Did you ever dream of finding a pristine, water-filled wilderness hiding in the deserts of Arizona? Many creatures have! Some lucky few have found the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area just outside of Safford, Arizona, one of only two National Riparian Conservation Areas in the whole U.S (the other also happens to be in Arizona in the San Pedro River watershed, lucky us!). My parents and I along with Sandhill Cranes, Beaver, Deer, Javelina, Turkey, Coatimundi, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Gila Monsters and many more birds and animals are some of the lucky few to discover and appreciate this Southern Arizona hidden treasure.
In 1990, the U.S. Government gave the 4 perennial waterways that make up the “Gila Box” the designation: Riparian National Conservation Area. This designation was created to protect the few desert riparian areas remaining. In the past these forested riparian corridors growing along year round rivers reached throughout the deserts of the Southwest. Now, due to a number of long-term human activities, most of these green ribbons along with their water have almost completely disappeared.
As we entered the Gila Box, instead of finding a place in which the tentacles of human civilization are ever extending, we found a place where those tentacles had been removed. Fenced out to be exact. Here, Nature herself was given the space to slowly disintegrate, or perhaps I should say reintegrate, the evidence of human use at all. She is returning herself to her original state, a place of simple checks and balances as well as fecundity. Amusingly it is the most recent human activity that seems to be the easiest for her to erase.
We headed up the Bonita Creek corridor of the Gila Box starting near Red Knoll Canyon. Along the way we found the remains of two old cabins and a handful of crumbling corrals from the homesteading and ranching days of the latter part of the 1870s through the present. Merely 100-150 years old, these structures were in bad shape. The lady Gay cabin has been lovingly restored by the Bureau of Land Mangement.
The picture on the left shows some of the remains of the Pueblo Devol Cliff Dwellings. Built some 800 years ago, perhaps by a small tribe of Kayenta Anasazi, Pueblo Devol is the largest cliff dwelling known from this time period in Southeastern Arizona. The walls are deteriorating, but much of this is from tourist activity which began as early as 75 years ago by covered wagon! In the photo to its right is a cliff dwelling my mom spotted further down the canyon from Pueblo Devol. This ruin seems to have escaped the attention of most modern humans. Can you see why? It is highly camouflaged. Through binoculars we could see that it was almost perfectly in tact! Imagine after nearly 1,000 years, this structure built of mud, stone, and timber was nearly untouched by the march of time.
Humans were not the only ones to build with the mud and stones of this canyon. Beaver activity was plentiful along Bonita Creek. There were giant beaver houses as pictured in the background of the photo above and to the right. Beaver homes are often situated in or around lovely lakes the beavers created through the construction of a vast network of dams. Their dams are skillfully constructed from stones, sticks, and mud. They can be perfect tiny masonry walls. In the photo above and to the left you can still see the hand prints of the beaver who last added to this masonry wall.
So many interesting and beautiful species now call this Riparian National Conservation area home. Pictured to the left you can see a Sycamore tree full of Cranes’ nests and next to it a beautiful columbine flower.
Overall this National Riparian Conservation Area is a treasure without measure. It is worth a visit to Arizona to say the least! If you do come on down, be sure to consider staying with us at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita. We’ll be sure to take good care of you and give you all the inside scoops on the unique experiences Southern Arizona has to offer!
The ERM Family