Trip Number: 12427A
Staff: Holly Wenger
- Hike in scenic desert wilderness areas
- Canoe the quiet, lower Colorado River
- View crystalline, dark night skies
- All meals and camping fees, including Dutch oven delights
- All canoeing equipment
- Shuttle service to get vehicles to the take out
- Opportunity to experience an unique desert ecosystem
Photo: Randy January
The San Andreas Fault slices through southeastern California, marking the collision
of the Pacific and North American continental plates. Although surface evidence
of this notorious fault is largely hidden, reminders of ancient plate tectonic
activity are common place in the region of our trip. This corner of California
contains dramatic volcanic spires and domes, desert pavements, and fault lines,
set in the arid Colorado Desert, where the absence of vegetation lays bare evidence
of past geologic forces. The Little Picacho, Picacho Peak, and Indian Pass Wilderness
Areas, which we will visit or witness, were designated by the Bureau of Land
Management, in part, because of this dramatic geology.
The first part of our trip explores these geologic wonders from the comfort
of a base camp at Picacho State Recreation Area. Our day hikes may include a
slot canyon, a wilderness wash, or a circumnavigation of Picacho Peak to walk
among the spectacular scenery and to enjoy the beautiful natural compositions
created by rock, cactus, and other unusual desert plants.
There’s more than geology present in southeastern California. The Colorado
Desert, an area that receives less than three inches of rain per year, is home
to unique plants and animals. One day hike will take us into the North Algodones
Dunes Wilderness Area. We’ll learn about the conflict between off-highway
vehicle use and the protection of rare desert plants. The wilderness area is
home to Peirson’s milkvetch, a threaten plant under the federal Endangered
The second part of our trip involves a 45-mile paddle down the lower Colorado
River from Walter’s Camp to Squaw Lake. This easy paddle allows us spectacular
views of the three wilderness areas in California and the Trigo Wilderness Area
in Arizona. Several short day hikes are planned to visit abandoned cabins and
to witness interesting geology. At night we might hear the braying of wild burros
that roam the region. The night skies will also offer a stunning display of
stars since there is little to no light pollution.
We will paddle through portions of the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, which
coincides with approximately 30 miles of the lower Colorado River. The canoe
journey concludes with passage along the Arizona Channel, a waterway that parallels
the Colorado River, but prohibits high-speed boat use. This area offers stark
contrasts between the lush riparian environment adjacent to an arid desert ecosystem.
The following is the planned itinerary, but the final hiking locales may change
due to weather, access conditions, leader judgment, or group strengths.
Photo: California Bureau of Land Management
Day 1: Meet at the Picacho State Recreation Area for a hearty
dinner, complete with a Dutch oven treat.
Day 2: We’ll conduct a day hike into Unnamed Wash, which
leads into a slot canyon containing evidence of previous faults. The hike concludes
with a return route that crosses the barren desert landscape of the Colorado
Day 3: Picacho Peak is a spectacular sentinel to geologic
forces that result from the collision of continental plates. Our group will
either circumnavigate the peak or hike to overlooks that allow us peer across
a volcanic landscape.
Day 4: On this transition day we leave the Picacho Peak State
Recreation Area and travel to our canoeing put in, Walters Camp. We’ll
stop at a visitor center established for off-highway vehicle enthusiasts and
hike the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area.
Day 5: Today is our first day of canoeing on the lower Colorado
River with short hikes to visit an abandoned cabin. We’ll camp at the
boat-in camp site at the northern part of the Picacho State Recreation Area.
Day 6: Paddle to the Picacho State Recreation Area boat-in
group campground with side trips to lakes along the Colorado River, if water
level permits entry.
Day 7: The day begins with a short paddle to a hike that leads
to the ruins of a historic cabin and the scant remains of an old mining site.
We’ll dry camp at Ferguson Lake.
Day 8: This day will see us paddling along the Arizona Channel,
a parallel waterway to the Colorado River. Our arrival at Squaw Lake concludes
The meeting place, Picacho State Recreation Area, lies approximately 25 miles
north of Yuma, Arizona. The last 18 miles of Picacho Road are unpaved and all-weather.
The Yuma International Airport has a limited number of arrivals through United
Express and US Airways Express. The San Diego International Airport lies approximately
180 miles west of Yuma and the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport lies
approximately 190 miles east.
Accommodations and Food
The Picacho State Recreation Area group campground, our base camp residence
for the first three days of the trip, has toilets and solar showers. Camping
during the canoe element will be at established boat-in camps found in the Picacho
State Recreation Area, except for the last night when we’ll dry camp at
All meals are provided by the Sierra Club and will be prepared through the
combined efforts of the trip participants. The dinner meal will often feature
something delectable from a Dutch oven. Participants will be contacted prior
to the trip to determine if there are any special dietary restrictions that
need to be accommodated.
The hiking element of Exploring Southeastern California: Hiking and Paddling
the Colorado is rated as moderate with one short strenuous section. Most of
the hiking will be relatively flat, but the sandy washes and loose desert sand
will make for slow walking. The one strenuous stretch occurs on our approximately
four-mile trip around Picacho Peak. Near the end of the hike there is a short
and steep uphill scramble to a saddle, followed by a steep and rocky descent.
The troubles offered by this section are offset by spectacular views.
The canoeing element of this trip is easy, and suitable for beginner paddlers.
We will cover approximately 45 miles from the put-in to the take-out. The lower
Colorado River is slow and lacks rapids. The most strenuous aspect of the paddle
will be the loading and unloading of the canoes, particularly at the canoe group
camp site at Picacho State Recreation Area. Here we will have to carry our gear
approximately 400 feet to the camp site.
Equipment and Clothing
Photo: Randy January
Participants will be required to provide their own camping gear, such as tents,
sleeping bags, and clothing. Canoeing gear, such as canoes, paddles and personal
flotation devices, will be provided. Dry bags will not be provided, although
duffels lined with plastic bags are suitable since there are no rapids on this
stretch of the Colorado River.
If people would like to use their own canoes or other paddling equipment, they
are asked to coordinate with the trip leader to ensure that the boat meets group
USGS quadrangles are not really needed -- we will use the hiking maps provided
by the BLM and Picacho SRA. If you are interested in maps, we will be in a number
of 7.5' CA USGS quadrangles:
- Hiking: Canoeing
- Picacho Peak Little Picacho Peak
- Little Picacho Peak Imperial Reservoir
- Quartz Peak Picacho
- Glamis NW Picacho SW
- Picacho NW
Books: (General and not necessarily specific to the lower
Desert Lore of Southern California by Choral Pepper. Interesting
tidbits and legends.
Pavlik, Bruce, The California Deserts: an Ecological Rediscovery.
Human and natural history.
Collins, Barbara J., Key to Trees and Shrubs of the Deserts of Southern
California (1976). An oldie but still servicable.
Any current bird, animal, plant, insect, star, etc. guides that you want to
Websites: (Not great sites, but they are about all that is
- http://www.imperial.edu/~birds/ Birds of the Imperial Valley (to the west
of our trip area)
- http://www.blm.gov/ca/pa/wilderness/wa/areas/picacho_peak.html Picacho Peak
- http://www.blm.gov/ca/pa/wilderness/wa/areas/indian_pass.html Indian Pass
- http://www.blm.gov/ca/pa/wilderness/wa/areas/little_picacho.html Little
Picacho Wilderness Area
North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area
- http://www.westernmininghistory.com/articles/505/page1/ Picacho Mine History
Photo: California Bureau of Land Management
This trip will allow participants an opportunity to contrast pristine desert
environments found in federally designated wilderness areas with locales that
have been used for activities such as mining and off-road travel. Desert ecosystems
are highly fragile, and once used by humans, show the scars from roads and machinery
for a surprisingly long time.
While we paddle the Colorado River, we will discuss the long history of struggles
over water quality and water usage, both on the U.S. and the Mexican sides of
the border. Besides human use, the river provides life-giving water to many
plant and animal species, including a rich bird fauna, which when tampered with
due to water diversion or increase of particulate matter, can impact the ability
to support various species.
The deserts of the Southwest are currently being eyed for large-acreage, industrial-style
solar energy complexes. Imperial County is home to one such site, to the west
of our trip. The topic of balancing protection of desert species with the need
for renewable energy sources will be of interest to us as we explore the southeastern
corner of California.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Bureau of Land Management.
See the How to Apply for an Outing section for more details on registering for this trip and details
about our Reservation and Cancellation Policy.
The payment of a deposit does not confirm you as a member on the trip. Participants must be approved by the trip leader. After signing up for this trip, you will be sent a confirmation packet containing approval materials (Participant Approval Questionnaire, Medical Form, Liability Release Form). Each applicant (including those on the waitlist) must fill out these forms and promptly mail them to the trip leader. The leader will review the approval materials and notify you of your acceptance in a timely manner.
Holly Wenger has had the privilege of leading a variety of national outings for the Sierra Club since 2002, including canoeing, kayaking, rafting, backpacking and van trips, from the Everglades of Florida to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At home in Sacramento, CA she leads local canoe and kayak trips, and teaches canoeing for the American Red Cross. Holly is still amazed by the beauty of wilderness on every trip, and by the cohesion each group forges as they experience new surroundings. Holly is a Wilderness First Responder. If she's not out paddling, hiking, or enjoying the arts, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Welch, retired from a 32-year career as an archeologist with the Federal government, currently lives in Sacramento, California. He spent 10 years conducting field work throughout Imperial County, the area managed by the Bureau of Land Management in El Centro, California. During the past 20 years Patrick developed an interest in all types of canoeing and is also a certified canoe instructor with the American Red Cross. He can be reached at email@example.com if you can get him off the water.
General Notes About Sierra Club Trips