Kofa National Wildlife Refuge spans 665,400 acres of remote desert between the cities of Quartzsite and Yuma in the southwest corner of Arizona. Though its rugged terrain primarily attracts wildlife enthusiasts, hikers, and photographers, rockhounds scour the Crystal Hill Area for quartz during the day, while stargazers turn their attention skyward after dark.
Whether you're wanting to avoid the crowds at the state's other nationally-managed lands and parks, or you're just looking to chase a magnificent sunset, here's how to plan your visit to Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
History of Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
Before Charles E. Eichelberger discovered gold in 1896, few people ventured into what would become the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. His mine, the King of Arizona, wasn’t as successful as some others in the state, but it produced enough gold and silver during its heyday that a town of about 300 sprung up to support it. Because workers stamped mine property with the initials “K of A,” the town adopted the name Kofa.
Mining flourished in the area for the next two decades, but as returns diminished, the mines closed—including the King of Arizona, which ceased operations in 1939. Around the same time, the desert bighorn sheep population began to dwindle locally, and conservationists took note.
As honorary President of the Arizona Boy Scouts, Major Frederick R. Burnham held a “Save the Bighorns” poster contest, gave talks at school assemblies, and promoted radio dramatizations. The campaign worked, and land was set aside for a wildlife refuge in 1939.
Conservation efforts had to be put on hold during World War II, when tanks and infantry under General George S. Patton, Jr. trained for battle in the area. Despite several clean-ups, you can still find unexploded ordinances, mineshafts, and other mine-related hazards in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
What to Do There
From spotting free-ranging Sonoran pronghorns to hunting for quartz crystals, here are the top things to do in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
Take a Scenic Drive
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge’s two mountain ranges—Castle Dome and Kofa—make dramatic subjects for photographers, but you don’t need a camera to appreciate the area’s striking beauty. Simply take one of the five maintained dirt roads leading into the wildlife refuge from US Highway 95. Pipeline Road (mile marker 95) is the only one that traverses the wildlife refuge’s entire width; meanwhile, King Valley Road (mile marker 76) takes you into the mining district, where you can see the King of Arizona Mine and abandoned buildings. Several unmaintained dirt roads venture further into the wildlife refuge, but you will need a 4-wheel drive to navigate them.
Despite its rugged landscape and harsh climate, Kofa National Wildlife Refuge has abundant wildlife and is a popular place to see desert creatures in their natural habitat. On a visit, you’re most likely to glimpse jack rabbits, lizards, rattlesnakes, and desert bighorn sheep; however, it's not uncommon to see mountain lions, coyotes, bats, or desert tortoises. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is also one of the few places in the world you can glimpse free-ranging Sonoran pronghorns.
Similarly, birders can spot up to 193 documented species throughout the refuge, including white-winged doves, Gambel’s quails, golden eagles, canyon wren. Look for birds at watering holes, near dry washes, tucked in narrow canyons, or in trees surrounding stock tanks such as Charco 4 and Cholla Tank.
Hiking is another favorite pastime in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, even though it technically has only one designated trail: Palm Canyon Trail. This steep, rocky trail begins at the end of Palm Canyon Road and cuts a half mile into the canyon, where you can see California fan palms, the only native palm species in Arizona.
The hike will take about an hour round trip, but do allow an additional 30 to 45 minutes to scramble up to the actual palms before turning back. To get to the trailhead, turn on Palm Canyon Road (mile marker 85) and continue 7.1 miles to the parking lot.
Although Palm Trail Canyon is the park's only official trail, you can hike anywhere in the wildlife refuge as long as you do not enter mines or any posted closed areas.
Search for Quartz Crystals
While mining the gold and silver that brought miners into the area more than 100 years ago is long gone, recreational rockhounding is permitted within the 1.5-square-mile Crystal Hill Area, off Pipeline Road. Collectors search primarily for quartz crystals in the area’s washes and on the rocky slopes of Crystal Hill; regardless of what you find, you’re limited to 10 specimens or 10 pounds (whichever occurs first) within a 12-month period.
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is located 18 miles south of where Interstate 10 passes through Quartzsite, and 40 miles north of Yuma. To get to the wildlife refuge from Interstate 10, take US Highway 95 south towards Yuma and turn left onto one of the maintained dirt roads at mile marker 85, 92, 85, 76, or 55. All five roads will take you into the wildlife refuge. From Yuma, head north on US Highway 95 towards Quartzsite and enter at the same mile markers.
You can pick up maps and brochures from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at the Visitor Center in Yuma. The wildlife refuge itself is open all year, and no entrance fee is required.
Tips for Visiting Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
- No services are available inside the wildlife refuge, so make sure you have a full tank of gas, plenty of water, snacks, and a map before entering. Cell phone service may be limited or unavailable.
- Certain areas within the refuge are designated off limits to protect wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn. Mines are also off limits. Watch for signs.
- Because tanks and infantry trained in the area during World War II, it is possible to find unexploded ordinances. If you discover any, do not handle, and report immediately to the refuge.
- The best time to view wildlife is at sunrise and sunset; the worst times are summer afternoons and windy days. Bring binoculars, and keep a safe distance from wildlife.
- Camping is permitted for up to 14 days within a 12-month period. While you can select your own campsite anywhere in the refuge, vehicles must remain within 100 feet of the road. Two cabins are also available on a first come, first served basis. No reservations or fees are required.
- Campfires are permitted in Kofa National Wildlife Refuge; however, you can only use dead wood, which is limited onsite. The US Fish & Wildlife Service recommends you bring your own firewood if you want to have a campfire.
- Hunting for desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, cottontail rabbit, quail, fox, and coyote is allowed with proper licenses and permits in designated areas within the wildlife refuge.