New Trail to Bring Expanded Access to Gila River in Graham County

May 12, 2022
SAFFORD, Ariz.

Today, Trust for Public Land (TPL), in partnership with Graham County and Gila Watershed Partnership (GWP), announce the donation of five trail easements that will enable the development of a 5-mile stretch of linear park and recreation trail adjacent to the Gila River. 

The river, a tributary of the Colorado River, flows just north of the adjacent rural communities of Safford and Thatcher. With much of the river land in private ownership, however, local residents have very limited opportunities for recreational access to enjoy the river. The creation of a river trail will encourage residents and visitors to Stafford and Thatcher to feel connected to this unique landscape. 

“The Gila River is such an important resource for this community and to expand access to it through this new linear park and trail will bring economic, ecological, and recreational benefits to residents,” said Michael Patrick, Senior Project Manager for Trust for Public Land. “We’re so thrilled to have worked with Graham County, GWP, and the private landowners who made this project possible and can’t wait to see residents and visitors enjoy the river and this trail. The five private landowners who have donated these trail easements have made an invaluable contribution to these communities for generations to come.” 

The space will not only enable hiking, running, biking, and horseback riding but will provide opportunities for economic development through eco-tourism and create beneficial public uses for the river’s floodplain. Having a multi-use pathway that has both paved and soft surfaces and is American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant will ensure equitable access to this space as well.  

“The Gila Watershed Partnership is honored to be a partner in the Linear Park project, and accessibility is at the core of our support,” says Dr. Sarah Sayles, GWP Executive Director. “We’re excited to encourage the trail as a community-accessible project, as well as to promote eco-tourism for our region.” 

The trail easements are being donated to Graham County, with the assistance of TPL, by five private landowners who own land along the south side of the river: Freeport McMoran, River View Properties, Langley Properties, Gwen DeMott, and Brian and Don Smith. The river trail will cross over three miles of the private land owned by these owners in addition to two miles of land owned by Graham County and City of Safford. This initial trail will run from state highway 70, north by the canal along Graveyard Wash to the river and then along the south of the river going west to 20th Avenue (just north of Thatcher town limits).  

Graham County plans to own and manage the recreation trail, and the partners will seek public grants and philanthropic contributions for the construction of the trail which is anticipated to be completed within the next two years. The partners contemplate a future project that could extend the river trail all the way west to Reay Lane and then south past the state highway to connect with an existing trail network.    

“Thank you to the landowners providing the trail easements for this project. This segment of trail offers a major extension of the existing trail system between Safford and Thatcher,” says Danny Smith, Chairman of the Graham County Board of Supervisors. “We would like to recognize the important initial project funding from Freeport McMoran’s Graham County Community Investment Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Packard Foundation, United Way of Graham and Greenlee Counties, the City of Safford and Graham County, and to point out that we expect the majority of construction funding to provide this local amenity to come from outside of the Gila Valley.” 

The Gila River has long been a cultural and ecological resource to the region, bringing much needed water to the Native American and Anglo communities and propelling the agricultural economy.  

In 2020, TPL worked with GWP, Graham County, City of Safford and Town of Thatcher to create a conceptual master plan for the linear park and trail system, as well as identifying the benefits such a recreational amenity would bring to local communities. The partners anticipate the future completion of this trail following this plan, which was developed by highly regarded landscape architect firm McGann & Associates following a series of community meetings to get input from the public, local communities, and other stakeholders. 

For renderings or graphics of the proposed trail, please reach out to Rebecca Bullis, [email protected]

About Trust for Public Land 

Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national nonprofit that works to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors. As a leader in equitable access to the outdoors, TPL works with communities to create parks and protect public land where they are needed most. Since 1972, TPL has protected more than 3 million acres of public land, created more than 5,000 parks, trails, schoolyards, and iconic outdoor places, raised $84 billion in public funding for parks and public lands, and connected more than 9 million people to the outdoors. To learn more, visit tpl.org