Recently we visited Yuma, Arizona and took a different route than normal to get there so we could stop at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge just South of Quartzsite in the Western part of the state. I am so glad we did! It is so beautiful out there and as someone that has lived in Arizona since I was about 10 months old, I had oddly never been there before.
The Kofa Mountains reach a height of 4,877 feet atop Signal Peak and is 664,327 acres. It was established in 1939 for the purpose of conservation of desert bighorn sheep and other native wildlife after more than 10,000 Arizona Boy Scouts led the way in protecting the area at the urging of a conservationist. Cacti thrive in the climate where hot summers, mild winters, and low annual rainfall are trademarks.
We traveled down the 95 and then took a dirt road right before mile marker 92, which was modestly labeled (we missed it and then turned around to go back). The road eventually takes you to a tower but we stopped a little before that to get out and walk around a bit. The desert was in full-on gorgeous mode and we snapped a ton of photos! I couldn’t believe how many cholla cacti were out there, especially the “Teddy-Bear Cholla”. I’m not sure about elsewhere, but in AZ, these are also known as “jumping cactus” because if you get too close, the needles will “jump” and land on you. Luckily, this has never happened to me, but it has happened to my husband when he was mountain bike riding and it required liquor and pliers to get them all out, apparently. If you don’t know a lot about them, their spines are barbed and kind of fish-hook when they go in which makes them painful to remove. Read about them here.
These were my some of my favorite photos from this portion of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge:
After we snapped photos of this spot, we drove to Palm Canyon Road, which is right around mile marker 85. We drove East until the dirt road practically dumped us at the base of a beautiful (and rocky) mountain. We went for a hike as the trail wound back into the mountain where there is a section that has the only “California fan palms,” which are the only native palm species in Arizona. Tricky though if you go in the morning (and probably evening, too). We followed this trail and kept going, kept going, kept going… I felt like the Energizer Bunny…this trail seemed to go on for forever and we weren’t seeing this grove of native palm trees we had read about. There was a sign about a half of a mile in that read “Palms,” however, when you looked to the side it pointed to, we saw nothing.
The trail eventually turned into climbing over boulders and at one point, a stack of cairns led us up a hill that didn’t appear super safe. We trekked carefully as it was like climbing up a mini-rock slide. My husband decided to have me stay put and he went up further to see what was in front of us. He comes back and says we should turn around and that it wasn’t what we were looking for and didn’t appear to be anything more than a steep drop.
We were on a bit of a time crunch because we still had to drive to Yuma (about an hour away) and decided to turn around. Of course, by the time we worked our way back to the sign that claimed to point out palms, the sun had shifted and sure enough, there they were…in a sliver of the canyon between two walls of the canyon, way up high. Hard to see when no light is on them. The good news…we got in a much longer hike than anticipated. And, we grabbed some more cool photos. Had we grabbed the flyer at the beginning of the trail on the way in, we would have read: “In Palm Canyon, the palm trees are able to survive in the narrow side canyons where direct sunshine is limited…” Oops. In our defense, it was extremely windy and we grabbed them and then put them back because we didn’t want to hold onto paper with how windy it was. Oh, hindsight, you never fail! Anyway, here are some of my favorites from this section of the Kofa Wildlife Refuge:
Some fun facts & things to know:
- Always take water and sunscreen when you hike in Arizona.
- Watch out for monsoon activity from July-ish to October. You don’t want to be stuck in a narrow canyon when flash flooding is possible.
- Palm Canyon was formed through a formation of rhyolite (a volcanic rock).
- Many of the trees were severely damaged in a fire during 1953 but most of them survived.
- Some of the boulders appear to be many smaller rocks cemented together- this is called Breccia- another form of volcanic rock.
- Wildlife is prevalent here and you can find bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, several species of birds, mule deer, quail, cottontail rabbit, fox, desert tortoise, gila monsters, chuckwallas, and rattlesnakes (I’m probably missing some more).
(Hunting is permitted but note that proper licensing is required in Arizona and you must be drawn to hunt many animals. There is also a strict limit of ONE Bighorn Sheep per person during their lifetime. The hunting areas are 45A, 45B, and 45C.)
There is another road that takes you to an area that is closed for Pronghorn. I think it’d be really cool to go watch and see if you can see any of them. The more I’ve read about this area after having visited, the more I appreciate it. I’ve heard that you can see the Milky Way really well at night here. It is away from city lights, so I’ll bet it’s absolutely beautiful. The boundaries for the land bumps up against military reservation land and parts of it were even used for desert military training exercises during World War II. If you see something that looks like military hardware- you are encouraged to NOT pick it up.
You can hike, visit or stay in historic cabins, backpack, camp (campfires are permitted but it is suggested you bring your own wood because you can only use dead, down, and detached wood from areas not designated as wilderness. Good luck finding that out there). You can even go rock collecting in the Crystal Hill area (only) of Kofa if that’s your thing. You can take up to 10 specimens or 10 pounds of quartz and other rocks in a 12-month period. I’ll definitely be back to explore more of this region in Arizona another time. It really was beautiful!
Where is your favorite spot to explore in Arizona (or anywhere else for that matter)?