Located off of Highway 95 between Quartzsite and Yuma Arizona, the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated in 1939 as an effort to preserve desert bighorn sheep. Its name is taken from the acronym of the historic King of Arizona mine located within the refuge. Today, Kofa is a popular destination for camping, hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, and off-roading.
I’ve passed Kofa many times while driving north of Yuma along Highway 95, and I was always curious about what was there to discover. An opportunity came to fulfill my curiosity when members of the Utah Arizona ATV Club planned a ride to the north end offering to let our group tag along. We rose early that morning to make lunches and fill our gas tanks. We met at their camp just in time, everyone was lined up and ready to go.
Before leaving, the trail boss explained their club rules and use of the “drop system.” They have a group leader and a sweep driver that never change, but at intersections, the leader signals the first driver behind them to stop and indicate to the rest of the group which direction to go as they pass. Once all of the other participants pass the dropped driver, they join back in line ahead of the sweep car. At each intersection, the procedure repeats several times.
I had never used the drop system before, but it was slick and added an interesting element to the ride. Each car rotated from the back to the front of the group several times throughout the day, no one became lost, and the group made progress without bunching up.
After the drivers’ meeting, we motored toward Kofa. The entrance to the refuge is marked by a large kiosk. We took a break to study a map of the area and read about the history and wildlife there. When our leader alerted us to continue, we started up again, eager for what was to come.
We drove by a few guzzlers (man-made watering holes for animals), then stopped to look at several Native American grinding holes near a natural spring called Jasper Springs. I’ve seen similar features in the area, but none of them are as deep as these. They are very out of the ordinary. Continuing, we stopped for lunch at the Kofa monument, a small pyramid of rocks with a brass plaque commemorating the dedication of Kofa in 1939.
After lunch, we passed through Big Horn Pass then spent the rest of the afternoon visiting cabins in the refuge; our stops included Wilbanks Cabin, Hoodoo Cabin, and Kofa Cabin. These cabins are all approaching 100 years in age, are in fair shape, and are available to campers on a first-come, first-served basis.
Going Back for More
Several weeks later, I was talking with a local about our ride through Kofa. He shared several other places of interest we did not visit, including Crystal Hill, a labyrinth, Palm Canyon, Kofa Queen Canyon, Skull Rock, and Gorilla Rock. They all sounded quite interesting, and I had the itch to go back. I gathered coordinates, planned another ride and invited a few friends to come along.
Our group met at a gas station, then hit a southbound trail out of Quartzsite. We turned onto the same trail we took on our last ride but, this time, stopped at Crystal Hill. It’s the only area in Kofa where visitors are allowed to take rock specimens, like quartz crystals, as souvenirs. However, no tools are allowed.
I was excited to try my hand at finding crystals. We parked at the base of the hill in a nice campground, took off our helmets, and most of our group started up the hill. On the hike up, I enjoyed a clear view of the refuge and the Sonoran desert.
Within a few minutes of searching, we found our first crystal. Then we quickly found others. In just a half-hour, we had a handful. One of the guys was particularly excited after finding a whole crystal with an intact point on the top.
It took some time to arrive back at the bottom of Crystal Hill. Those that stayed with the cars found crystals in a nearby wash too, so no one left empty handed. After a brief show and tell, we belted back up and continued to the desert labyrinth.
It became apparent that my coordinates were off as we wandered the desert unable to find our way to the maze. I refused to let the feeling of defeat affect me though. After a brief pause to reorient ourselves, we hopped back into our vehicles and headed toward some nearby campers to ask for help. It turned out they were camped right next to the entanglement! Until then, I had never walked a labyrinth before; it was larger and more detailed than I’d expected.
Palm Canyon is perhaps the most popular destination at the refuge and is thought to be the only place in Arizona where wild palm trees grow. We drove until the road ended at a parking lot, then I grabbed my camera and some water and started an intermediate half-mile hike.
We kept looking for the trees, hoping to have a glimpse of them during our hike. However, we never saw any until we spotted a small sign stating “PALMS” with an arrow pointing to the path. We looked to the left, and lo and behold, there they were – nestled in a tight canyon. We marveled at them for a few minutes, took photos, then made our way back to the parking lot where we were treated to a valley view that went on for miles.
Our next destination was Kofa Queen Canyon. I was immediately impressed with the sheer ruggedness of the mountains surrounding the canyon. We drove slowly so we wouldn’t miss any detail. Our fingers were crossed in hopes of seeing bighorn sheep, but sadly none ever presented themselves. We did, however, turn a corner and came upon Skull Rock. It is so big that the mouth is large enough to walk into. Right next to it is Gorilla Rock, a little harder to make out, but its features began to unravel with a little focus. We made our way back to our cars, followed the canyon until the trail ended, and then made a U-turn to head back to camp.
Kofa is a vast 665,000 acres. Even after two full days there, we had only experienced the northern half of the refuge. The locals say there are just as many places of interest in the south end, a promise of great adventures ahead… And I look forward to taking in all of it.