Clifton is unique in southern Arizona because it's traversed by a major river that flows year 'round. The 160-mile long San Francisco River rises high in Arizona's White Mountains and flows east into New Mexico, passing through dense pine forests before dropping into the high desert near Reserve. Just south of the San Francisco Hot Springs, the river makes a right-angle turn and flows back into Arizona, where it combines with the Blue River, Chase Creek and Eagle Creek before pouring into the Gila River. For much of its length, the San Francisco is nearly inaccessible, meandering past rugged mountains and through steep-walled canyons. A short hike is possible along the San Francisco near Clifton, along the route of an abandoned road. With a very sturdy high-clearance 4WD vehicle, you can access a particularly scenic section of the San Francisco via Mule Creek Pass and Martinez Road.
Another scenic drive close to Clifton in the Black Hills Back Country Byway. This 21-mile drive, built by prison laborers between 1914 and 1920, was once the only road betwwen Safford and Clifton. It begins 20 miles east of Safford on US 191. It's a good all-season gravel road, but you'll need a 4WD high-clearance if you plan on exploring any of the numerous side roads along the way. At mile three, keep an eye out for the the Black Hills Rockhound Area. This is a great place to look for fire agate and chalcedony.
A side road leads to Gillard Hot Springs, the hottest natural hot spring in Arizona, where water flows out of the ground at 180°. The condition of the hot springs varies greatly, depending on the season, and how many cattle are grazing nearby. To reach the springs, you'll need to hike downhill about ¼ miles past where the old bridge that once provided access to a parking lot has washed away.
About midway on the route just past a graceful bridge over the Gila is the Owl Creek Campground, part of the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. The campground offers 7 campsites with picnic tables, shade ramadas and cooking grills. Fees are $5 per night per site. Near the bridge is a popular lauch site for rafting the Gila River through the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area.
The Grand Enchantment Trail is a 770+ mile wilderness route that travels from Phoenix to Albuquerque through the most ruggedly beautiful mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. Segment 14 of the trail passes very close to Clifton, following Eagle Creek north to the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Clifton is an important resupply point, and local trail angels happily provide assistance through-hikers and cyclists, including transportation to and from the trail, hot showers and free or very inexpensive accommodations. Your Clifton contact is Jeff Gaskin (520-508-3321 or suriname09[at]gmail.com). In nearby Safford, astride the Southern Tier Bike Route Jay Rasco (928-235-1861 or jyrasco1936[at]gmail.com) is a member of the Warm Showers Community, providing free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists.
Eagle Creek is also a great destination for day hikes or multi-day backpacking trips. It's renowned not only for its steep-walled canyons, but for its remarkable history. The creek flows year 'round, but its water is borrowed from another watershed far to the north. Water from the Black River in northern Arizona is pumped up 700 feet to the rim of the Black Canyon, gravity-fed 6½ miles into Willow Creek and then transported 21 miles to Eagle Creek, where it flows downstream 30 miles to a pumping station that supplies water to the mines in Morenci.
Access to the creek requires a sturdy 4WD high clearance vehicle and please check the stream flow before crossing.
The Blue River is a 50-mile-long permanent stream that runs along the eastern border of Arizona through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. It rises near Alpine, Arizona, and flows south into the San Francisco River just upstream from Clifton. Located far from any urban areas, the Blue is among the most pollution-free streams in the Southwest. It's also virtually inaccessible for much of its length.
There are three possible approaches: From the New Mexico side via Pueblo Park, from the north via Blue River Road, and from the east via Juan Miller Road.
Juan Miller Road heads east from US 191 near milepost 188, approximately 30 miles north of Clifton. From here it's 13 miles to the Blue River on a surprisingly good gravel road.
Along the way, you'll pass two small campgrounds — Upper Juan Miller and Lower Juan Miller — each with about four sites in deep pockets that could be challenging for all but the sturdiest SUV or small RV. There are plenty of pull-offs and side roads farther out for those who prefer primitive camping.
Past the campgrounds, the road rides high on the north canyon wall above Juan Miller Creek through classic high desert canyon country. Below Juan Miller Creek is a narrow tree-lined gash passing through some rock hoodoos that invite further exploration.
Near mile 7, lush and lovely Turkey Creek comes in from the left and the road crosses a small ford. Past this point, the road begins its slow descent toward the Blue River, with the peaks of the Blue Range looming in the distance.
Near the 12-mile mark, a side road leads north about two miles to the edge of the Blue Range Primitive Area.
The last mile to the Blue is steep and rough, but at the crossing there is wonderful camping on either side of the river in the shade of giant cottonwood trees.