WHEN MOST PADDLERS think of the Colorado River in Arizona, visions of Grand Canyon-esque rapids and mile-deep chasms come to mind. But just downstream of the Grand is another remarkable canyon within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson. Straddling the border between Needles, Calif., and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., Topock Gorge is the crown jewel of the 37,515-acre Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, the last remaining untouched natural portion of the lower Colorado River before it reaches the Gulf of California.
Affectionately known as the “Baby Grand,” this 17-mile redrock cleft of sheer volcanic walls, secluded sand beaches and wildlife-filled marshes is a beginner paddler’s nirvana, one of the best T-shirt-and-Tevas escapes you’ll find in the dead of winter.
START HERE: Begin your trip by launching at the full-service Moabi Regional Park (home to Pirate Cove Resort and Marina) in Needles, Calif., just upstream of the Interstate 40 bridge. The campground is located among a grove of cottonwoods and willows, providing a great base from which to start. Camp here before starting your journey; reserve a site for $20.
TRIP LENGTH: Travel 17 to 21 miles, taking one to two days. Novice paddlers can exit the river at the Castle Rock access area at river mile 220 (in Arizona); or continue 4 miles through the northern end of Lake Havasu to Mesquite Bay Central, upstream of Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
GET PADDLING: This section of the Colorado River is considered easy to moderate flatwater, suitable for beginners in canoes or kayaks. The current moves lazily, about 2 to 3 miles per hour, allowing ample time to watch wildlife and gaze at the reddish-orange cliffs rising several hundred feet above the river.
DAY-HIKE ADVENTURES: Once you reach your destination, explore the adjoining Havasu Wilderness Area: nearly 18,000 acres of volcanic spires, a large sand dune and Mojave Desert vegetation — ocotillo and creosote bush and giant saguaro cactus. Picking your way through this harsh terrain, you might see desert bighorn sheep perched atop a ridge overlooking the river or an endangered desert tortoise and Gila monster foraging in a sandy canyon bottom.
BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING: Topock Gorge is limited to day use to minimize disturbances to wildlife. However, primitive canoe camping is available just downstream of the gorge along the California shoreline.
DON’T MISS: The lush river bottoms and adjacent rocky mesas support a tremendous range of plant and animal species, some very rare. Odds are good you’ll bump into beavers ending their nightly patrols, see and hear all manner of birds (318 species have been identified on the refuge), spook mule deer at the water’s edge, and be yipped at by coyotes.
But much more awaits in this distinctive landscape. There is the cold, aquamarine water (havasu means “clear, blue-green water”), the desert stillness and the rock walls of ancient petroglyphs.
Plus, you can explore Lake Havasu City, Ariz., with its famous London Bridge and profundity of artificiality. After spending time here, you’ll be eager to head back into the wilderness.
DID YOU KNOW? The small town of Topock, Ariz., is only about a mile away from the original roadbed of the legendary Route 66. Nearby, you’ll find the Old Trails Arch Bridge, which used to be the old Route 66 bridge featured in the film The Grapes of Wrath, as well as in the opening credits of the movie Easy Rider.
WHEN TO GO: November to March is best, when you’ll find near-solitude, an abundance of migrating birds, and typically perfect paddling and camping temperatures.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, 760-326-3853, fws.gov/refuge/Havasu/; and Moabi Regional Park, 760-326-9000, cms.sbcounty.gov/parks/Parks/MoabiRegionalPark.aspx. Based in Topock, Ariz., Jerkwater Canoe Company (800-421-7803, jerkwatercanoe.com) has a number of offerings to assist paddlers and Scout groups, including canoe rentals and shuttles for day and overnight trips.
An avid paddler, LARRY RICE resides in Buena Vista, Colo., and is a columnist for Canoeroots magazine and a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak magazine.