Few landlocked states can boast more than 1,000 miles of shoreline! The Colorado River, after its wild run through the Grand Canyon, begins a new life in the western part of the state. Tamed by massive dams and irrigation projects, the Colorado flows placidly toward the Gulf of California. The deep blue waters of the river and its lakes form Arizona's west boundary, separating the state from Nevada and California. Boaters enjoy this watery paradise, breezing along the surface or seeking quiet backwaters for fishing. Once you step away from the life-giving waters, though, you're in desert country—the real desert—where legends abound of Native American tribes, hardy prospectors, determined pioneer families, and even a U.S. Army camel corps. Old mines and ghost towns dot mineral-rich ranges throughout the region.
Yuma in the south is a good place to experience the region's long history of Native American tribes, Spanish explorers, gold miners, and steam boating. London Bridge, farther north in Lake Havasu City, now seems at home under the Arizona sun; you can walk across it and admire the bronze lampposts and stonework. Kingman in the north plays up its mining and Route 66 heritage with two fine museums. From Kingman, it's an easy drive up the Hualapai Mountains, crowned by Hualapai Peak (8,417 feet), the region's highest summit.
Wildlife refuges along the Colorado River attract large numbers of waterfowl and other birds, especially during the cooler months. Inland, the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge provides a home for desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, desert tortoise, Gambel's quail, and rare native palm trees.
Groups lived along the shores of the lower Colorado River long before the first white people arrived. Frequent wars between the tribes, lasting into the mid-19th century, forced the Maricopa to migrate up the Gila River to what is now south-central Arizona. The victorious Mohave, Quechan, and Cocopa tribes—joined in the early 1800s by a nomadic Paiute group, the Chemehuevi—lived simply in brush-and-mud shelters and farmed, hunted, and gathered wild plant foods from the desert.
Today they have a series of reservations along the Colorado River. Many work at farms or casinos. Agricultural opportunities attracted some Hopi and Navajo from northeastern Arizona to the Colorado River Reservation. Their voluntary resettlement, begun in 1945, came about because the reservation was established to serve "Indians of said river and its tributaries" and because the Colorado River Tribal Council gave the go-ahead.
Spanish explorers made their first tentative forays up the Colorado River in 1540, but they didn't stay. The tireless Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino explored the lower Colorado in 1700-02, promoting Christianity and collecting information for the mapmakers of the day.
During the 1760s, fear of Russian expansion down the coast of California caused the Spanish to build settlements there and to open a land route from Mexico. In 1780, Spanish troops and missionaries built two missions on the Colorado River, La Purísima Concepción (opposite today's Yuma) and nearby San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner. Abuses by these foreigners infuriated local Quechan Indians, who revolted the following year. They killed Father Francisco Garces and most of the other male Spaniards and took the women and children as prisoners. Spanish troops ransomed the captives, but made no more attempts to settle along the Colorado River.
Rugged mountain men such as James Ohio Pattie, who later wrote an account of his travels (see Suggested Reading), explored the Colorado River area in search of beaver and adventure during the early 1800s. The U.S. Army established Camp Yuma, later Fort Yuma, in 1851 at the river crossing of the Southern Overland Trail (Cooke's Road) to assist Americans headed west for the California goldfields. Ten years later, troops built Fort Mohave upstream on the Colorado River to protect travelers trekking along the Beale Wagon Road across northern Arizona.
Government surveyors explored much of the lower Colorado during the 1850s, but maps still labeled a large region upstream as "unexplored." It wasn't until 1869 that John Wesley Powell filled the last big gap on the first of his epic boat voyages down the Colorado from Green River, Wyoming, to Callville, Nevada (now under Lake Mead).
Although Spanish miners worked gold deposits in western Arizona before Mexican independence in 1821, large-scale mining in the region didn't begin until the 1860s. Gold discovered in 1858 at Gila City, 20 miles upstream from Yuma, attracted 1,200 miners by 1861. Three years later the gold played out, and a traveler reported, "The promising metropolis of Arizona consisted of three chimneys and a coyote." Prospectors later found many other gold and silver deposits up and down western Arizona, hastening development of the region. Lead-zinc and copper mines opened too. Most of the old workings lie abandoned now, marked by piles of tailings, foundations, and decaying walls.
Steamboats plied the Colorado River after 1852, providing faster and safer transport than wagon trains. For more than 50 years they served the forts and mining camps along the river. Some of the riverboats stood three decks high and measured more than 140 feet long, yet drew only two feet of water. These giant sternwheelers took on cargo from ocean-going ships at Port Isabel on the Gulf of California, then headed upstream as far as 600 miles. Boat traffic declined when the Southern Pacific Railroad went through Yuma in 1877, and it virtually ended in 1909 with the construction of Laguna Dam.
Yuma, Lake Havasu City, and Kingman make the best bases to explore the region. Other options include resorts along the Colorado River and its reservoirs. You'll need your own transport, and a 4WD vehicle will be handy for exploring the backcountry and searching out remote ghost towns. You might like to bring or rent a boat as well. A week is enough time to take in the highlights, though many visitors stay for months at a time in winter and early spring.
Western Arizona's star attractions lie outdoors, so the weather will be the biggest factor to consider for your trip. Come in the cooler months to enjoy fishing, prospecting, four-wheeling, and hiking in the desert. This is also the best time to admire the geology, migratory bird flocks, and desert flora. The land bakes under a relentless sun from May to September, and you'll probably wish to either flee or head for the cool waters of the Colorado River and its lakes. Only in the north are the mountains high enough to catch cool breezes in summer, when a drive into the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman has extra appeal. Annual rainfall ranges from less than three inches in the south near Yuma to about 10 inches in the high country.
On to Yuma