Wilderness Hiking with a Jeep Rubicon
Our scarce information on the Kofa Wilderness in southwestern Arizona indicted no reliable water, no trails and access only on minimally maintained Jeep trails.
We rented a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and spent a week jolting south on rough “cherry stem” (exempted from wilderness) roads transecting the area; stopping for 1-2-night backpack trips into the interior, packing most necessary water (about 4 liters per person).
If we did it again—especially in a time like December 2018 after abundant fall rains—we’d do a backpack loop and forgo the expensive Jeep.
The name “KOFA” is from the King of Arizona Mine on southwest end of the wilderness which scoured area for precious mineral deposits in early 1900s; old tracks and mining sites remain. The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 to protect Arizona’s largest desert bighorn sheep population. Concrete dams, windmills and water tanks were built in 1940s and 1950s. Some have been allowed to deteriorate, others are maintained by the refuge staff for wildlife water needs. About 82% (550,000 of 667,000 acres) of the Refuge were designated wilderness in 1990, making it the second largest wilderness in Arizona. (Largest is Cabeza Prieta, another wildlife refuge made wilderness in the same law.)
We entered from New Hope I-10 interchange on northeast end, driving southwest on 92 miles of jeep roads over 7 days and making six short trips into wilderness. We wore orange vests as area was open for bighorn sheep hunting in December; but we only saw 2 pickups sporting bow-hunting logos parked near a spring. We saw no people on our backcountry forays and only a few groups out “jeeping” over the week.
Heavy October rains produced abundant green grass, bright yellow brittlebush blooms, a few other flowers, water pools in rocky wash sections, recharged springs and very gnarly wash crossings for our vehicle. Although we packed enough water for overnight trips, there was ample water for all but two (McPherson and Courthouse loops on map). We hiked old closed mining roads, bighorn sheep routes or washes that allowed loops and offered some day hikes. A jeep route from Bighorn Pass in center of wilderness shown to dead end on map connected nicely to Kofa Queen Canyon Road on west side of the wilderness (via a wash and some old tracks). Had we planned better, we would have continued on the Kofa Queen road to Ten Ewe Canyon and a cairn-marked route to Signal Peak, highest in the wilderness at 4,877 feet.
We saw sheep, deer and antelope tracks but no wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services receptionist in Yuma said recent rain, abundant water and a few hunters had sheep scattered throughout the refuge and not congregating at water holes.
We finished by hiking the only official trail in the Kofa—a one-mile climb to Palm Canyon to view native palms growing high up a narrow northwest facing canyon; revisiting a hike we did in 1995 with our young daughter. We did not recall the steep scramble (on “social trail” beyond the viewpoint) up to the palms. The improved road to the trailhead had attracted about a dozen day hikers plus several “dispersed” trailer campers along the road. (Near Quartzite and on toward Wickenburg are homesites for thousands of “snowbirds” wintering in the desert in large condo neighborhoods or camped in RVs in private parks or on public lands). The Kofa Queen jeep route departs from the Palm Canyon road.
In retrospect, one could forego using a jeep and start from Palm Canyon Road to hike Kofa Queen Mine Road towards Bighorn Pass on Wilbanks Road, then loop through washes and roads. It would be easy to connect several of our short trips. A look at our hiking routes and maps may suggest other options for exploring this vast lonely wilderness.
Good summer monsoon or fall rains will ensure ample water in potholes for winter backpacking; but don’t expect this after a dry summer/fall. The Kofa is too hot and dry for backpacking from about March through October.
The map available from Kofa National Wildlife Refuge shows the major “cherry-stem” roads excluded from wilderness but few closed routes. (Phone Refuge headquarters 928-738-7861 for free map.) Topographic maps and GPS are also needed to find good routes.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVAGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)