Upstream from Yuma, the Colorado River's cool waters support lush greenery along the riverbanks. Backwater lakes, created by silting, provide additional areas to explore. Rugged desert ranges, such as the Trigo Mountains, furnish a scenic backdrop. A rich historical legacy recalls the riverboats and mining towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Parks and wildlife refuges help keep the area in its natural state, though dams have raised the water level and greatly changed the ecology.
A Boating Trail Guide to the Colorado River has canoeing information and maps for the river between Blythe (I-10) and Imperial Dam; it's free at many marinas and parks in the area, or from the California Dept. of Boating and Waterways, 2000 Evergreen Street, Suite 100, Sacramento, CA 95815-3888, 916/263-0784, www.dbw.ca.gov (pdf download available).
Yuma Proving Grounds (YPG)
Driving north on US 95, you can't miss seeing the big guns at the entrance to this facility. The army tests equipment here on the YPG's 1,300 square miles of desert, a greater area than the state of Rhode Island and one of the world's largest military installations. Turn in at the guns (between Mileposts 44 and 45 on US 95) and continue 0.8 mile to see an outdoor display of armament on the left. YPG Heritage Center (on the main post, 928/328-3394, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. from Nov. to May) has many photos, tank models, and artifacts from WW II to the present. Be sure to check out the monster-sized control car of the U.S. Army Overland Train parked nearby. To get here, continue 4.4 miles west past the outdoor display, turn right into the base proper, and continue one block; the museum is in Bldg. 2 on the left. You may need to show ID, vehicle registration, and insurance at the gate. The Golden Knights parachute team (928/328-6033 or 328-6533) practices landings on Cox Field in front of the Heritage Center from about mid-Jan. to mid-March. The website www.yuma.army.mil tells about the work done here.
Mittry Lake Wildlife Area and Betty's Kitchen
This natural area offers fishing, boating, picnicking, primitive camping, and wildlife viewing. Laguna Dam, finished in 1909 and the oldest of nine dams along the Colorado River within Arizona, holds back the waters. From Yuma, head east 5.5 miles on US 95, then turn north 9.3 miles on Ave. 7E (pavement ends one-half mile before the lake). Turn left at the signed fork for Betty's Kitchen, a day-use area with picnic tables, a fishing pier, and an easy half-mile loop interpretive trail; $5/vehicle. Take the right fork for additional places to fish, including a barrier-free fishing pier after one mile and a boat ramp just beyond. Primitive camping places also line this side of the lake; no water or fee. A 10-day per year stay limit applies. No jet skis or waterskiing allowed. The BLM's Yuma Field office (928/317-3200) can answer questions on the area. At 6.3 miles from the fork, the road meets the paved Imperial Dam Road, where you can turn left for Imperial Dam Recreation Area or right to Yuma Proving Grounds and US 95.
Imperial Dam Recreation Area
The Colorado River, 20 miles north on the California side, offers desert walks, fishing, boating, and camping. Cross the river to Winterhaven, California, then turn north on Imperial County Road S-24 and follow signs through the fields. Or, from US 95 in Arizona, turn west six miles at the sign just north of Milepost 44. The Imperial Dam Long-Term Visitor Area includes the sites of Quail Hill, Kripple Kreek, Skunk Hollow, Beehive Mesa, and Coyote Ridge, serving self-contained vehicles only (the sites lack improvements). A $140 season pass or a $30 14-day pass is required for any stay during the Sept. 15-April 15 season; at other times, camping is free but limited to stays of 14 days.
South Mesa Recreation Site, also within the Imperial Dam Long-Term Visitor Area, offers water, restrooms, and outside showers; the same seasons and fees apply. Squaw Lake Campground, at the end of the road, offers water, restrooms, coin showers, paved parking, and two boat ramps; $5 per calendar day (an overnight counts as two days) year-round. An easy two-mile nature trail winds through river vegetation and desert hills from the north end of the parking lot. Contact the BLM's Yuma Field office (928/317-3200) for information on these and other recreation areas.
Farther upstream on the Arizona side, this lake lies about 35 miles north of Yuma. Go north 24 miles on US 95, then turn left (between Mileposts 46 and 47) and drive 11 miles on Martinez Lake Road. Keep straight near road's end for Fisher's Landing. The basic campground here (928/539-9495) offers tent sites ($3 per person) and RV sites ($12 with hookups) with coin showers (available to visitors too), and a dump station. A restaurant/saloon (928/782-7049) serves breakfast and lunch daily, but can get smoky. Other services include a store, post office, boat ramp, and marina (boat gas and fishing supplies). The Colorado King I and Yuma River Tour boats dock nearby.
Turn right just before Fisher's Landing for Martinez Lake Resort (928/783-9589 or 800/876-7004, www.martinezlake.com), which rents rustic cabins and trailers for $95-105 in summer and $65-80 in winter; two- and three-bedroom "party houses" can be rented too. RV sites cost $25 w/hookups. A restaurant/cantina, which can get smoky, is open weekends for breakfast and daily for lunch and dinner. The marina rents fishing boats, pontoon boats, canoes, and kayaks, and has boat gas, fishing and picnic supplies, a boat ramp, canoe shuttle service, and a fishing guide service.
Picacho State Recreation Area
This recreation area (P.O. Box 848, Winterhaven, CA 92283, 760/393-3052 Salton Sea SRA, www.picacho.statepark.org) lies on the California side of the river opposite Imperial Wildlife Refuge. The 7,000-acre park offers a campground with solar showers ($7), boat campgrounds, a boat ramp, store, and hiking. At its peak in 1904, the gold mining town of Picacho had 2,500 residents; you can explore remnants of the Picacho mill and railroad grade, though the townsite lies underwater. From Yuma, cross the river to Winterhaven, California, then turn north on Imperial County Road S-24/Picacho Road and follow signs 25 miles; most of the way is gravel road, normally passable by cars.
Imperial National Wildlife Refuge
Plants and animals of the Colorado River have received protection within this long, narrow refuge since 1941. Birds, especially migratory waterfowl in winter, hang out here. The 30-mile-long refuge includes the river, backwater lakes, ponds, marshland, river-bottom land, and desert, with about 15,000 acres receiving a wilderness designation. Visitors come mostly for fishing, boating, and birding. No camping is permitted in the refuge, but Fisher's Landing and Martinez Lake Resort offer nearby camping, a motel, restaurants, and marinas.
The refuge is about 40 miles north of Yuma; head north 24 miles on US 95, turn left 10 miles on Martinez Lake Road (between Mileposts 46 and 47), then right four miles on a gravel road at the sign. The visitor center (P.O. Box 72217, Yuma, AZ 85365, 928/783-3371, www.fws.gov/southwest) is on the north side of Martinez Lake with maps and information on the refuge. It's open 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., also 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.-Sun. from Nov. 15 to March 31. A nearby observation tower provides a panorama. Meers Point, 0.8 mile from the visitor center, offers fishing access, picnic tables, and restrooms.
Four lookout points and a nature trail lie off Red Cloud Mine Road, which turns north one mile before the visitor center. The first lookout point (may not be signed) turns off 0.7 mile in; the last turns off 3.4 miles in. Painted Desert Nature Trail makes a 1.3-mile loop up a winding wash, over a ridge (good views), and down another wash with pretty scenery; you can get a trail leaflet at the trailhead, 2.3 miles in on Red Cloud Mine Road, or at the visitor center. Spring wildflowers bloom in profusion here after a wet winter.
Cibola National Wildlife Refuge
Cibola lies along the Colorado River just upstream from Imperial Refuge. In winter, the refuge hosts 16 duck species, three goose species, sandhill cranes, and an occasional swan. Visitors come to see about 700-1,000 sandhill cranes and 6,000-20,000 geese, including 80-85% of the Canada geese that winter in Arizona. Best viewing runs from mid-November to early February. You can call the refuge for a recording of current bird counts.
The visitor center (Rt. 2, Box 138, Cibola, AZ 85328, 928/857-3253, www.fws.gov/southwest) has an exhibit room, video programs, and wildlife leaflets; it's open 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; volunteers staff the center on Sat.-Sun. from November to March. Canada Goose Drive begins near the visitor center and makes a three-mile loop with great opportunities to see wintering waterfowl. A trail, which begins on the right 0.6 mile in, leads to a loafing pond where birds hang out after feeding. Cibola Lake, at the south end of the refuge, has an overlook at the south end.
You're welcome to hike, boat, or fish on the refuge. No camping is allowed, but you can find private and BLM camping areas along the river near the refuge. Fishermen catch largemouth bass, flathead catfish, and channel catfish in Cibola Lake (open March 15 to Labor Day) and river channels (open year-round). Power boaters and water skiers must stay in the river's main channel. Cibola Lake is about 8 miles south of the visitor center via River and East Riverside roads; if you continue around to the south shore, there's a bird viewing area that's available even when the lake is closed.
You can easily reach the refuge headquarters on paved roads from the California side; take the I-10 Neighbours Blvd. Exit (two miles west of Blythe, California), proceed south 14 miles on Neighbours Boulevard through irrigated fields to Farmers Bridge over the Colorado River, then continue four miles farther to the headquarters in Arizona. Drivers with high-clearance vehicles can follow a 32.5-mile backcountry route across the desert on East Cibola Road, between AZ 95 at Milepost 82 and the River Road-Baseline Road junction (four-way stop) 1.2 miles north of the visitor center; signs warn of "Primitive Road," but it's normally passable except after storms; navigation can be tricky as not all junctions have signs.
Trigo Mountains Wilderness
Intrepid hikers explore these 30,300 acres of rugged land of mountains and desert washes, located between the Imperial and Cibola refuges and managed by the BLM's Yuma Field office (928/317-3200). You may encounter old mines, which are dangerous to enter. A very rough road cuts through a corridor along Clip Wash in the middle of the wilderness, but this is too difficult for stock SUVs; also the lower wash has such loose gravel that even 4WD vehicles can get stuck! Lopez Wash is a better access point; follow signs for Cibola Lake in Cibola Lake National Wildlife Refuge, then continue past the lake and out of the refuge. Turn left at a road fork marked by a stone cairn 0.9 mile past the refuge boundary; park at road's end and enter the canyon on foot.
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
Desert bighorn sheep, desert mule deer, coyote, bobcat, fox, cottontail, and other creatures live in the dry, rugged Castle Dome and Kofa mountain ranges. Gambel's quail scurry into the brush, while falcons and golden eagles soar above. Rare stands of native palm grow in Palm Canyon. The refuge covers 665,400 acres, of which 82% has official wilderness designation. For information on the refuge, visit the office at 356 W. First St., Yuma, AZ 85364, 928/783-7861, www.fws.gov/southwest.
Gold discovered in 1896 led to development of the King of Arizona Mine, from which the Kofa Mountains took their name. This and some other mining claims remain active today, and they'll be signed against entry. Castle Dome Peak, in the range just south of the Kofas, serves as a landmark visible from much of Arizona's southwest corner. Two places, accessible by cautiously driven cars from US 95, will give you a feel for the history and beauty of land—Castle Dome City Ghost Town Museum in the south and Palm Canyon farther north.
Castle Dome City Ghost Town tells many stories about people who have lived in this remote desert region (928/920-3062, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun., $4.50 adult). Call for information on guided tours of the district and for summer hours. The "town" has a mix of original and reconstructed buildings packed with memorabilia and mining gear—there's a lot to see. Castle Dome Mining District contains the world's largest silver-galena deposit, and you can peer down a shaft here. Mining began in 1862 and petered out by 1990. During World War II, the mines produced ore primarily for lead to make bullets. It's said that the Japanese put the site on their target list! The owner has made some surprising discoveries in abandoned mines, such as 1890s Levis and other old clothing perfectly preserved deep underground and now on display. You may have noticed earlier the ruins of Stone Cabin, 52 miles north of Yuma on US 95; an exhibit tells of the remarkable woman Flora Yarber who lived there until 1998. Local ores appear in mineral displays and you can purchase specimens. Take the Castle Dome turnoff near Milepost 55 on US 95, 32 miles north of Yuma, then follow signs 10 miles.
A short hike up Palm Canyon reveals tall California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) tucked above in a narrow side canyon, lit by sun only at midday. To reach the trailhead, go north 62 miles on US 95 from Yuma (or south 18 miles from Quartzsite) and turn east 7.2 miles on unpaved Palm Canyon Road; the turnoff is between Mileposts 85 and 86. At road's end, follow the trail into Palm Canyon for half a mile and look for towering palms in the cleft on the north side of the main canyon. The trail pretty much ends here, though it's possible to rock-scramble another half mile up the main canyon to a large palmless natural amphitheater. Allow one hour from the trailhead up to the viewpoint in the main canyon and back, or three hours to go all the way to the amphitheater and back. Take care if climbing up to the palms, as you'll cross sheer cliffs and contend with loose rock.
Several roads penetrate the scenic mountains and canyons, but most tend to be rough, passable only by high-clearance 4WD vehicles. Visitors must carry water and all supplies. You're free to camp (14-day limit), but you must stay at least a quarter-mile from water sources; vehicles must be parked within 100 feet of designated roads. Refuge employees can offer suggestions for hikes and backcountry drives. The book Backcountry Adventures Arizona by Peter Massey has detailed driving descriptions.
While visiting Palm Canyon, you may wish to divert into Kofa Queen Canyon. The 4WD road, 8.5 miles one way, turns off opposite the information kiosk about half way in on the Palm Canyon Road. Towering cliffs rise on all sides as you enter the canyon; at the wilderness boundary it's possible to continue on foot another 0.75 mile to a pass at the head of the canyon.
The highly scenic 4WD Big-Eye Mine Road winds past old mines near the base of Castle Dome Peak to the cabin and mill of a mine named for an owner who had a glass eye. Ore car tracks still lead out of the main entrance. This may be the best preserved mine on public land in Arizona, but you need to watch for vertical shafts and unstable structures. The road begins at Marker Post 75, half a mile south of Castle Dome City Ghost Town, and it takes about two hours of driving each way. At road's end, walk along the former road about 0.75 mile to the cabin, then either continue on the road or take the trail from the upper water tank (good views) to the mine and mill.
A drive the length of the refuge takes at least two days, but there's much to see and do along the way. Starting on Castle Dome Road in the south, you'll soon pass turnoffs for the Big Eye Mine on the right, then Castle Dome City Ghost Town on the left. The road continues north over McPherson Pass in the Castle Dome Mountains to the broad King Valley. Follow King Valley Road east and north toward North Star Mine (on private land, but you can see it from the road) and a sharp west turn to road's end at nearby Polaris Mine. A former road here continues a mile or so to a picturesque canyon and more mines. To continue the drive through the refuge, backtrack to Marker Post 65, 0.6 mile south of North Star Mine, and turn east on Engesser Pass Road. The King of Arizona Mine, closed to the public, will soon be visible ahead on the right. Eventually you'll reach Pipeline Road in the far north of the refuge; turn west and you'll come out on US 95 between Mileposts 95 and 96, 10 miles south of Quartzsite.
New Water Mountains Wilderness
These rugged 24,600 acres, looked after by the BLM's Yuma Field office (928/317-3200), adjoin the north edge of Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. Black Mesa (3,639 feet) in the northwest rises 1,200 feet above the Ranegras Plain. Rock spires, cliffs, and canyons offer scenic vistas for the adventurous hikers who make it here. Bighorn sheep can sometimes be spotted. Gold Nugget Road, seven miles east of Quartzsite, provides access to the northwest section of the wilderness from I-10 Exit 26. Ramsey Mine Road reaches the north-central part from US 60.
Like swallows returning to Capistrano, thousands of snowbirds flock to this tiny desert town every winter. From an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 summer residents, the population jumps to about one million during the shows and swap meets that peak from mid-January to mid-February. It's worth a stop to see this remarkable phenomenon. Quartzsite lies at the junction of I-10 and US 95/AZ 95, 81 miles north of Yuma, 35 miles south of Parker, and 20 miles east of Blythe, California.
Charles Tyson settled here in 1856 and built a fort to fend off Native American attacks. Tyson's Well soon became an important stage stop on the run from Ehrenburg to Prescott. Later it took the name Quartzite, after the rock, but the post office added an "s" for "Quartzsite."
The 1866-67 Tyson's Well Stage Station (928/927-5229, www.quartzsitemuseum.com, donation) displays pioneer and mining artifacts, photos, and mineral specimens. An assay office lies out back with more exhibits. The museum is on the south side of the business route one block west of the AZ 95 junction (look for a historical marker sign). Call for hours or just drop by.
Hadji Ali rests under a pyramid-shaped marker in the local cemetery; turn north at the sign from the business route in the west part of town. Ali served as one of several camel drivers with about 80 camels imported by the U.S. Army from the Middle East in 1856-57. The army hoped the large, hardy beasts would improve transportation and communication in the Southwest deserts. Although the camels showed promise, the army abandoned the experiment during the Civil War. Most of the camels wandered off into the desert, terrorizing stock and wild animals for many years. After the other camel drivers, homesick for their native lands, sailed away, Hadji Ali, whose name soldiers changed to "Hi Jolly," remained in Arizona and took up prospecting.
A handful of motels and restaurants and many RV parks serve passing motorists and the winter community. Most RVers, however, prefer the open freedom of the desert and head for La Posa Long-Term Visitor Area just south of town off US 95. La Posa has four sections, with vault toilets and a dump station. Visitors pay a $140 fee for long-term use Sept. 15-April 15; for shorter visits a $30 14-day permit is available. You can camp free (14-day limit) off-season at La Posa and year-round in undeveloped areas such as Road Runner/Mile Marker 99 five miles south of Quartzsite on US 95 and Hi Jolly/Mile Marker 112 5.5 miles north of town on AZ 95. The BLM's Yuma Field office (928/317-3200) can advise on these recreation areas.
Most restaurants, a post office, and a motel or two lie on the west side of town along the I-10 business route. You'll find many RV parks scattered around town. The giant Quartzsite gem and mineral shows and swap meets take place from November to late February. People buy and sell rocks, minerals, gems, lapidary supplies, crafts, antiques, and other treasures. Smaller swap meets are held from October to March. You'll find things that you never dreamed of not wanting!
The Quartzsite Chamber of Commerce (100 E. Main St. or P.O. Box 85, Quartzsite, AZ 85346-0085, 928/927-5600, http://quartzsitearizona.us, the office is closed Sun. May–Oct.) provides visitor information downtown.
Mysterious geoglyphs—giant human and animal figures on the ground created by prehistoric peoples—occur at several places along the lower Colorado River Valley. There's little to date or identify the designs, made when dark desert gravel was removed to reveal the light-colored ground underneath. The most accessible are three groups that lie just off US 95 about 15 miles north of the town of Blythe; the turn isn't well signed, so look for the historical marker and turn west on an unpaved road directly opposite; cars need to take it slow. Parking for the first group of human and animal figures is 0.4 mile in on the right, and a well-preserved human is another 0.4 mile down the road. The largest human measures 170.6 feet long, but reaching it requires a 0.7-mile cross-country hike south across a wash; look for the fenced enclosure before you set off.
From Arizona, take I-10 across the Colorado River to Blythe, which has a good selection of motels and restaurants, and turn north at the US 95 exit. From Parker in the north, you can reach the intaglios via Wilson Road River Crossing/Indian 18 (turn west between Mileposts 29 and 30 on the Ehrenburg-Parker Road).
On to Parker and the Parker Strip