OverviewThe Turtle Mountains are a remote, seldom visited range in northeast Graham County, partially abutting the San Carlos Indian Reservation. The range reaches to 7,004 feet at its highest point but no one mountain stands out from a distance, giving the range a uniform, broad appearance; that is, when you can see it. It's not terribly visible from most highways, except for spots along US-70 east of Safford and along US-191 above Morenci.
The attraction out this way is the Gila Box Riparian Area, which includes the box-canyon Bonita Creek and its perennial flow. Hiking, canoeing, camping and birding are popular pastimes. Above the waters is stark desert country with stony soils, dominated by grasses and low cactus. The contrast can be striking. Summers get very hot, and winters can be cold with potential snow (although not for long). Fall and Spring are the best times to hike.
The road net here is very primitive and probably explains the lack of visitation. The Turtles are overshadowed in appearance by the grander Gila and Pelocillo Mountains nearby. You probably wouldn't know about it unless you like range and prominence lists! Hiking it is fairly easy - no real obstacles to contend with other than brush and some cactus. But the trick is getting there. Plan on some serious 4-wheel driving if coming from the south from Safford. A northeast approach might be a better option (see below).
Getting ThereThere are two ways to approach the Turtle Range. We came up from the south via Safford. The other way would be from the north and east via Eagle Creek Road from Morenci.
Make your way to the airport north of town. There are a few ways to do this. We followed 8th Street, which leaves the main E-W highway (US-70) about a mile west of the US-70/191 junction. Follow the signs to the airport, roughly 4-5 miles. Turn onto the airport road and immediately turn left (north) onto Solomon Pass Road.
Solomon Pass Road is paved at first, then graded gravel after a couple of miles. Follow it steeply up the grade toward Solomon Pass.
On the other side of Solomon Pass, descend into a broad valley. The Turtle Mountains are now visible ahead of you. You pass by some corrals and through a few easy wash crossings. This is very remote BLM and ranch country. After a mile or so, come to an intersection signed for Salt Trap Road. Stay straight, but now you are on Salt Trap Road. Stay right at any Y-junctions (always on the slightly better track). After another couple of miles, come to an "X" intersection with Red Knolls Canyon Road. Stay straight, heading northeasterly, now on Red Knolls Canyon Road.
The road quality deteriorates once on Red Knolls Canyon Road. Follow it generally east as it drops into and out of three small canyons, each time losing and gaining about 300-400 feet. 4-wheel drive is mandatory. Soon you find yourself on a raised bench, where the road descends very steeply into Bonita Creek, a cliff-walled box canyon and home to the Gila Box Riparian Area. This is about 11 miles out of Safford. Allow an hour just to get here. You're not done driving yet, mister!
Descend into Bonita Creek, a drop of about 600 feet. Sections of this road are very steep and exposed, although overall quality is tolerable by 4wd standards. Bonita Creek is a perennial and will likely have a good flow; it seems to have a small dam here, and what is clearly a road ford located right beside it. Very carefully ford this stream. On our visit in late summer it was about 30 feet wide and maybe 18 inches deep. In wetter weather, the flow will likely be heavier and fording it may be impossible.
Assuming you're not stuck in the stream now, ascend the roads about 600 feet to gain the foothills of the Turtle Mountains. Eventually you come to the intersection with Bonita Creek East Rim Road. Turn left and go north. Drive up and down, in and out of many side canyons to a point where you feel comfortable parking. We parked near Hackberry Spring and walked the rest. There were some places farther north where the road would probably stop all but the most hardy jeeps. We were able to get as far as we did in a stock Chevy Blazer SUV but this was with a very experienced and capable driver. Use lots of judgment here!!! It was about 17 miles from Safford to our parking spot.
With all this being said, you may want to look over the maps and consider the roads in from Morenci as an alternative. Andy Martin reports there to be a creek ford along this northern approach road as well.
CampingYou can camp wherever the mood strikes you, except at Bonita Creek, which is protected. Anywhere higher up is fine. Leave no trace. We saw evidence of fire rings so others have been here; hunters, likely.
External LinksTurtle Mountain Trip Report, 9-28-08 (www.surgent.net)
Gila Box Riparian Area