A sandhill crane stretches its wings as though preparing for the elaborate mating-dance ritual the males perform during their winter stay at the refuge.
© George Stocking
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by Keridwen Cornelius
Nature always seems more wild and vast in the West. Arizona’s own western region is home to more than 1.6 million acres of national wildlife refuges, from lush wetlands quenched by the Colorado River to the bone-dry beauty of the southern badlands. The regions are havens for diverse flora and fauna including neotropical migrant birds, Sonoran pronghorns and the state’s only naturally-growing stand of indigenous palm trees. In most areas, nature rules and tourists are scarce, making these particular refuges havens for travelers as they are for wildlife.
Imperial National Wildlife RefugeFrom Yuma, drive north on U.S. Route 95 for 25 miles. Turn west on Martinez Lake Road for 13 miles and follow the signs to the visitors center.
Part of a necklace of protected areas strung along the Lower Colorado River, the Imperial NWR is an emerald oasis amid desert mountains. More than 15,000 acres of the refuge, which straddles the Arizona-California border, is federally designated wilderness. In winter, the wetland teems with visiting "snowbirds" like cinnamon teal and northern pintail ducks. Permanent residents include great egrets and muskrats. At dawn or dusk, catch glimpses of desert bighorn sheep and mule deer drinking water at the riverbanks. Drive along the scenic Red Cloud Mine Road (high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles recommended) to the Painted Desert Trail—1.3 miles of polychromatic volcanic rocks with a panoramic view of the Colorado River Valley. Anglers and canoeists can launch at Meers Point and float along a remote stretch of water.Information:
Bill Williams National Wildlife RefugeFrom Lake Havasu City, follow State Route 95 south approximately 23 miles between mileposts 160 and 161.
Just east of where Bill Williams River joins the Colorado lies the 6,150-acre Bill Williams NWR, where an unlikely combination of saguaros, cattails and cottonwoods coexist harmoniously. Though construction of nearby Alamo Dam in 1968 reduced the native tree population significantly, the refuge is still home to the largest remaining stand of cottonwood/willow forest along the Lower Colorado River. From November to April, migratory birds like yellow warblers, Lazuli buntings and vermillion flycatchers splash color onto the Sonoran Desert canvas. Launch your own canoe at the refuge's headquarters and paddle 2.5 miles upriver, day or night (it's especially picturesque during a full moon). Watch for bobcats and beavers and listen for the kek-kek-kek of the endangered Yuma clapper rails. A short informative nature path also starts at headquarters, but on the rest of the refuge, you'll be blazing your own trails. Information
: 928-667-4144; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/billwill.html
Havasu National Wildlife RefugeTo get from Lake Havasu City to Topock Bay and Topock Marsh, drive north on State 95, then head west on Interstate 40. Take Exit 1 toward Topock and turn right at 95. The refuge office is in Needles, California. From Interstate 40, exit at J Street and go southwest (uphill) 0.6 miles. Turn right at the headquarters entrance sign and follow the signs.
The riparian attractions at Havasu NWR, which protects 30 river miles between Needles, California, and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, draw thousands of visitors each year, both human and avian. Birders flock to see sandhill cranes, endangered Yuma clapper rails, and the herons and egrets that nest in rookeries at Topock Marsh. Canoeists and kayakers paddle Topock Gorge from Topock Bay to Castle Rock Bay. The Colorado River, famous elsewhere for its whitewater, turns jade-green and lazy on this 14-mile stretch through rust-colored rocks. You'll float past a trio of volcanic spires called The Needles (from which the city takes its name) as well as the hikeable Floodwater Sand Dunes and petroglyphs at Picture Rock. Weather is generally idyllic in January and February. If solitude is what you're after, steer clear during traditional spring break weeks. Information
: 760-326-3853; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/havasu/
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife RefugeFrom Yuma, take Interstate 8 east to Gila Bend, follow State Route 85 south approximately 40 miles to Ajo. The refuge office is on the west side of the highway at the north end of town
Rumor has it that desert writer Edward Abbey is buried somewhere in this sea of cacti. It's an appropriately raw and lonely place for a rogue environmentalist to rest in peace. The refuge, the third largest in the lower 48, stretches across 860,010 unpopulated acres that occupy, according to the permit form, "one of the most extreme environments in North America." Despite this, it's home to 391 plant species and more than 300 kinds of animals. Endangered Sonoran pronghorns and desert bighorn sheep roam, while elf owls peekaboo from holes chiseled into saguaros by Gila woodpeckers. Prime birdwatching occurs during the migration seasons from February to May and August to November, when you can point your binoculars toward warblers, swallows, flycatchers and phoebes. The 80-mile route to Papago Well, with scenic stops along the way, makes an ideal day trip. A permit and high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary. Inquire at the visitors center about guided tours to Childs Mountain sponsored by the Natural History Association of Cabeza Prieta. Information:
Kofa National Wildlife RefugeFrom Yuma, take U.S. Route 95 north toward Quartzsite, Arizona, to refuge entrance signs
Kofa NWR is most famous for being the sole place in the state where California palms, Arizona's only native palm, grow naturally. Drive along a 7-mile gravel road (manageable with passenger cars), then climb the steep half-mile Palm Canyon Trail to see the cluster of trees wedged into a crevice on the rocky slope. Best viewing is at midday when the sun illuminates the shiny green fronds. Bring binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for crags that suddenly clamber down the mountainside: they're well-camouflaged desert bighorn sheep. The region is peppered with dozens of old mines, the most famous being the King of Arizona, from which the refuge takes its name. Mineral collecting is permitted only at Crystal Hill, in the far northwest corner. Information
: 928-783-7861; www.fws.gov/southwest/REFUGES/arizona/kofa/index.html
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