As we were leaving, one of the helpful locals described the Yuma area as “the armpit of Arizona.” Certainly, with the natural wonders of Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the hippie village and Red Rocks of Sedona, the golf resorts in Scottsdale and Tucson, and the Spring Break drink and sexfest that is Lake Havasu, it seems like everyone is passing through and going somewhere else.
I’ve never enjoyed a trip to the desert as much as the three days in the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps it was the biking that slowed us down, but by the time we’d reached the refuge, we had already passed through three other distinct ecosystems and had started seeing.
Like many refuges, the Imperial is ecologically a mess but essential for the survival of many animals because everything else around it is even worse. The mighty Colorado Delta is gone, most of the River is an evaporating lake, and invasive species such as Saltcedar, Giant Salvinia, and the common reed, Phragmites, are choking out the native plants. The managers at Imperial are trying to recreate a “natural” environment by creating backponds, to mimic the previous occasional ponds caused by Colorado flooding and by replanting cottonwoods and even crops to feed the migrating ducks and other birds.
The Imperial NWR headquarters are located off of Martinez Lake, which is filled with retirees in their RVs during the winter months. Most of the refuge is surrounded by the Yuma Proving Grounds, so once you leave it signs advise you not to leave your car or stop due to the possibility of unexploded ordinance. Illegals have been using the gravel road through the refuge to head north to into the Cibola NWR and to connect with the Interstate into LA at Blythe.
Once you leave the narrow river valley, the Imperial is extremely desolate and known for its ironweed trees. Bighorn sheep live along the different washes, and Mom took Vic and I up the “Bee Wash” to see several hives of another invasive species, the “Killer Bee”, though my parents alternately called them Killer Bees or Mexican Honey Bees, when I believe we were looking at the Africanized Honey Bee (a.k.a. “Killer Bee” that had arrived from Mexico).
When my nephew arrived, Vic and I took him out to look for bats along the cottonwoods and the river bank. With his sharp young eye, he spotted a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake that both Vic and I stepped over. While I find snakes more than a bit scary, the actual snake was not nearly as frightening as the wrath I would have faced from either Tom or Vic’s mothers if either of my hiking companions had been bitten.
When Vic and I were debating the trip to Arizona and where to fly into, we kept coming back to the idea that if it were not for my parents doing the volunteer work there, we’d likely never think of a reason to go to Yuma. And that would still hold true, after going. Still, each day was filled with spotting birds I’d never seen, some short but interesting hikes, and more ecological variety than you’d think looking at the barren scrub that you glimpse driving through. I certainly could see heading back at some point and maybe doing some volunteer work there myself.
Vic’s take on the trip is here.