HomeChapter 1: History of the ColoradoChapter 2: Needles AreaChapter 3: On the Road - Needles to BlytheChapter 4: Blythe areaChapter 5: On the Road - Blythe to MexicoChapter 6: Yuma AreaChapter 7: On the Road - Yuma to Lake Havasu CityChapter 8 - Lake Havasu CityChapter 9 - Lake Havasu City to Topock AZContact Us

In this chapter we will explore the River area between Blythe and the Mexican border. This part of the river offers everything an outdoor person enjoys - Hiking, rock climbing, exploring, wildlife viewing, rock hounding, and scenery - except snow!  The river offers more of the same from an aquatic perspective like fishing, boating, and more of the beautiful scenery.  In some cases we will venture a little further away from the river, because there is a lot of interesting stuff out here. The primary industry adjacent to the river is still predominantly agricultural near Blythe, giving way to recreation and refuges as we go south.  Further south toward Winterhaven agriculture takes over again, but the crops are different (like date palm trees).



We will travel south along State Route 78 to Ogilby Road, then south from there to Interstate 8.  State Route 78 begins at Interstate 10 in Blythe and winds a tortuous route to Oceanside in San Diego County.  At Ogilby Road 78 veers westward and leaves the river area.  We will take Ogilby Road to Interstate 8, and follow I-8 to the Arizona border, exploring along the way.  We will take side trips to areas and points of interest.   


The small farming community of Ripley is about 7 miles south of Blythe on Highway 78.  There are about 200 residents.  The site is named after former railroad president E. P. Ripley.  The Arizona and California Railroad line goes through Ripley.  Talk about good duty - Farmers here are paid by the Department of Reclamation to let their acreage go fallow so the water can be used elsewhere.  Imagine - Getting paid for doing nothing.  But then again, there's not much else to do here.


The Bradshaw Trail is a signed, maintained road leading westward from Highway 78 south of Ripley.   



Bradshaw Trail 


The 70-mile long Trail was established as a stage route by William Bradshaw in 1862, and was the first road across Riverside County to the river.  The stage route was used extensively between 1862 and 1877.  Miners and other passengers took the stage from San Bernardino to the gold fields in La Paz (now Ehrenberg).  The Trail can be driven the whole length, passing mostly through public land, and offers scenic views of the Mule, Orocopia and Chuckwalla Mountains and the Chuckwalla Bench.   The Trail is within the "limited use" area, which means vehicles are restricted to approved routes.





Mule Mountains LTVA


The Mule Mountains Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) is located about 12 miles southwest of Blythe. Mule Mountains LTVA encompasses 3,424 acres and includes both Wiley's Well and Coon Hollow Campgrounds (these sites will be discussed in more depth in another side trip). This LTVA is located on Wiley's Well Road, nine miles south of Interstate 10. The Bureau of Land Management established eight Long Term Visitor Areas in the Arizona and California deserts to accommodate visitors who wish to camp for the entire winter season. Visitors wishing to stay in a Long Term Visitor Area must purchase a long-term permit (valid for September 15 through April 15) or a short-term permit (valid for seven or fewer consecutive days). Permit holders may move from one LTVA to another without incurring additional fees. The area around the Mule Mountains LTVA is home to coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions.  Adequate precautions regarding pet protection are in order here.  Recreation in the Mule Mountains includes hiking sections of the Bradshaw Trail, wildlife viewing, climbing Thumb Peak nearby, and rock hounding further south (to be discussed in a later side trip). 


We continue or journey south on Highway 78.


Just east of Palo Verde, South Neighbors Boulevard enters the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge and ends at the Arizona border on the Cibola Bridge. 



Cibola bridge 


The Cibola Bridge has a weight limit of 4 tons.  The road name changes to New Cibola Road in Arizona.  While parts of this and the Imperial Refuges are in Arizona, the Cibola NWR is discussed here because of its' isolation from Arizona access.



The Cibola and Imperial National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) occupy much of the river banks along both sides of the river between Yuma and Blythe.  The Cibola NWR encompasses 16,627 acres, about 2/3rds of which is in Arizona.  The Cibola NWR is about 12 miles long, and picks up where the Imperial NWR leaves off to the south.  When the Colorado River was channelized in the 1960's, the NWR's were established to mitigate the loss of habitat.  The Cibola NWR is probably best known as a bird-watching area, with migratory and nesting bird populations in abundance.  Nesting birds include the great egret, great blue heron, night herons, bitterns, clapper rails and white-winged doves, as well as song birds like common yellowthroat, phainopepla, and Lucy's warbler.  The only freshwater form of clapper rail, the endangered and elusive Yuma clapper rail, can be found here (if you're lucky). 



Yuma Clapper Rail.  Credit: Jim Rorabaugh


The Yuma Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostrus yumanensis) is a very reclusive subspecies of Clapper Rail the size of a chicken.    Its range is along the Colorado River from just north of Needles to the delta in the Gulf of California.  It is on the endangered list because its habitat is disappearing.  It lives in dense marsh vegetation where it blends in extremely well, making sightings very difficult.  It requires regenerating marsh for foraging, and mature stands of bulrush and cattail for nesting.  It is more often heard than seen, and the number of birds is estimated by quantifying the number of responses to taped Rail calls.  It feeds on crayfish, clams, freshwater shrimp and snails, using its long, curved beak to probe in the sand.  There are estimated to be less than 1,000 individuals of Yuma Clapper Rail in existence. 


Canadian geese, Sandhill cranes and many ducks, primarily pintail, wigeon and green-tailed teal stop over at the NWR during their seasonal migration, some spending a portion of the winter here.  Over 288 bird species have been seen at the NWR.  Of mammals, it is not unusual to see desert mule deer, bobcat and coyotes prowling the area.  In the spring Clark's Grebe hatchlings can be seen riding on the backs of their parents.     The Refuge features a 3-mile long auto tour called Canada Goose Drive and a one-mile long nature trail along the way.  Half way through the Nature Trail you can view migratory birds resting at a 20-acre pond from an elevated observation deck.  At the southern edge of the Refuge, visitors can observe grebes, pelicans, ducks, geese, cormorants, terns and more from an elevated cliff overlooking Cibola Lake.  The Visitor Center has restrooms and drinking water, but there is no store or gasoline at the Refuge.  Camping facilities are located nearby, outside the Refuge area.  While boating and water skiing are allowed on the main channel of the Colorado River, the Old River Channel, Cibola Lake, Three Fingers Lake and any backwaters are classified "no-wake" to protect wildlife.


Public hunting is allowed in specific areas of the Refuge.  There are special regulations in the Refuge in addition to federal and state hunting regulations.  You should contact the Refuge in advance before heading out to hunt.  Except for hunting dogs, pets must be on a leash while on the Refuge.


Anglers must possess a Colorado River Stamp in addition to either a California or Arizona fishing license.


For more information on the Refuge, visit their website at  The address is 66600 Cibola Lake Road, and the phone number is 928-857-3253.


Next along Highway 78 is Palo Verde, about 15 miles from Blythe. As of the 2000 census, 236 people live here.  This area receives almost as much summer rain as winter.  Summer rains come in the form of thunderstorms brewing up from the south, often strong enough to cause damage to structures.  In the summer of 2007 the town of Palo Verde suffered about $3.6 million in damage from a fierce thunderstorm ("micro-burst") that struck in September. Eight buildings were destroyed, thirty structures were damaged and 13 were later condemned.  It's hard to imagine the town being worth that much, so the damage was extensive.




Palo Verde County Park provides river access from Highway 78 about two miles south of Palo Verde. 



Oxbow Lake at Palo Verde County Park


"River access" is actually from Oxbow Lake, which parallels the Highway and empties into the main river channel a little south of the park.  There is really not much here, other than dirt parking areas and a concrete boat ramp.  There is a three-day limit and apparently no fee.  There is no skiing, swimming or hunting here, leaving the recreationist with fishing and canoeing opportunities.  There are, however, flush toilets on site.


We continue our journey south on Highway 78.


The Palo Verde Mountains and Wilderness Areas emerge to the west, just south of Palo Verde.



 Slot canyon in Palo Verde Wilderness


The Wilderness was dedicated by Congress in 1994, and encompasses 29,222 acres. Features worth mentioning are Thumb Peak, the Flat Tops (twin buttes), and Clapp Spring. Although many old roads transect the Wilderness, most of the area is closed to motorized vehicles. Palo Verde Peak is the high point of the mountain range at 1,800 feet. Interesting geological features make the wilderness a fascinating place for the hiking enthusiast.  Want to see more?  Please visit my friends at


Saguaro cactus can be found in the southeastern part of the Wilderness.  Saguaros are widely thought to occur only in Arizona in the U.S., but in fact can be found here and other places in California near the Arizona border.


Walter's Camp Road intersects Highway 78 about 25 miles south of Blythe, and ends at Walter's Camp on the river four miles away.    The BLM concession-operated camp is a popular starting point for fishing, hunting, boating and canoeing trips on the river.    



Fall foliage at Walters Camp



Wild burros can often be heard braying at night here.  Amenities include camping, RV hookups, boat launching and a store.  Fees are $25 per day for a dry camp, or $39 per day for water and electricity.  There is a $7 day use fee and a $7 boat launch fee.  Weekly and monthly rates are also available.  The maximum stay is 150 days per year.  The listed phone number for information and reservations is 760-854-3322.



"Wild" (feral) burros


A noxious, invasive non-native floating fern called Giant Salvinia can be found at Walter's Camp and many other places along the river, including the man-made canals and irrigation ditches.  



 Giant salvinia.  Courtesy Larry Allain


The threat to native plants and fishes includes the choking out of native vegetation, oxygen depletion from decaying vegetative matter, and reduced sunlight and atmospheric oxygen absorption into the water.  It is extremely fast growing.  Under favorable natural conditions, the biomass of Giant Salvinia can double in a week to ten days.  The plant favors the quiet backwaters of lakes, ponds, streams and marshes, all of which are common here.  Integrated control methods including physical removal, herbicide application and natural control have been used with varying degrees of success.  The Salvinia Weevil destroys the plant by tunneling through its rhizomes and feeding on terminal buds.  Some think the answer is to simply import enough Salvinia Weevils to destroy the plants, but that is not always the best solution.  There have been many cases where natural control has been used, only to find that once the target has been eliminated the predator moves on to other hosts or prey, sometimes causing unanticipated damage.  


Back on Highway 78, Milpitas Wash Road heads northwest just past the Walter's Camp Road intersection.




Milpitas Wash drains water (what water there is) from a huge area of the Mule and Palo Verde Mountains extending southerly from I-10 west of Blythe in a south/easterly direction toward the River.  A Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) encompasses part of the area. The road can be driven from Highway 78 all the way to Interstate 10 west of Blythe, where part of the road is paved.  Along the way are the Wiley's Well and Coon Hollow LTVA Campgrounds, the Hauser Geode Beds, and the Palo Verde and Mule Mountains which were discussed earlier. 


Wiley's Well is situated about halfway between the Little Chuckwalla and Mule Mountains, on the west bank of Black Hills Wash.  



Wiley's Well



A. P. Wiley was a storekeeper in nearby Palo Verde.  He had a well deepened in 1907 in the area where miners and prospectors were working.  An earlier, shallower well in the same location was dug in 1876 by a stage company using the Bradshaw Trail nearby.  Wiley had the well deepened to 40 feet, hoping to attract the miners business.  The miners and cattlemen maintained the well for many years after that, continuing to deepen it as the groundwater table dropped.  In twelve years it was down to 60 feet, with the water hauled up by a pail and rope. 


After the BLM assumed responsibility for the area, they had the well dug down to 965 feet in 1985.  At this level water is plentiful, but it is hot and highly mineralized.  It is pumped to a cistern to cool, but should not be used for cooking or drinking.


Wiley's Well has 15 campsites with shade ramadas and cooking grills, pit toilets and a dump station.  Campers should bring their own water.     


There is plenty of wildlife out here, including Cactus Wrens and Mourning Doves, Gambel's Quail, and, if you're lucky, an occasional desert fox may sit courteously near your dinner, patiently awaiting a handout (or to make a furtive grab).



 Desert fox



Coon Hollow has 29 level or near-level sites with picnic tables and fire rings, pit toilets, trashcans and some shade ramadas.



Coon Hollow campground



Campers can obtain a permit (for a fee) to stay at Wiley or Coon Hollow Campgrounds for short (2 weeks) or long (entire season) term limits.  Coon Hollow Campground has been moved twice.  It was first located in the Mule Mountains, and moved to an area accessible by automobile about a mile east of its current location.  In years past the flat area nearby was used as a practice-landing pad by crack pilots, a diversion now strongly discouraged.  Perhaps some were trainees at the Morton Air Academy in Blythe, which was active during World War II.   


The entire area surrounding Wiley's Well and Coon Hollow is known as the Wiley's Well Rockhounding District.  It was dedicated as a Rockhound Educational and Recreation Area in 2000.  The District contains a number of well-known collecting areas.  They have colorful names like Potato Patch, Cornfield, Big Windy and Straw Beds.  The two most popular sites are the Hauser Geode Beds and the Opal Hill Mine.



The road to the Opal Hill Mine is just opposite Coon Hollow Campground.   


Opal Hill is not a mine in the typical sense.  There are no deep mine shafts or tunnels here.  The opal is actually collected from veins in rock outcroppings and small holes.  A small amount of fairly low-grade precious opal was found here in the 1890's, hence the name.  The original owners were hopeful of finding higher-grade opal, but instead came across substantial amounts of fire agate.  The mine also produced hounds-tooth calcite crystals, hollow selenite crystals, and more recently some beautiful quartz crystal florets.  The privately owned mine can be explored at certain times of the year.  Rock hounds can dig for their own fire agate, opal eggs, petrified wood, and other minerals.  From November 1st to May 1st each year, it is a Pay-To-Dig operation.  The fee is twenty-five dollars per day.  Digging is allowed only in the main pit area.  The owners discourage wandering else where.  Today the mine is an eclectic mix of vehicles, lean-tos, mining equipment, artifacts, ore samples and petrified wood scattered about the hillside.  Please be mindful that the land and everything here is private property, and respect it accordingly.



Opal Hill Mine "office"



Geodes can still be collected from the Hauser Geode beds.   



Hauser geode beds


A geode is a hollow, sphere-shaped rock with the cavity lined with crystals.  The crystals can be amethyst or calcite.  A geode with the cavity completely filled with small crystal formations of agate or jasper is called a nodule or Thunder Egg.  Blythe native Joel Hauser first discovered geodes in the area known as Black Hills in 1937.  The geodes were collected right off the ground.  Hauser's discovery of geode beds changed the collecting method to excavation.  Geodes are typically found in rhyolite or volcanic ash.  They are not particularly difficult to find, but extracting them from the surrounding rhyolite or compressed volcanic ash can be strenuous.  Trails in the area lead to the most popular excavating areas.


Back on Highway 78, we resume our southward trek.


The area to the east of Highway 78 and between Milpitas Wash and Ogilby Road is pock-marked with many mines and prospects.  BLM dirt roads criss-cross the area.  If you explore here, be sure to respect any posted signs.


A couple of miles south of Milpitas Wash, Midway Well Road intersects with Highway 78.  Once off the pavement, a myriad of dirt roads and sandy washes greet the off-roader.  Turn left at the first intersection after Highway 78, and you will come to Midway Well less than a half-mile away.  The windmill still functions today, but everything else is pretty much in ruin.  There is some posted private property here, which we should all respect.   



Midway Well pump house ruin


An organization called Desert Wildlife Unlimited (DWU) is very active in this part of the desert. 



Wildlife drinker under construction


In cooperation with and permits from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the California Department of Fish and Game, the non-profit group installs watering stations ("drinkers") in the area to support native wildlife.  DWU was founded by Leon Lesicka in 1979.  At that time, water agencies were lining the many miles of irrigation canal that radiate out from the Colorado River with concrete.  Soon after, it was noticed that wildlife were dying.  Animals like Desert Mule Deer, Desert Bighorn Sheep and wild burros could scramble down the angled concrete walls, but couldn't climb back up.  Many animals drowned after futile attempts to climb out lead to exhaustion.  Lesicka and a dedicated group of sportsmen began installing drinkers in the land away from the canals.  Since then, the Mule Deer population has increased approximately three to four times, indicating that the drinkers have helped significantly.  The labor is donated by volunteers, most of them hunters.  But plenty of people with other interests also participate.  Cash, equipment and materials are donated by Fish and Game, the Imperial County Fish and Game Commission, the Safari Club, the North American Sheep Society, and raised by fund raisers.


Initial efforts focused on digging out old wells and installing windmills like the one at Midway Well.  But the group soon found that the windmills took an extraordinary amount of maintenance, and developed a new kind of water system.  Today 12,000 gallon fiberglass water tanks are strategically placed underground in an area where they can collect surface runoff from the infrequent storms.  A small weir or dam is built upstream, and pipes collect the runoff and direct it into the tank.  A step drinker is installed on one end, and the tank is seeded once with trucked-in water.  If the location and precipitation are right, the tank can provide a three-year supply of water with little to no maintenance.


Many serious hunters are also keen conservationists.  They want to see their resource thrive, and are often more active in restoring and enhancing game habitat than other groups.  Now in his mid 70's, Lesicka can most often still be found at the seat of his backhoe, installing another drinker.  Volunteer laborers come from as far away as San Diego and La Quinta to help with the dirty work.  And finishing touches include placing native plants in the ground above the tank to prevent people from driving over it.   


Ogilby Road intersects Highway 78 about 24 miles north of Interstate 8.  Highway 78 continues westward toward San Diego County.  We will leave Highway 78 here and explore the Ogilby Road area, but first we have another short detour.






About 1 ½ miles west of Ogilby Road and before you reach the Imperial Sand Dunes, a historic marker marks the location of an ancient Indian trail.    The Cahuilla Indians padded across this trail many years ago to trade with Indians at the Salton Sea.




Pre-Columbian Indian Trail


Any discussion of this area would be incomplete without mention of the Algodones Sand Dunes, also called the Imperial Sand Dunes.  Although separated from the river by mountain ranges, the Dunes are so large and unique that they dominate the landscape. 



Algodones (Imperial) Sand Dunes



At least twice in history the Colorado River has flowed into the valleys to the west rather than into the Gulf of California.  A vast freshwater lake formed each time.  The first was Lake Cahuilla, which covered much of the Imperial, Coachella and Mexicali Valleys as late as 1450.  It was extremely important to Native-Americans, as a source of food and materials.  The 2nd is the Salton Sea.  The river overflowed its banks for a period of about eight years starting in 1906, creating the Salton Sea.  The breech was near Walter's Camp.  The river flowed in the alternate course for about eight years.  It was finally returned to its natural drainage by the placement of fully loaded box cars along the western bank.  With the flow of water cut off, the Salton Sea became increasingly saline to a point that today it sustains very little aquatic life. 


A popular theory holds that windblown sands from Lake Cahuilla formed the Algodones Dunes.  The entire dune system covers 1,000 square miles, making it one of the largest dune systems in North America.  The Dunes are migrating southeasterly about a foot each year.  Areas within the dunes include the Imperial Sand Hills National Natural landmark and the Algodones Outstanding Natural Area.  The Dunes presented a barrier to early travelers, causing foot traffic to divert into Mexico and rail traffic to the north to avoid the dunes.  In 1915 a wooden plank road was built across the Dunes, finally connecting Yuma and San Diego.  This trail eventually became part of Interstate 8.  People have been driving on the Dunes for recreation almost since vehicles first reached the area, which may have been the proving ground for the first dune buggy.  The Dunes north of Highway 78 are designated as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area, with vehicular traffic prohibited.  South of Highway 78, as many as 150,000 off-road advocates may visit the Dunes in a single weekend.


The dunes are the home of two threatened plants: Peirson's Milkvetch (Astragalus magdalanae peirsonii) and Sand Food (Pholisma sonorae). 


Sand Food is a gray, mushroom-shaped parasitic plant with very strange attributes.  



Sand Food.  Courtesy BLM


The scaly, succulent stem attaches to the roots of nearby host plants.  The plants do not seem to harm the host plant, making the relationship more cooperative or neutral than parasitic.  The stem can extend six feet or more into the dunes where it attaches to host plant roots deep underground.  Only the flower head extends above ground in the spring.  The stems were eaten by Native American tribes, either raw or roasted.  The threat to the plant is two-fold:  destruction of host plants and off-road vehicle activity.  A significant portion of the sand dunes are off-limits to vehicular activity, but otherwise the plant is unprotected.


Some people consider Pierson's Milkvetch to be a noxious weed (Locoweed), but the plant has been protected by the Endangered Species Act.   



Pierson's Milkvetch.  Courtesy BLM


Dune riders have been prevented access to seventy-seven miles of sand dunes because of the plant, setting up a contentious showdown between preservation and recreation.  While 68,000 acres of the dunes are open to off-road activity, dune riders claim that closing part of the dunes is a result of "bad science".  But the facts are that the plant occurs in the dunes, and off-road activity destroys the plants.  Another unfortunate fact is that a small minority of off-roaders ignores the posted areas and drive there anyway.  How to balance preservation and recreation has been and always will be contentious, with both sides claiming excesses by the other.


The dunes are also hosts to several unique species of animals and insects, including the Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard, the Shovel-nosed Sand Snake, the Banded Sand Snake, the Antlion and the Sand Wasp.  Some of these specimens have developed highly specialized adaptations to living in moving sand.


The Colorado Desert fringe-toed lizard and the Shovel-nosed Sand Snake are adapted for rapid burrowing through sand, called "sand swimming."  The toes of the fringe-toed lizard are fringed with elongated pointy scales that provide traction in the sand.  It also has special eye-lids and a countersunk lower jaw that keeps sand out of its mouth.


The Shovel-nosed Sand Snake and the Banded Sand Snake both have a streamlined head and smooth scales, which minimize friction through the sand.  Both snakes are harmless, but the Banded Sand Snake is often mistaken for the poisonous Coral Snake and therefore often destroyed. 



Banded Sand Snake.  Courtesy Gary Nafis,



Shovel-nosed Sand Snake.  Courtesy Gary Nafis, 


Remains of the original "plank road" can still be seen at the southern end of the dunes.



Remains of the old Plank Road


When the Ocean to Ocean bridge was completed over the Colorado River in 1915, it opened up travel into California.  But the dunes were a major obstacle.  The only way to get to the other side of the dunes was to go around them - 40 miles to the north or forty miles to the south.  Building a traveling surface on top of ever-shifting sands was an engineering challenge to say the least.  The sections consisted of two pairs of three 1-foot wide planks, held together by 1-foot wide cross members.  The sections were pre-assembled at a plant on Ogilby Road, and transported to the dunes by horse-and-wagon.  Once on-site, they were laid end-to-end and held together by tongue-and-groove technology.  Bear in mind that this work was done in 1915, long before the development of mechanized road-building equipment.  All the work was done by man and beast.  But a section could be moved easily by one person.  This was necessary because the constantly shifting sands frequently buried individual sections as well as long stretches of the road.  Turnouts were also required every ¼ mile.  Since the plank road was only eight feet wide, eastward and westward travelers had to take turns.  As the road got more and more traveled, an even-odd time system was developed to keep head-on traffic to a minimum. 


The first version of the plank road lasted only one year.  It was funded by a group of San Diego-area businessmen who wanted to attract visitors from the east.  The second version was funded by the California Highway Commission (now Cal Trans).  It was built of 8-foot wide railroad ties that were placed next to each other lengthwise across the sand. 


Although the road provided a shortcut across the dunes, it was far from a pleasurable ride.  The speed limit was 10 miles per hour.  The road was not on a stable base, giving rise to its nickname of "Old Shaky."  And many fistfights broke out over who would have to back up to the nearest turnout to let another pass.  Much of it was destroyed by war-training equipment in the 40's. 



Plank Road remains taken in 1930.  Courtesy John Barnier



Back on Ogilby Road, we resume our southern travel toward Mexico. 


Ogilby Road is a local Imperial County road that provides access to Interstate 8 from Highway 78.  If you are on Ogilby Road for the first time, you will think there is nothing out here.  But there is plenty.  There are the remains of three ghost towns, an RV Resort, lots of wide-open BLM land, and three Wilderness Areas. The Chocolate Mountain range stretches more than 60 miles in a southeast direction, dissipating further south along Ogilby Road.   The Chocolate Mountains Gunnery Range and the Mesquite Mine are found here.  The mountains are said to contain the largest gold deposits anywhere in the world.  Access in the bombing range area is strictly prohibited. The mountains receive very little rainfall in a normal year, typically 4-6 inches. The predominant natural plant is the white bursage variety of Creosote Bush.  The Cargo Muchacho Mountains are between Ogilby Road and the river.  This range is southeast of the Chocolates and east of the sand dunes.  There are many prospects and mines in the range, including the American Girl, Golden Bee and Cargo mines.




Indian Pass Road intersects Ogilby Road about eight miles south of Highway 78 and heads eastward through Gavilan Wash, ending on the river at Outpost and 4-S campgrounds, the two northern camp sites of the Picacho State Recreation Area.  The road is partly maintained and is posted with a street name sign, but maintenance can be sporadic.  Indian Pass gets washed out after practically any amount of rainfall, and can be closed at any time.  It can be particularly treacherous where it drops off into Gavilan Wash.  It is always best to check local conditions before using roads like these.  Four-wheel drive may be necessary at times on Indian Pass.  RV's are definitely not recommended in Gavilan Wash.  Want to see more?  Please visit my friends at




Gavilan Wash



   4-S Campground


Back on Ogilby Road, we continue our journey southward.


The remains of Tumco can be found a few miles north of I-8, in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains.   Originally named Hedges, it was renamed after the mines were taken over by The United Mine Company (TUMCO).



Tumco Mine.  Courtesy John Barnier


Today a few structural remains still exist, as well as dangerously deep mine shafts.  Be very careful in this area.



Remains of Tumco


Water from the river was actually piped over the mountains to the town.  The discovery of gold in the area has been attributed to a wayward mule in 1862.  Legend has it that the mule owner, having gone to find his stray, found gold nuggets lying on the ground.  The nuggets were traced to quartz ledges nearby, and the boom was on.  The site development reached a peak between 1893 and 1899, when 3,200 people lived in the town. Hedges/Tumco had all the makings of a boomtown except a hotel. Everyone lived in cabins of wood or stone.   Mining essentially ceased operations in 1909, and as people fled a true ghost town was created.  The most sorrowful scene is that of the cemetery.  Every grave is unmarked, which only adds to the feeling of complete desolation.   



Tumco cemetery


The historical marker for Tumco Mines is located on Gold Rock Ranch Road just west of the Tumco town site.


If you plan to stay and explore this area, the Gold Rock Ranch RV Resort is on the road directly across from the entrance to Tumco.   

Gold Rock Ranch and RV Park is located nine miles north of I-8 and 1 ½ miles west of Ogilby Road on Gold Rock Ranch Road.  It is listed as a full service camping and RV site with a store, museum, cabins, laundry facilities, and a "golf course" (all sand).  The listed telephone number is 928-919-6220, and their web site is



Entrance to Gold Rock RV Resort


Back on Ogilby Road, we continue southward toward Interstate 8.  Sidewinder Road intersects with Ogilby Road just south of Tumco, and heads east into open BLM land.  This area has been used extensively over many centuries, by Native Americans first, then it was extensively mined, and General Patton used the area for desert training during World War II.  Native Americans left their mark here, in the form of desert markings known as geoglyphs.  Geoglyphs are very similar to intaglios and petroglyphs.  The geoglyphs in this area have been fenced off by BLM to protect them from human-caused damage.  Some archaeologists believe geoglyphs were created by Shamans (Medicine Men) to contact the spiritual world, while others ascribe a representation to changing climate to them.



Geoglyph near Sidewinder Road.


There are remains of many mines in this area, including chutes, sluices, concrete pads and open pits and tunnels.  Be very careful when exploring here, and respect any private property or mining claims you may come across.


Mine remnants off Sidewinder Road


California Registered Historical Landmark No. 985 can be found on Sidewinder Road as it heads south toward Interstate 8.  The marker describes the activities of the Desert Training Center known as Camp Pilot Knob.  General George S. Patton used this area to acclimate troops to desert fighting during World War II.  At the time, it was the largest training compound to ever exist.    


Back on Ogilby Road, we continue southward.  The ghost town of Ogilby can be found very near the railroad tracks off of Ted Kipf Road, about 4 miles north of I-8. Ogilby had been a small town of workers for the American Girl Mine and a loading area for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  All that remains of Ogilby is the foundation of the schoolhouse and the cemetery, about 50 feet apart from each other.  The cemetery was purportedly established in 1878.   



Ogilby cemetary


Rock hounds will delight in this area.  A beautiful mineral called kyanite, sometimes spelled cyanite and sometimes called disthene, can be found and collected from three old mining areas near Ogilby.  The word kyanite is derived from the Greek word kyanos, meaning dark blue.  Kyanite does not conduct electricity and is acid resistant.  The most typical use for kyanite is for electric insulators, but is also used in products that need to withstand high temperatures - kilns, spark plugs, etc.  In its natural state kyanite can be white, gray and green as well as various shades of blue.  Kyanite crystals that are sufficiently clear and thick enough can be made into strikingly beautiful gemstones.


Three deposits of kyanite near Ogilby were mined collectively as the Bluebird Mine on a knoll called Vitrefax Hill. 


Mining was intermittent between 1925 and the 1950's, but the kyanite supply was not exhausted.  The American Girl Mine Road leads to Vitrefax Hill just 2/10's of a mile from the Ogilby site.  About 2.3 miles from Ogilby Road, the route goes between two hills and under a power line.  Two hills that are ahead and to the right appear to be separate from the rest of the hills in the range.  The hill on the right is Vitrefax Hill, and can be distinguished by the excavations and tailings nearby.


Some of the nicest specimens can be found on the surface, inviting exploration on foot.  The kyanite ore from Bluebird Hill, the lower hill adjacent to Vitrefax Hill, is said to be the prettiest hue of blue.  The hills and mining remnants make this entire area very attractive for exploration, but it is not without perils.  The road can be rough and washed out.  Mine shafts can be inviting but dangerous.  Loose footing and tailings piles can be risky for children and people with mobility impairments.  But given adequate precaution, the area can be explored safely.


Old Highway 80 intersects Ogilby Road and parallels Interstate 8 just north of the freeway.  Here the road is called "Center of the World Drive."   



Center of the World Drive.  Sign is often missing.




Felicity, California boasts being the "Official Center of the World."   Felicity is eight miles west of the Arizona border, three miles east of Ogilby Road.  A pyramid was built over a bronze plaque marking the exact center of the world.  Unique architecture is prevalent at the site, including a 15' high sundial featuring a bronze arm fashioned after Michelangelo's Arm of God painted at the Sistine Chapel, and a 25' high section of the original stairway from the Eiffel Tower.  Although the current town population is only 2, the post office, which was commissioned in 1987, had 2,300 letters mailed on the first day of operation. 


Pyramid at the Center of the World


Center of the World Drive intersects with Sidewinder Road just east of Felicity.




The small town of Andrade, California and the Andrade Border Station are about two miles south of Interstate 8.  It is within the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, and the Tribe maintains a fee parking lot ($5 per day) for pedestrians' crossing over into Algodones.  Algodones is a small, friendly town.  Most of the residents speak English and accept American money.  The town offers curio shops, medical and dental offices and pharmacies, open-air cafes and sports bars.  The cost of medical and dental care is considerably less than in the U.S. and said to be of equal quality.


It is important to note that you need a passport to show proof of residency when crossing back into the US.  A birth certificate is not considered sufficient evidence.




The Pilot Knob Long Term Visitor Area is south of Interstate 8 off Sidewinder Road.    



 Long-term campers at Pilot Knob


Thousands of Snowbirds flock here in the winter, creating a makeshift "community on wheels".  The area is undeveloped and has only garbage disposal, although the nearby Shell Gas Station and market has limited supplies.  The main attraction is its proximity to the Mexican town of Algodones a few miles away.  General George S. Patton trained his troops for desert warfare during World War II at Camp Pilot Knob located on Sidewinder Road a couple of miles north of the freeway.  Sidewinder Road can be followed for several miles to Ogilby Road and the BLM Mining District.  This wide-open BLM territory yields plenty of camping, Rockhounding, and more geoglyphs.


An LTVA permit is required to stay at Pilot Knob.  Short-term ($40) and long-term ($180) permits are available at the Shell Station.


Back on Interstate 8, we continue eastward toward Yuma.  Arizona is actually south of and parallel to the freeway along this stretch of Interstate 8.  West Winterhaven Drive exits Interstate 8 about 5 miles east of Highway 186.



Winterhaven is yet another population center relegated to byway status by the Interstate system.  Interstate 8 replaced Old Highway 80, the former Main Street through town. 



Old Highway 80 (Main Street) downtown Winterhaven, circa 1930's.  Courtesy John Barnier 


Motorists began whizzing by on their way to Yuma or El Centro, and the community began to decline.  Today agriculture and tourism make up the base of the local economy. The Paradise Casino, run by the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, is a major employer.  RV parks make up the majority of the accommodations by far.  Some of the RV parks are listed at the end of this segment of our tour.  Nurseries begin to dominate the agricultural landscape, with palm and fruit orchards abounding.  529 people called Winterhaven home in the 2000 census.



 Date farm in Winterhaven


Back in 1916 a serious drought affected all of California.  At about this time, an entrepreneur named Charles Hatfield claimed to have created a secret concoction of 23 chemicals that he claimed would create rain.  Desperate for the moisture, several Los Angeles-area ranchers contracted with Hatfield to bring rainfall to the parched region.  Hatfield built a tower on Mount Lowe and released his chemicals, producing the much-needed rain.  Meteorologists pooh-poohed the accomplishment, saying the rain was coming anyway, but Hatfield's supporters claimed success and Hatfield was paid $100 dollars.


During the same drought, the San Diego City Council approached Hatfield about creating enough rain to fill the basin behind the newly-constructed Morane Dam.  The City Council agreed to a $10,000 dollar fee, payable when the reservoir was filled.  Hatfield constructed a tower in the area and released his chemicals.


Soon, rain was falling all over Southern California, including copious amounts in the desert.  The rain grew heavier every day, and soon dry washes, river beds, and reservoirs throughout the area began filling.  The rain stopped on January 20th 1916, and resumed two days later.  There was so much rain that reservoir dams at Lower Otay and Sweetwater in San Diego county broke, releasing tens of thousands of gallons of water and causing 20 deaths.


The small town of Bard, just north of Winterhaven, suffered significant damage at the same time.  Whether Hatfield's invention was the cause of the tremendous flood is conjecture, but there is no doubt that rain was big news in Bard at the same time.




Bard flood, 1916.  Courtesy John Barnier. 


One thing of note in Winterhaven is the Fort Yuma Quechan Museum on Picacho Road. The museum has displays about North American culture, the early military era and Spanish expeditions. Nearby are the old St. Thomas Mission and old Methodist Indian Mission.



St. Thomas Indian Mission, 1930's.  Courtesy John Barnier. 


The Imperial Date Gardens and the Dome are on Ross Road approximately 12 miles north of Winterhaven.   


Dates are the oldest cultivated crop in the world, dating back more than 5,000 years.  The Imperial Date Gardens are one of the leading producers of Medjool dates.  The dates are harvested between September and the end of November.  The Dome features fresh dates, produce, nuts and candies.


Sans End RV Park is located at 2209 West Winterhaven Drive.  It has 104 total Camping/RV sites, 42 pull-through sites, 4 tent sites, 95 seasonal sites, a swimming pool and 10 cabins.  It has no river access.  Pets are welcome.  The phone number is 760-572-0797, and their web site address is


The McCoy Mobile Home and RV Park has 115 sites, a swimming pool and hot tub, clubhouse and air- conditioned laundry.  It has no river access.  The toll free phone number is 1-888-800-8631, and their web site is  The E-Mail address is


Picacho Road (Imperial County Road S-24) intersects with West Winterhaven Drive and heads north to the Picacho State Recreation Area and other recreational facilities. 




The historical marker for the Picacho Mines is located on Picacho Road about 12 miles north of Winterhaven.  First started as a gold mine in 1852, the site expanded to hard rock quarrying in 1872.  With the construction of Laguna Dam in 1909, the loss of river transport (and other causes, including low ore quality and accidents) led to periods of inactivity.  The quarrying resumed in 1984 using modern techniques, and continues today.



Picacho Mine in the '30's.  Courtesy John Barnier


Just past the road to Picacho, the Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA), Senator's Wash, and Squaw Lake are popular recreational areas off S-24.


The Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area is approximately 3,500 acres in size, flat landscape, sparsely vegetated with plants such as Creosote bushes, Palo Verde trees, Ironwood trees, Mesquite trees and various species of cacti.   The campground is on Senator Wash Road approximately 22 miles north of Interstate 8. Turn onto Senator Wash road and follow it for approximately 2 miles to the campgrounds.  Things to do at Imperial Dam LTVA include bike riding, boating, climbing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, water sports, winter sports, wildlife viewing, off-highway vehicles and learning about the history.


Senator Wash is a BLM recreational area created by Imperial Dam.  It has no direct access to the river but is very popular for its water sports, and can be extremely crowded at certain times of the year.  The south shore is accessed right off Senator Wash Road, while access to the north shore is through the South Mesa campground (signed).  Both areas offer open and tree-shaded camp sites, sandy beaches, a boat ramp, vault toilets and a dumping station.  Trash collection is not provided, but there are trash dumpsters at South Mesa campground.   



Senator Wash


Squaw Lake is separated from Senator Wash by an earthen dam.  The camping area has 80 sites with paved parking, fire rings, flush toilets, picnic tables and a boat ramp.  The lake is limited to no-wake boating, but offers access to the river and excellent fishing.   



Squaw Lake


Back on S-24, we head north on Picacho Road toward the Picacho State Recreation Area (SRA). 


The Picacho Campground offers 54 primitive sites ("primitive" means bring everything with you), a group campground, and two boat-in camp sites. 




William Lee Wallace (sitting on running board), grandfather of John Barnier, apparently visiting with a prospector and his mule at Picacho in the 30's.  Courtesy John Barnier


The sites have picnic tables and fire rings, with water and chemical toilets nearby.  Five other campsites are found in the northern part of the campground.   



Camping at Picacho


Migratory waterfowl frequent Picacho in the fall and again in the spring.  Dozens of migratory species may be sighted in a single day.  There is plenty of other wildlife, including desert mule deer, quail, roadrunners, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, and, if you're especially lucky, you may espy bighorn sheep.  Besides boating, there is canoeing, kayaking, and hiking to the Picacho Peak plug dome volcanic outcropping (where the bighorn are).  No reservations are necessary, but are recommended for the Group Camps.   


 picachoriverview.jpg                 picachoapril1933.jpg                                

Downstream river view at Picacho                                                                                    Downstream river view at Picacho in 1933.  Courtesy John Barnier


One-thousand foot tall Picacho Peak is a magnet for rock climbers.  The peak is technically known as a volcanic plug dome.  The plug is all that remains of a mountain that was blown apart thousands of years ago by volcanic activity.  Only very experienced rock climbers should attempt an ascent, marked by steep slopes, vertical chutes, 12 to 15 foot "steps", the infamous "step-across", and a false summit.  Climbing aids (bolts, ladders) have been left behind by other rock climbers, but even with these aids the climb will take at least five and a half hours for the experienced hiker/rock climber.  Once at the summit, a register can be signed.  The register is in a metal pipe that is cemented into the rock.  Yes, someone actually made the climb toting concrete and extra water.  The view from the summit is said to be awe-inspiring, with clear vistas all the way to the Salton Sea and down into Mexico.


The remains of the town of Picacho were mostly submerged when the Laguna Dam was built in 1909.  The town cemetery, mill and part of the Picacho Mills Historic Trail can still be visited.    Placer gold was mined here as early as 1780. The area became very active when prospector Jose Maria Mendivil discovered gold veins in the nearby hills in the early 1860s.



Picacho cemetery


Mendivil laid out the town site of Rio, which was soon renamed Picacho. The town had a population of 2,500, three stores, three elementary schools, numerous saloons, and was served by steamboats that connected the mining towns along the Colorado River. The gold mines closed by around 1910, and the filling of the lake behind Imperial dam flooded what was left of the town in 1938.


The ruins of the upper and lower mills are at the end of a one-mile self-guided nature trail on the water's edge.   


Author Zane Gray used Picacho as the setting for his 1923 novel Wanderer of the Wasteland, later made into a silent film. 


The area was once the site of another settlement called Picacho Basin.  A post office operated there between 1909 and 1910.  All of the settlement is now submerged.


A dirt road leads from the main campground through Bear Canyon and to the Outpost and 4-S Campsites at the northern end of the Recreation Area.   




 Bear Canyon on the way to Outpost and 4-S campsites


The Outpost and 4-S campsites are good places to enjoy the solitude of the area.  Hogue Rock looms large on the Arizona side, its steep cliffs plunging into the river current directly across from the 4-S site.   The two campgrounds are often Waypoints for canoeists traveling downstream, and your reverie may be interrupted as they haul up on shore in the afternoon.   





Picacho Peak at sunup


Several natural pools or "sheep tanks" provide life-giving moisture to bighorn sheep living in the Picacho Peak Wilderness Area.  The Wilderness is made up of three distinctive parts. A massive range of dark gray mountains that extend southeast from Indian Pass dominates the central and western portions. Mica Peak, the highest point within the wilderness at 1,499 feet, is located near the center of this range. South of these central mountains are rolling bench lands that are dissected by narrow, vertical walled arroyos. The third region within this wilderness is the northeastern area, where small peaks, open basins and large washes have formed. The lowest points in the wilderness area are found in Gavilan and Carrizo Washes on the east boundary. The Carrizo Wash supports a natural rock "tank" which traps water at the base of Carrizo Falls. The falls are created by runoff from desert cloudbursts, which periodically cascade over a series of rock ledges dropping 40 feet. A large cattail-lined pool at the base of the falls provides a desert oasis for a variety of wildlife species including desert bighorn sheep. Wild horses and burros roam this wilderness, and desert tortoise burrow in the soft volcanic soils.


Back on Interstate 8, we finish our North-to-South California Section, and cross into Arizona.  In Section II we will travel the Arizona side of the river from south to north, Yuma to Topock.



Downstream River Mileage Chart Blythe to the Mexican border (California Side)





Distance (Mi.)

Horace Miller County Park

Taylor Ferry


Taylor Ferry

Riverside/Imperial Co. Line


Riverside/Imperial Co. Line

Farmers Toll Bridge


Farmers Toll Bridge

Oxbow Lake Inlet


Oxbow Lake Inlet

Cibola Bridge


Cibola Bridge

Oxbow Outlet/Boat Ramp


Summary Mileage - Miller Co. Park to Oxbow Lake Boat Ramp


Oxbow Outlet/Boat Ramp

N. Boundary Cibola NWR


N. Boundary Cibola NWR

Lower Cibola Bridge


Lower Cibola Bridge

Old River Channel/Walters Camp


Summary Mileage - Oxbow Lake Boat Ramp to Walters Camp


Old River Channel/Walters Camp

N. Boundary Imperial NWR


N. Boundary Imperial NWR

Turnaround Wash/Walker Lake


Turnaround Wash/Walker Lake

Draper Lake/Wash


Draper Lake/Wash

Velian Wash


Velian Wash

Julian Wash


Julian Wash

N. Boundary Picacho SRA


N. Boundary Picacho SRA

Para Wash


Para Wash

4-S Ranch (Picacho SRA Campsite)


Summary Mileage - Walters Camp to 4-S Ranch


4-S Ranch (Picacho SRA Campsite)

Gavilan Wash


Gavilan Wash

Carrizo Wash


Carrizo Wash

Bear Canyon


Bear Canyon

Taylor Lake/White Wash


Taylor Lake/White Wash

Picacho Site


Summary Mileage - 4-S Ranch to Picacho


Picacho Site

Little Picacho Wash


Little Picacho Wash

Marcus Wash


Marcus Wash

S. Boundary Picacho SRA


S. Boundary Picacho SRA

Sortan Wash


Sortan Wash

Devil's Canyon


Devil's Canyon

S. Boundary Imperial NWR


S. Boundary Imperial NWR

Ferguson Lake/Wash


Ferguson Lake/Wash

Squaw Lake/Senator Wash


Summary Mileage - Picacho to Squaw Lake/Senator Wash


Squaw Lake/Senator Wash

Imperial Dam


Summary Mileage - Miller County Park to Imperial Dam


Imperial Dam

Yuma Proving Ground Boundary


Yuma Proving Ground Boundary

N. Boundary Mittry Lake Wildlife Area


N. Boundary Mittry Lake Wildlife Area

Yuma Proving Ground Boundary


Yuma Proving Ground Boundary

S. Boundary Mittry Lake Wildlife Area


S. Boundary Mittry Lake Wildlife Area

Laguna Dam


Summary Mileage - Imperial Dam to Laguna Dam


Laguna Dam

Laguna Dam South Recreation Area


Laguna Dam South Recreation Area

California/Arizona Boundary


California/Arizona Boundary

Yuma Prison (AZ)/St. Thomas Mission (CA)


Summary Mileage - Laguna Dam to Prison/Mission


Total Miles - Miller County Park to Prison/Mission