You might be surprised to find a lush river ecosystem in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, the hottest and driest in the United States, a land of prickly cacti and specially adapted plants and animals. But that's exactly what you get in this Wilderness. The lower Colorado River, the boundary between California and Arizona, has many backwater lakes varying in size from one-half acre to 700 acres. Here, the Imperial Refuge Wilderness was established within the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge to preserve all forms of life found in the lower Colorado River region. The Wilderness stretches along both sides of the river in Arizona and California. A portion of the Wilderness also extends into Arizona.
When enough rain falls the desert bursts into stunning bloom: yellow paloverde, lavender smoke trees and ironwood, pink beavertails, red prickly pears, and purple and gold bellyflowers (so named because you must lie on your belly to appreciate these small blossoms). Mule deer come to drink from the river beside great blue herons while desert bighorn sheep watch from multihued hills nearby. Gambel's quail are ubiquitous, and wild burros can be seen from time to time. Resident and migratory birds are abundant. Beavers inhabit the waters, which may contain a few of the endangered Colorado squawfish--sometimes known to reach five feet in length.
Backwater lakes attract anglers who fish, typically with great success, for largemouth and striped bass. With a canoe you can put in at the upper boundary for easy paddling down to Martinez Lake Marina at the lower end. Because no overnight camping is allowed in the Wilderness, you'll have to camp at Picacho State Recreation Area on the California side. Hikers who wander into the Wilderness must carry plenty of water, a map, and a compass; each year, a few careless visitors get into jams that result in costly search-and-rescue operations.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Imperial Refuge Wilderness.
Take Highway 95 north from Yuma, Arizona or south from Quartzite, Arizona. Turn (west) onto Martinez Lake Road for 10 miles. Turn right (north) onto Red Cloud Mine Road. Follow the brown refuge signs approximately 3.5 miles to the Visitor Center for additional information and orientation to public use opportunities on the wilderness areas.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
California Desert Protection Act of 1994 - Public Law 103-433 (10/31/1994) "California Desert Protection Act of 1994" An Act to designate certain lands in the California Desert as wilderness, to establish the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, to establish the Mojave National Preserve, and for other purposes.
The Imperial Refuge Wilderness is open to public use. For additional information about visiting the wilderness areas of Imperial National Wildlife Refuge please contact the Refuge office (928)783-3371.
- Horseback Riding
- Wildlife Observation
- Wildlife Photography
- Camping and fires are not permitted on Imperial National Wildlife Refuge.
- It is illegal to remove, deface, or damage rocks, minerals, semi-precious stones, Native American artifacts, paleontological objects, or objects of antiquity.
- Collecting, possessing, molesting, disturbing, injuring, destroying, removing, or transporting any plant or animal or part thereof (alive or dead) is prohibited, except for legally taken game.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Imperial National Wildlife Refuge is in the Sonoran Desert which can be dangerously hot and dry. Summer temperatures can reach well over 110 degrees. Be sure you are prepared for desert survival, especially during the hotter months of the year.
Safety and Current Conditions
Be sure to carry and drink plenty of water at all times of the year, use sunscreen, wear light-colored clothing and hat, and wear rugged shoes or boots.
Watch out for stinging insects, venomous reptiles, and thorny plants. Avoid putting your hands and feet under rocks or into crevices and plants, and watch where you step or sit.
Portions of the Imperial Refuge Wilderness are in historic mining districts. There are numerous abandonded shafts and adits in these locations. All abandonded mines are extremely dangerous and are closed to the public. Many are not covered, so please watch where you walk to avoid vertical shafts or vents.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.