riparian canyon; each group is limited to five animals. Pets are prohibited.
Trailheads, though only 11 trail miles apart, are separated by 160 driving miles. Access to the East Trailhead sometimes requires a high-clearance vehicle (no cars) for the half dozen or so stream crossings; it's reached by Klondyke Road (turn off US 70 about 15 miles northwest of Safford between Mileposts 313 and 314) or by Fort Grant Road (I-10 Willcox Exit 340); both roads meet Aravaipa Road, which you follow west to the trailhead. Eight miles before the wilderness boundary you'll come to Klondyke, a settlement founded by two veteran Yukon prospectors in the early 1900s. A ranger Site Host is stationed here seasonally. The nearby Fourmile Campground has drinking water year-round and a $5 fee; turn left in Klondyke at the sign. With 4WD, you can also camp along Turkey Creek Canyon (no facilities or fee), a pretty tributary of Aravaipa Creek near the East Trailhead.
The West Trailhead is much closer to Phoenix (120 miles) and Tucson (70 miles). A ranger station is located at Brandenburg, three miles before the trailhead. There's no camping at the trailhead. From the junction on AZ 77 near Milepost 124, about 11 miles south of Winkelman, turn east 12 miles on Aravaipa Road to the trailhead.
This perennial stream flows through a pretty canyon in the Gila Mountains, about 25 miles northeast of Safford. Primitive roads provide access to the creek. One road follows the riparian canyon for about two miles; summer flash floods can take out the road, which has many stream crossings, so it's a good idea to first check conditions and routes with the BLM office.
You may spot prehistoric cliff dwellings—most served as granaries—in the canyon, but they are too fragile and footing on the steep hillsides too precarious to approach closely. Birding and hiking are best on weekdays. You can camp almost anywhere except at the mouth—just keep well above the washes to avoid being surprised by a flash flood.
From Safford, travel east about five miles on US 70 to the town of Solomon, then turn left (north) seven miles on Sanchez Road. At the sign for Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, turn left 2.5 miles on a graded dirt road to the west entry sign and continue, following signs for Bonita Creek.
A restored pioneer cabin from the 1920s marks the joining of Bonita Creek and the Gila River. There's also a wildlife-viewing platform. Riverview Campground nearby is open year-round with water, shade ramadas, and a $5 fee. Flying W Group Day Use Area is in the area too.
The lower 15 miles of Bonita Creek and a 23-mile section of the Gila River receive protection as the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. Stop by the BLM in Safford for a brochure that includes a detailed map of the roads and facilities in the Gila Box.
Pioneer ranchers and farmers built this trail in about 1874 to haul their products to the booming mines of the Morenci area. The trail fell into disuse with the advent of the automobile during the early 1900s. Today it receives little use and is often difficult to follow—you'll need topo maps and a compass.
Hikers and horseback riders enjoy the variety of desert and riparian environments along the way. The trail is 14 miles one-way with an elevation range of 3,700 to 6,200 feet. Bonita Creek, crossed about midway, makes a good camping spot; creek water must be treated. Roads to both the west and east trailheads may require 4WD vehicles in wet weather. Contact the BLM office in Safford for more information.
Hot Well Dunes Recreation Area
Sand dunes and a hot-water artesian well attract visitors to this remote spot southeast of Safford. Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts come to ride the dunes of the 2,000-acre recreation area, which offers campsites and hot tubs; $3/vehicle or $30 annual permit. Drillers seeking oil in the 1920s hit hot water, which flows at more than 250 gallons per minute at 106ºF. From Safford, you can head east seven miles on US 70, then turn south (between Mileposts 347 and 348) 25 miles on Haekel Road. Or drive 17 miles south from Safford on US 191, turn east (near Milepost 105) 12 miles on Tanque Road, then turn right eight miles on Haekel Road. From Bowie on I-10 (Exits 362 or 366), drive two miles north on Central Avenue, turn east one mile on Fan Road, turn north one mile on Donahue, turn east six miles on Rosewood, then turn north nine miles on Haekel to the site. The BLM office in Safford and its website have information on the area.
Black Hills Back Country Byway
You can take this 21-mile scenic drive in dry weather. A high-clearance vehicle is best, though cautiously driven cars may be able to make it, too. Start from US 191, either east of Safford at Milepost 139 or south of Clifton at Milepost 160. At each end of the drive you'll find a National Back Country Byway kiosk with historical and road information. A BLM brochure describes history, geology, and natural resources at various points along the drive. Visitors with long trailers or RVs should leave them at the information kiosks.
The Black Hills make up the northern end of the Peloncillo Mountains, a volcanic range with alluvial sand and gravel on its flanks. Both ends of the byway begin on the sand and gravel, then climb into volcanic rock in the higher, central part of the drive. Lava flows consist of dark gray and gray brown andesite, rhyolite, and dacite interlayered with multicolored ash from both windblown falls and ash flows. Ash deposits range in color from red or yellow to gray.
The low sections of the drive pass through a desert scrub plant community with much creosote. Animals include diamondback rattlesnakes, whip-tailed lizards, kangaroo rats, and various species of raptors. Higher elevations include desert grasslands populated by Gambel's quail. Juniper, pinyon pine, and oaks grow along the highest section of the drive. Here you may see mule deer, javelinas, black-tailed rattlesnakes, and migratory birds.
Canyon Overlook Picnic Area lies 7.2 miles in from the southwest end at a high point overlooking the Gila River Canyon. At 17.1 miles from the southwest end, you'll find Old Safford Bridge Picnic Area on the north side of the 1918 bridge. The riverbank below the south side of the bridge serves as the boat put-in for kayaks, rafts, and canoes floating the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. Owl Canyon Campground, located on a cliff overlooking the river northeast of the bridge, offers sites with shade ramadas; there's a fee of $5, but no drinking water. Dispersed camping is allowed along the Byway except in riparian areas near the bridge.
Floating the Gila River
Boaters enjoy the solitude, sheer cliffs, and abundant bird life on this 23-mile trip through the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area northeast of Safford. You may also see bighorn sheep, beaver, and other wildlife. The Gila River runs year-round, but flow volume and season determine river-running conditions. January through April has the highest flows but very cold water. Levels usually drop in May and June, then pick up again after the July–Sept. rains. Autumn can be fine with cooler temperatures and the cottonwoods turning to gold.
At low flows of 150–500 cfs, conditions are excellent for beginners, who can take inflatable kayaks; boats may have to be pulled through short shallow sections. Flows of 500–1,500 cfs allow rafts up to 14 feet as well as canoes and hard and inflatable kayaks. At 1,500-3,500 cfs, 12-foot and larger rafts do well; kayakers (hard and inflatable) find more challenging conditions. Flows of 3,500-6,000 cfs require experienced rafters and very experienced kayakers for the Class II and III rapids and debris in the water. Only very experienced rafters with rafts 14 feet or larger should go at 6,000-10,000 cfs, when swift currents create many Class III rapids. Above 10,000 cfs, the river becomes hazardous, and running it is not recommended.
Put in is on the south side of the Old Safford Bridge on the Black Hills Back Country Byway. Take out is south of Riverview Campground or at Dry Canyon Boat Takeout, both northeast of Safford. The required river permits ($3/person) are available from a self-service pay station at the launch site. The BLM office in Safford can advise on flows, access, and availability of commercial trips. You can also obtain flows on the Web at http://water.usgs.gov/realtime.html.
On to the Coronado Trail