RVers are increasingly combining their love of travel with a love of nature. Accordingly, binoculars and bird guides have become standard equipment for many. Since my wife and I are both avid birders and full-time RVers, and often plan our trips around birding locations, I thought I would share one of our special places for birding.
The Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg, Arizona, is well known to serious birders. It is a riparian wonderland in a harsh, desert environment. It is also a place where a very perverse river behaves like a normal river. To explain; the Hassayampa River for most of its length is a dry, even desiccated stretch of sand looking for all the world like any of the countless washes that mark the Sonoran Desert. But the Hassayampa is a true river; there is always water present. It’s just that the water is deep down in the sand.
The Native Americans who lived near its course called it “the upside down river,” and the name Hassayampa is a rough approximation of the name they gave it in their own language. Early settlers adopted the term, using it to describe people who were deceitful. Settlers in Wickenburg dug a well and marked it with a sign informing anyone tempted to use it that those who drank of the waters of the Hassayampa would never again tell the truth.
A few miles downstream from Wickenburg, the water suddenly appears on the surface, one of only two places along its entire length that it does so. In doing so, it provides sustenance for giant Fremont cottonwood trees and Gooding willows, an environment once common along desert streams but now exceedingly rare. Velvet mesquite fills in the gaps, able to survive with its deep roots in those times when monsoon storms dump stupendous amounts of water on the dry land. When this happens in the desert, raging floods roar down every watercourse in the vicinity, including the Hassayampa.
Some 280 species of birds either stop during their migration or call this lush riparian stretch their home. The southwestern willow flycatcher, increasingly endangered, is found here. Both zone-tailed and common black hawks have been seen perched on dead snags. A Harris’s hawk was seen lazily circling overhead. Yellow-billed cuckoo can be found here along with more common, yet desirable, finds such as bridled titmouse, golden-crowned kinglet and Swainson’s thrush. A rufous-backed robin, normally found nowhere north of Mexico, was seen on several occasions during the 2006-07 winter.
Mammals and reptiles present include the rare and endangered Gilbert’s skinks. Gray foxes, javelinas, mule deer and even cougars have been seen here. One bounded across the entrance road in hot pursuit of a rabbit to the surprise and joy of a photographer who was just entering the preserve. My wife was walking near the picnic grounds a few years ago when a javelina wandered across the trail in front of her.
Longfin dace dart about in the river: tiny, little fish that look like minnows. I can’t help but wonder how they survive the periodic floods or the great blue herons that are frequently seen at the water’s edge. For plant lovers, there are some 340 species that call the preserve home.
This riparian wonderland has a colorful history. In 1986, the owners of the land along the river received a proposal from a sand and gravel company to buy this stretch of the Hassayampa River for their gravel operations. Fortunately for nature lovers everywhere, The Nature Conservancy stepped in and bought 330 acres along the river. In 2004, another 330 acres were donated by the owners to The Nature Conservancy, giving the Hassayampa River Preserve as it is now called 660 acres of critical habitat.
While there is no doubt this riparian stretch of river was known to Native Americans for hundreds of years, the first historical reference to it was when Frederick Brill bought the property in 1871. A four-room structure built in the 1860s stood on the property. Brill used the building as a stagecoach stop while growing fruits and vegetables to sell to surrounding mining communities. He also used a natural spring to create an artificial pond where he could raise carp. The four rooms today serve as the core of the headquarters of the Hassayampa River Preserve. Brill and his stage stop may also have been responsible for the stand of desert fan palms that have furnished nesting opportunities for Gila woodpeckers, northern flickers, hooded and Bullock’s orioles for over 100 years.
A darker aspect of history is found in a small grave just yards from the entrance road to the preserve. Here around 1880 the Barney Martin family was murdered and buried when they attempted to flee the wrath of Charley Stanton, postmaster, storekeeper and thoroughly repugnant individual who had taken over the nearby gold mining town that carried his name. Martin had been a competing storeowner, and Stanton wanted no competition. While everyone in the area suspected Stanton’s hand in the murder, he was never indicted. The crime remains “unsolved.”
The Brill Ranch went through some interesting incarnations before becoming a world-class wildlife preserve. In 1913, it became one of the first dude ranches, with the curious name of “The Garden of Allah.” Later it carried the more prosaic name of the “Lazy RC Ranch” while still a guest ranch. Under the stewardship of The Nature Conservancy, the Hassayampa River Preserve has become one of Arizona’s hallmark destinations for birders and nature lovers in general. As is typical in the desert southwest, periodic floods rework the riparian area, uprooting trees, cutting new channels, and renewing the precious riverbank so that the cottonwood and willow seeds can sprout and grow. In that sense, no matter how often you visit, the preserve always seems to offer a new face.
Five trails, each approximately a half-mile in length, lead into different parts of the preserve. Each offers a unique perspective and each offers different opportunities for viewing birds, mammals, reptiles and even fish. The Lykes Lookout trail, named after the couple that sold the land to The Nature Conservancy, climbs up onto a rocky knoll, allowing a bird’s eye view of the preserve and the surrounding Hassayampa Canyon. Two other trails wander along stretches of the river while a third starts in a classic mesquite bosque but then enters an area of towering Fremont cottonwoods. The Palm Lake trail goes completely around the pond Frederick Brill once used for raising carp. Today, the pond serves as home to a variety of ducks, herons and an occasional egret. The rufous-backed robin was most frequently seen in the vicinity of the pond and during the fall, swamp sparrows, far from their normal range, were identified in the reeds.
A picnic area near the headquarters offers a quiet setting for lunch, if you can put your binoculars down long enough to eat. Once, as my wife and I tried to wolf down a sandwich there, we saw a canyon wren, house wren and Bewick’s wren all on the same bush. Northern cardinals flit through dense undergrowth, surprising you as to how a bright red bird can be all but invisible. Abert’s towhees compete with spotted and occasional green-tailed towhees in the leafy litter. If you bring a picnic, you may even be lucky enough to see a gray fox enjoying the fruit falling from the Mexican fan palms.
If you’ve never spent time in a southwestern desert, it may seem odd that so much is made over flowing water, and you may chuckle that they call it a river when it is just a trickle of water that you can jump across or wade across without getting your socks wet. But when you become acquainted with just how dry southwestern deserts can be, and the prodigious efforts plants and animals make just to survive, you’ll no doubt join me in thinking of the Hassayampa River more in terms of a miracle.
The best times to visit the Hassayampa River Preserve are the times RVers are most likely to be in Arizona: fall, winter and spring. Fall and spring are best because in addition to Southwestern resident birds, many other species migrate through. Early summer can be hot, but that’s also when you are most likely to see such delightful treats as hooded orioles and summer tanagers. While you can’t take your rig into the preserve (there simply isn’t room in the parking area for big rigs), the nearby town of Wickenburg has three RV parks. Escapees can make use of North Ranch in Congress, about 15 miles from the preserve.
If you are new to birding or even if you are an old pro with a life list in the stratosphere, you will find the Hassayampa River Preserve to be a wonderful place to bird. And if your significant other can’t be bothered by our fine-feathered friends, there’s still plenty to see and do at the preserve.
Gerald C. Hammon is a writer and full-time RVer.
If You Go
The Hassayampa River Preserve is located on U.S. Highway 60 approximately three miles south of Wickenburg, Arizona. The entrance is at the 114-mile marker on that highway. A large AMBER Alert sign is on the northbound side of the divided highway close to the entrance.
The preserve is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday fall, winter and spring. Trails close at 4:30 p.m. Summer days and hours may vary. Call (928) 684-2772 for information.
Entrance fees are $5; under 12 free. Members of The Nature Conservancy are admitted for $3.
Wickenburg is roughly an hour’s drive from Phoenix on U.S. 60. RV parks include Desert Cypress RV & MH Park (866-765-8650), Horsepitality RV Park (928-684-2519) and Palm Drive RV & MH Park (928-684-2376.)
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