A Day Hike to the San Francisco Hot Springs and the Pristine Wilderness of the San Francisco River Canyon
The San Francisco River is the largest tributary to the Gila River. Over its 160-mile course, it flows through some of the most scenic country in Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico. Emerging from its mountainous headwaters near Alpine, Arizona, in eastern Apache County, the San Francisco flows eastward into New Mexico’s Catron County before looping south and then westward back into Arizona, where it joins the Gila River a few miles downstream from the historic town of Clifton in Greenlee County. Along its course, the San Francisco flows through diverse landscapes, alternating between sparsely settled, broad, open valleys, ranched and farmed since the pioneer days of the late 1800s; and narrow, rugged, deeply-incised canyons of pristine wilderness, once the familiar and well traveled thoroughfare of a hundred or more generations of Native Americans, but rarely visited today.
For much of its course through New Mexico, the San Francisco River flows through Gila National Forest land where various forest roads and trails provide public access points to the river within a rugged, mountainous terrain. But it is the last 15 miles of its New Mexican sojourn, just before reentering Arizona, where the San Francisco travels the most remote, isolated, and inaccessible segment of its journey. It is along this stretch of river that the San Francisco descends into a wild and pristine canyon comprised of an increasingly narrower and deeper series of tightly looped, entrenched meanders as it traverses an uplifted complex landscape of Miocene and Oligocene layered volcanic deposits over a thousand feet in thickness and some 18-26 million years old1.
It is at the upstream entrance to this deeply entrenched and narrow canyon that the San Francisco Hot Springs Trail is located.
THE SAN FRANCISCO HOT SPRINGS
Of the numerous hot springs that occur throughout the Gila National Forest, the San Francisco Hot Springs group is one of the better known and more easily visited. The springs are located about 8 miles south of Glenwood, New Mexico (about 35 minutes northwest of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses). They are readily accessed from a half-mile long, county-maintained gravel road leading from US Route 180 to the trailhead for the San Francisco Hot Springs Trail. The trail to the hot springs is a 1.5-mile moderately-difficult hiking trail leading down into the magnificent San Francisco River Canyon where the springs are located.
The San Francisco Hot Springs consist of three separate groups of springs that are spread out along a quarter-mile of the river floodplain. The Upper Group of hot springs occur on private property, just north of the Gila National Forest boundary, and provide water to the privately-owned Sundial Springs. The Middle and Lower Group of springs are on Gila National Forest land immediately downstream from the Upper Group, and are accessible from the San Francisco Hot Springs Trail. Temperature of the springs is reported to range from 100 to 120°F depending upon the stage of river flow2.
The Middle Group of hot springs, sometimes referred to as “The Bubbles”, occurs against a rock cliff on the west side of the river, directly across from where the San Francisco Hot Spring Trail comes down to the river.
The Lower Group of hot springs occurs about 450 feet south of the Middle Group and is also located on the opposite side of the river, right where the canyon and river make a sharp turn to the west.
Like many of the hot springs found in the Gila National Forest, the San Francisco Hot Springs are located within the floodplain, at the bottom of a canyon, and are associated with a major fault, which in this case is the NNW trending Sundial Mountain Fault1, which crosses the San Francisco River canyon right at the Lower Hot Springs. The Sundial Mountain Fault is a high-angle dip-slip normal fault, dipping NE between 60 and 80°, and most probably serves as the conduit for the hot waters ascending from deep within the earth.