As it winds through Western Arizona,
Bill Williams River offers wildlife a
riparian habitat in a harsh deser
© Jack Dykinga
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Bill Williams River RoadAlong with your other New Year's resolutions, make a plan to visit this scenic drive along the Colorado River.
By Roger Naylor
Bill Williams was a legendary mountain man whose name graces landmarks across Arizona. Of those, it's the scenic desert river that truly embodies old Bill's adventurous spirit as it tumbles across wild, untamed country.
Bill Williams River carves a verdant slash across an otherwise forbidding landscape, soothing the sun-scarred crossroads where the Sonoran and Mohave deserts collide. It's one of only two tributaries to the Colorado River below the Grand Canyon. Established in 1941 to protect this vital waterway, the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge covers 6,105 acres and stretches from the marshy confluence at Lake Havasu back through the lush river valley.
The highlight of any visit to the refuge is making the short, sweet drive down Bill Williams River Road. The dirt road enters the river valley on the hilly shoulder of desert upland, overlooking the forested oasis. Cattails cradle the spreading marsh and saguaros stretch down the slopes as if ambling toward the welcome shade of cottonwood trees.
The refuge contains one of the last stands of cottonwoods and willows found in the Lower Colorado River basin, providing essential habitat for a variety of wildlife. A century ago, these forests extended for miles. That began to change during the era of paddle-wheelers, as crews cut down trees to fuel the big steamboats. In 1935, Hoover Dam was built, followed by several smaller dams over the ensuing decades. As the river backed up into a series of lakes, the riparian ecosystem was permanently altered.
Today, an eight-agency partnership works with the Army Corps of Engineers to manage water flow from Alamo Dam as part of a habitat restoration project along Bill Williams River. The comprehensive approach has paid off. More than 360 species of birds have been identified within the sanctuary, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail and the southwestern willow flycatcher. The refuge supports 34 species of butterflies, many of which are absent or extremely rare elsewhere along the Colorado. Native fish such as the endangered razorback suckers and bonytail chubs are raised and reintroduced from the refuge.
The road brushes past high volcanic cliffs harboring a population of desert bighorn sheep, and across riparian flats echoing with a chorus of birdsong. Virtually nowhere else in the world can you stroll among a cluster of saguaros intermingled with cattails or stand with one foot in a marsh and the other in the Mohave. Watch for a small slot canyon on your left about 1.5 miles in. It's worth exploring if rain clouds aren't sagging overhead. To preserve the primitive character of the area, no developed trails exist in this section of the refuge, but plenty of paths traverse the open country and penetrate the woodlands around it. The road ends at a gate 3.5 miles from the highway.
Get out and walk. Find a tree to sit under. Listen to the splash of water and lilting harmonies wafting from the branches. Count butterflies wobbling past. Savor a moment of genuine tranquility — the kind you only find far from civilization. Old Bill Williams would have wanted it that way.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 3.5 miles
Directions: Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge is located 17 miles north of Parker along State Route 95 between mileposts 160 and 161. Bill Williams River Road is located 0.3 miles north of the visitors center, between mileposts 161 and 162. Watch for a small sign displaying binoculars.
Vehicle Requirements: None; accessible by all.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, 928-667-4144 or www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.