Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Just east of California-Arizona border lies the hidden wonders of the Kofa Wilderness. If you're hoping to get lost in the solitude and enchantment of Sonoran Desert, then the Kofa Wilderness is the experience you've been seeking.
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 243 miles, 4-6 days
Season: Year round, but October - April is recommended to avoid excessive summer heat. Like most desert routes, avoid dirts roads and washes during and directly after heavy rains.
Technical Rating: Mostly green with some blue sections.
Typical Terrain: Graded dirt and gravel roads, desert washes, and narrow jeep trails with some rocky and mildly technical sections.
Recommended Vehicle: SUV or truck with 4x4
Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s not recommended for the interior jeep trails. You should be able to explore some of the outer perimeter trails like Queen Canyon and Valve Two Road.
Alternative Routes: n/a
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The Kofa Wildlife Refuge was created in 1939 following a campaign by the Boyscouts a few years earlier to create a wilderness refuge for Desert bighorn sheep. Just east of Yuma, Arizona, the refuge encompasses over 660,000 acres, of which nearly 548,000 are protected wilderness (vehicles are not permitted within designated wilderness). In this neck of the Sonoran Desert, the majestic saguaro cactus, which can grow up to 50 feet tall, dominates the land scape. Other species of cacti such as prickly pear, cholla (teddy bear cacti), barrel, and hedgehog cacti can be found throughout the refuge, in addition to California Fan Palms. The Kofa mountains are the volcanic remnants of what were once much larger mountains from the tertiary age, reaching their maximal elevation at Signal Peak (elev 4,877).
While the land was set aside for the sake of wildlife, the Kofa Wilderness (as its commonly referred to) actually gets its name from the King of Arizona gold mine, which would stamp its property with "K of A", which later become synonymous with Kofa. In 1896, Charles Eichelberger discovered gold 22 miles south of Quartzite, in the presently named Kofa mountains. Large amounts of gold and silver were extracted from the Kofa mine, until it was sold in 1910 after the value of the mined ore had dropped significantly in value. A number of other mines in the area, like the Northstar and Big Eye mine were developed following the establishment of the Kofa mine. Some of these mines like Big Eye and Morning Star mine are easily accessible since they're under the jurisdiction of the refuge, while others like the Kofa and Northstar mine are still privately owned (but you can see operations for both while from public property).
Kofa Wilderness is a hidden gem in the American Southwest, and only a 2-3 hour drive from Greater Los Angeles or San Diego. Snowbirds with their campers and RVs flock to the exterior lands within the refuge during the winter months, but few seasonal visitors actually make it into the interior of the Kofa Wilderness. Those seeking the calm and meditative powers of the desert will be rewarded with solitude and the tranquillity of a pristine wilderness in this neck of the Sonoran Desert. And for those who relish in the pioneer history of the old west, well, there's no shortage of that either. Numerous homesteads, mines (some still active), and even a mining museum (Castledome Museum) are featured as discovery points along the Kofa Pioneer Trail. The route begins right at Highway 95, south of Quartzite. Unless you've got a reserve tank, you'll likely want to top of your fuel (an extra jerry can wouldn't be a bad idea either) before heading to the trail. Your first stop and discovery point (DP1) is the spiral labyrinth. Keep heading up the dirt road until you reach the Palm Canyon (DP2) trail head. The canyon features over 100 California fan palms, with the hike being less than 1 miles round trip. Next up is a venture over and up into Queen Canyon. The sheer beauty of the desert really comes out in this portion of the Kofa Wilderness. There are also a number of great places to set up camp along this portion of the route, with many travelers opting to stay at Skull Rock (DP3). The fact that skull rock is blackened from previous visitors deciding it was a good place for a campfire, only adds to the spookiness of it. From Queen Canyon, retrace your tracks back to Highway 95, where you'll head north for a few miles before re-entering the Kofa Wilderness. This portion of the route traverses through the northern reaches of the wildlife refuge with the Kofa mountains directly to your south. Built the same year the refuge was established (1939), the Kofa cabin (DP4) was constructed by the CCC. Some of cabins within the Kofa Wilderness are open and permit visitors to stay in the old cabins (please respect signage that indicates camping is not permitted). The Kofa Overland Trail snakes its way south through rugged backcountry roads and mountains passing the Kofa Monument (DP5), until reaching another historic homestead, Wilbanks Cabin (DP6), which requires a short drive up a dirt road in a desert wash. Only a few miles down the road from the Wilbanks Cabin is the old Hoodoo Cabin (DP7). Make your way north up and over Red Rock Pass, and see if you can spot the old Red Rock Reservoir (a stone dam erected by the CCC) off to your right. This section of the route follows a number of wide dirt roads and for a period leaves the refuge along its eastern border, then heads back west where it meets the old Hovatter Homestead. When DFW took over the property they razed the old Hovatter house and other structures. You'll be able to spot the homestead by the neatly planted rows of saguaro cacti along the old driveway.
By this point, you're deep into the Kofa wilderness, and there's a good chance you may not run into another visitor for days at a time. With humans far and few in this country, keep an eye out for Bighorn sheep, bobcat, and kit fox, all of can be found in the Kofa Wilderness. As you make your way up Engesser Pass, the stark beautify of the volcanic cliffs and mountains comes into full display. Beyond Engesser Pass there are a number of defunct and active mining operations, including the King of Arizona mine (please respect private property). Visitors who want to check out old mining operations history should first pay pilgrimage to the Kofa Pioneer Cemetery (DP11), and then stop by the Evening Star Mine (DP14) and Antares Mining Cabin (DP13), which was recently opened to the public. From the Evening Star Mine, make your way south across the sandy roads as the cross the sloping desert plants that connect the Kofa Mountains to the north, with the Castledome Mountains to the south. Don't be scared to explore the many side roads and canyons as you head into the Castledome mountains. There's some great campsites, some of which can be easily found (like Figuroa Tank and Little White Tanks), while others are more hidden and remote. If you came to Kofa Wilderness for the sake of its pioneer history, then you'll surely need to stop at the Castle Dome Mine Museum and Ghost Town (DP16). Just make sure you call ahead to confirm they're open and the gates are unlocked. The final off road portion of the route travels deep into the Castledome Mountains to the remote Big Eye Mountain. Due to its remoteness, the Big Eye Mine has a number of in-tact structures and is a favorite trip among local 4x4 clubs. The route concludes by descending the Castledome Mountains and burning the pavement of Highway 95 south, until reaching the Yuma Proving Grounds Open Air Tank Museum.
Camping Recommendations Dispersed camping is permitted throughout the Kofa Wilderness. We urge you to take advantage of the near endless supply of incredible campsites the refuge has to offer. In most cases, visitors are permitted to stay in the old cabins managed by the refuge, but if signs indicate otherwise, we ask that you respect the park rules and regulations.
Kofa Queen Canyon
Little White Tanks
Horse Tank (not on the route)
Recommended Points of Interest
DP1 - Spiral Labyrinth
DP2- Palm Canyon
DP3 - Skull Rock
DP4 - Kofa Cabin
DP5 - Kofa Monument
DP6 - Wilbanks Cabin
DP7 - Hoodoo Cabin
DP8 - Red Rock Reservoir
DP9 - Cholla Tank / Charco 4
DP10 - Hovatter Homestead
DP11 - Kofa Pioneer Cemetery
DP12 - King of Arizona Mine
DP13 - Antares Mining Cabin
DP14 - Evening Star Mine
DP15 - Enchanted Cavern
DP16 - Castle Dome Mine Museum
DP17 - Thumb Butte
DP18 - Big Eye Mine
DP19 - Yuma Proving Ground Open Air Tank Museum
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (Neotreks Land Use layer, Gaia base layer)
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