After having our weekend camping trip get cancelled, Jen and I decided to salvage our Sunday with a day trip west towards the Colorado River. Our goal was to explore the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge a bit, check out the desert wildflower scene there, and scout a few places to camp in the future.
After packing up the car with our gear, snacks, and picnic supplies, we hit the road for the 2.5-hour drive to the western approach of the Kofa Mountains. The entire low desert region around the town of Quartzsite, Arizona is prime RV camping in the winter months. The BLM public lands surrounding the town, and those that ring the Kofa, allow for long-term camping, so the desert flats are filled with both trailers and coaches, as well as the occasional #vanlife rig.
Kofa is a rather large place. It’s 665,000 acres of rugged mountain ranges and sloping valleys, all but one-fifth of which is designated Wilderness. The land was originally set aside to protect desert bighorn sheep back in 1939, the product of a Boy Scout advocacy campaign to protect the species. Mining, however, has seemingly always been a part of the modern history of this area. The name Kofa comes from the King of Arizona mine located along the mountain range’s southwestern edge.
The spiral labyrinth
Our first stop of the day was just outside the National Wildlife Refuge’s official boundary at a feature called the spiral labyrinth. I have no idea when it was constructed, who made it, or why. I’m not exactly a fan of mutilating the desert with something like this, but I’ll admit that it’s a lot cooler than I expected it to be.
The labyrinth is located just off the main road into Palm Canyon and is scraped into desert pavement, much like the ancient intaglios further west. At more than 60 feet wide, the spiral is impressive—especially given the quality of its design and construction.
I would have loved to stay here for much longer than we did and to walk the entire thing. Unfortunately, two inconsiderate asshats were camping right next to the thing, preventing us from taking the photos we’d like or even enjoying a serenity.
Queen Mine Road
Moving along, we entered the refuge and turned onto Queen Mine Road. The road is quite a bit rougher than Palm Canyon, as it eventually leads into a tight canyon where it dead ends. Thank goodness I have Sam the Subie. I’ve always wanted to camp along this road, which is home to a somewhat iconic photo spot, sometimes called the Kofa spires or Kofa sea stacks. It’s also the approach one would use for scrambling up Signal Peak, the highest point in Yuma County. I’ll be back to tackle this summit another time as part of my Arizona County High Points quest.
We doubled back and headed towards Palm Canyon for lunch. Palm Canyon is the most common destination for visitors. It’s incredible easy to find—the main sedan-friendly road into the Kofa leads directly to it. It’s also a signed half-mile foot trail, which means it’s usually the only Kofa destination that you’ll find on hiking websites or guidebooks. The canyon is home to the California fan palm, the only palm species that grows natively in Arizona.
We positioned the car to block the wind, made some sandwiches and enjoyed the vista. After lunch, I scouted around the mouth of the canyon for some tent-appropriate campsites we could use on a future group trip. And yep, there are some primo sites with great views into the canyon. We’ll definitely be back.
It was now time to explore the expansive King Valley, which bisects the wildlife refuge and separates its two primary mountain ranges: the Kofa Mountains and the Castle Dome Mountains. We headed back to the highway and down to King Road, then took it southeast into the interior of the refuge. Passing countless camp pull-offs and expansive vistas, we eventually headed northeast over the desert flats towards Polaris Mountain and the Kofa Mine. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the foothills, so we couldn’t stay and explore the area on foot.
A stop in Yuma
After departing the Kofa, we turned south towards Yuma. On our way, we stopped at the Yuma Proving Ground, a large military testing installation. The proving ground, still currently in use, is a remnant of General Patton’s massive Desert Training Center. An interesting note on the national wildlife refuge: in times of war, it can automatically revert to active Yuma Proving Ground land.
There are a dozen or more old tanks on display outside the main gates—each of which was originally tested on the facility grounds—so I stopped for Jen to take a look and read the various plaques.
Our purpose in heading out of our way to Yuma was simple: beer. Jen has officially adopted #azbeerquest and had not yet marked off Yuma’s sole craft brewery. This must be corrected. But first, we needed to stop at a dive bar that’s been on my list to visit for several years. It didn’t disappoint. I even had to fight off some handsy (and apparently quite lonely) locals looking to get frisky; I suppose that’s what you get at a former strip club.
We departed to grab dinner and a beer flight at the brewery and mark another off the quest. After a long but enjoyable day, we headed towards home, completing an impressive loop around southwestern Arizona.
Day trips rock!
I’m always a bit surprised when a friend seems shocked that we’d did a day trip like this one. I sometimes get questions like:
“How did you know where to go?” or “How long did it take you plan that trip?” or even “I could never just go do something like that.”
Let’s just set the record straight: day trips rock!
They’re easy to put together and they’re easy to do. They allow you to get out and explore your state. And if you bring food along with you, then they only cost a tank of gas. Don’t have a destination in mind? Don’t let that stop you. Grab a map, hit the road, and decide as you go. Don’t know what to bring? Just bring whatever you want to have with you. I’d recommend some water, beverages and snacks, and warm clothes if it’s cold out. Besides that, there’s really not much to it.
Stay tuned here and we’ll help ensure that you start taking more of those day trips and just get out more.