Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Kofa and Imperial National Wildlife Refuges

After camping in Yuma for eight days, we had one final day trip. On our last day, we went to two national wildlife refuges north of Yuma. Our first stop was at the Kofa Refuge, which stretches for 40 miles across the desert. We entered at the most southern entrance, and our paved road quickly turned to gravel. We would drive over ten miles down this road towards our destination. The picture below has the iconic Castle Dome centered down that dusty road.

When the four-wheel-drive road got too rough for our Honda CRV, we parked and took out on foot.

At 3,780 feet, Castle Dome can be seen even in Yuma, and it is the most prominent peak in the area. So of course we turned our hiking boots in that direction.

We hiked a mile up a dry wash, then headed straight up the mountain face in front of us. We have the good camera with us today, and we are ready to see one of the desert big-horn sheep that call the Kofa Refuge home. Estimated to have 400 sheep here, we are hiking up high where they live.

We saw fresh sheep poop, and plenty of hoof prints in the sand, and we have our eyes peeled.

That's when we spotted something on the side of the mountain.

Mark picked up the big-horn sheep skull, surprised at how heavy it was. These guys get a major workout, just lugging those horns around!

We were also surprised at how stinky this skull was. It was filled with stagnate rain water that smelled awful! Mark would have liked to use his hand to close his nose, but he needed both hands to hold up this heavy skull.

We also spotted one of the tallest ocotillo we have ever seen on the side of our mountain. All the rain in this area has certainly made the cacti green this year.

There are no trails here, but hikers are allowed to go wherever they want. So we were looking for the easiest path to the top. We opted for scrambling over the boulders, rather than slipping on the loose small rock called scree.

Denisa is wondering if this climb was a good idea. But she kept going just to see what we could see from the top.

We're not at the top of castle dome, but we did get to the summit of this little mountain. That spire we had seen when we started up this steep climb seemed considerably larger once we were standing next to it.  Denisa is standing at the base of the spire, but you'll have to look close to find her.

Once over the lip of this mountain, we could look down into the valley on the other side. Somehow, the obvious shape of Castle Dome has disappeared at this angle.

Of course, Mark found a higher spot to scramble up even further. So he took a picture of Denisa by the the highest spire she was inspired to climb to. From this angle, we can see the valley where our car is parked far, far below.

We're a little sad to know that this is our last tangerine hike of the season. We normally take a half dozen pieces of fruit with us, and it's a great source of energy while quenching our thirst. So we sat in the shade of that tall spire and enjoyed our last tangerine summit, while plotting our strategy for getting down off this thing.

We opted to go down a different face of this peak, hoping it would have less scree and be less steep. We have developed a method of linking arms that makes both of us more stable when we go down a steep and perilous slope. Mark leads the way, and Denisa holds his arm. We have found that having four feet on the ground makes both of us more stable. The extra pressure on his arm saves Mark from falling forward, and Denisa is more stable by having Mark linked in front to catch her. It's amazing how our system has gotten us off a lot of peaks, and it was working again this day.

When we finally got down to flatter terrain, Denisa could once again look around for the signs of spring around us. We found our first wildflower bloom of the day. It was a small solace, since we didn't get to see any live desert big-horn sheep.

We also revisited a cactus friend at the end of our hike. This teddy bear cholla is also known as the jumping cactus. We could see many branches that had made the jump, and were laying on the ground. That's how this plant reproduces. It hopes that one of those jumpers will land in such a way that it will make contact with the soil and root to produce a new plant.

When we got back to the car, our legs felt like jello. Even though Castle Dome had disappeared when we were looking for it, and the desert sheep had evaded us, we had a good hike today. As we drove back down the gravel road, we looked back to see that Castle Dome appeared once more.

Our legs were tired, but we still had plenty of daylight for another stop today. So we made the drive to the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge as well. We stopped in at the visitor center just before they closed, to get the best advice from the volunteer working there. She recommended first a stop at the Martinez Lake, then to one of the overlooks to see the Colorado River making its way through the refuge.

Then she suggested we drive three miles over more rugged dirt roads to the park's Painted Desert Trail.

True to its name, the hills are "painted" from their different mineral content. The trail was a 1.3 mile loop that took us up and down these painted hills. Our legs weren't sure they had given us permission for another hike today.

The sun was low in the sky by now, lighting up the red rocks. We had hoped to see some of the wild burros that reside in this national refuge. But like the sheep, they have eluded us as well.

Denisa found this golden wildflower casting a long shadow as we finished the last of our hikes for the day. This is our last day in the Yuma area, and we've enjoyed some beautiful days in the desert. But now we're ready to head further west down the road tomorrow.