November 22 - November 29, 1995

Bighorn Hangout

B y  K e v i n  F r a n k l i n

Out There

WHEN ARIZONANS TALK about bighorn sheep, the Kofa Mountains inevitably come up. Up to 1,000 bighorns live in these western Arizona mountains commanding the terrain between Quartzsite and Yuma on Highway 95.

Ironically, the health and size of the population may be due in part to the fact they were occasionally bombed and shelled by the U.S. Army. The Yuma Proving Grounds, a testing and training area for men and equipment, border the Kofa Mountains. As bighorn populations around the state tumbled, these sheep were able to maintain a large and stable population because of the security and enforced remoteness of this mountainous area. In 1939 more than 660,000 acres of the Kofa Mountains were set aside as a bighorn refuge. Now, as a designated wildlife refuge under the administration of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these mountains serve as bastion for the sheep.

The Kofa Mountains were originally known as the Shit House Mountains (generally seen as S.H. on maps) because of the presence of many slanted slopes adjacent to larger peaks that, to some eyes, resemble outhouses.

In 1963 "Kofa" was officially submitted as a substitute by the U.S. Geological Survey, Byrd Howell Granger writes in Arizona's Names.

Kofa comes from an abbreviation for the King of Arizona Mine, located in these mountains. Apparently the mine name appealed to the Fish and Wildlife folks more than Shit House National Wildlife Refuge.

The stable population of sheep from this area is regularly culled for transplantation into other parts of Arizona and the Southwest.

But don't limit the grandeur of the Kofa Mountains merely to its ungulates. The remoteness of these mountains has allowed a rich variety of Sonoran Desert flora and fauna to flourish as well, says Mike Hawkes, assistant refuge manager.

I've come here to see one oddity in particular--Arizona's only indigenous palm tree, Washingtonia Arizonica.

Palm Canyon, on the northwestern flank of the Kofas, harbors one of the few populations of this 30-foot wonder. The palm survives here because of the combination of geology and climate. Palm Canyon runs north-south and stretches less than 20 feet across in some places. The narrow canyon traps humidity and permits the passage of direct sunlight for only a few hours a day. Couple that with a climate that never dips below freezing, and you have a micro-habitat that allows the palms to survive in a region that would otherwise dry them out like worms on a hot sidewalk.

To see these palms, and other aspects of the Kofa Mountains, I once again tag along with UA Society for Earth Science students. Lately the Out There gang seems joined at the hip with the geology club, but when you have a good group of knowledgeable people going to interesting places, why deviate?

Outside Palm Canyon, near vertical cliff-faces of rhyolite and compacted volcanic ash greet us. We head up the canyon on a rocky trail, keeping an eye out for palms. A half-mile up the trail, we spot the first of them climbing up a steep side-canyon.

Ahhh, that looks good, we all say to each other. There must be some tremendous groves farther up the canyon, we decide, and trudge forward. Before long the going gets fairly tough--we start having to scramble over boulders and up an ever-steeper trail. After a difficult mile, the canyon opens up. As the sheer granite walls climb up around us and an impressive view unfolds below, it becomes clear to us that the side canyon (that's the one way downslope, back over all those boulders and mini-cliffs) must be the primary palm habitat.

Oh well, people with good directions rarely find cool places they weren't looking for. As the shadows are now growing long and our hungers large, we head out to make camp and plan to return the next day.

The next morning, with a fresh start and a clear course of action in mind, we make a beeline for Palm Canyon, not Nice-View-Worth-The-Hike-But-Not-Where-We-Meant-To-Go Canyon. Today we notice a little sign, presumably pointing us in the direction of Palm Canyon. Though the brown sign with no writing and just an arrow pointing to a dot in a generally upward direction could mean anything from 'full moon tonight' to 'this way to Orphan Annie's blank eyeball.'

This place was once known as Fish Tail Canyon, Granger writes, because a giant crest of rock splits the canyon in half at its lower end. Hikers want to take the right fork while spiders and real estate developers should take the deadly left fork.

Though a tough climb, the lower half of the canyon is doable by anyone of moderate athletic ability. Resolute hikers can make it all the way to the end of the canyon. Climbing gear is suggested for attempting to climb out of the canyon onto the mountain top.

In the canyon, there are only about 40 palm trees. All of these are charred black from a fire that raged here in 1954, says Hawkes.

No palms have obtained much height since then, and only a few small ones poke out here and there.

"The fire in '54 removed the fronds from the ground," says Hawkes. "These fronds provide protection for the new palms by protecting them from the sun and trapping additional humidity."

Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have every confidence the trees will rejuvenate their numbers now that more fronds cover the ground.

Maybe so, but hikers in the canyon need to be aware of the tiny seedlings on the ground below as they march amidst towering parents of that new generation. After seeing several palms had been partially trampled, I built a small rock circle around one that was in the center of the de facto trail.

After getting our fill of palm trees, we head back down the trail to camp, eager to explore the southerly section of the Kofa Mountains this afternoon and tomorrow.

We'll get to that next week.

Getting There

The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is located east of the Colorado River and North of Yuma. The most direct means of reaching Palm Canyon is to take Interstate 10 west to Highway 95. Take Highway 95 south 18 miles and keep a sharp eye out for the dirt road heading east, nine miles into the Wildlife Refuge. The road is marked as Palm Canyon Road and, though rough, is navigable by almost any passenger vehicle. Follow that road to its end and begin hiking into the canyon.

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The Smoky Mountains

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November 22 - November 29, 1995

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