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Bill Williams River near Lake Havasu offers a different look at Arizona’s waters

“This is as close to natural as what you’re going to see anymore in the Southwest river system.”
Updated: Jun. 11, 2022 at 10:17 PM MST
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LAKE HAVASU, AZ (Arizona Highways TV) -- When you think of the Lake Havasu area, speed boats, jet skis, and fast times are probably what come to mind. But just 20 minutes south of Highway 95, you’ll find a totally different kind of action on the water.

“This is as close to natural as what you’re going to see anymore in the Southwest river system,” Dick Gilbert of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said of the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge. Further back, you’ll discover a type of habitat that’s virtually lost in Arizona.

“The minute you get off-road and you go starting back into the refuge, it’s a completely different area,” Lorraine West, who has a special connection to this land, said. “It becomes like a microcosm. It’s tiny. It’s small. And the water just flows through there and the trees come on down, so the life that you see is everywhere -- the hummingbirds, the big birds, the storks. “Everything is just right there and you can see it all the time. When you’re there, you can see nature in all its glory, it just blossoms back there

With its canopies of cottonwood and willow trees, it’s a particularly important place to John and Lorraine West. She is the great-granddaughter of Ramone Escara who homesteaded the area. That was more than a century ago when steamboats ran up and down this part of the Colorado River.

The refuge sits on more than 6,000 acres with hundreds of different species of mammals, butterflies, and reptiles. “We’ve recorded 355 species of birds on the refuge, and there are very few places in the state of Arizona that can rival that,” Gilbert said.

Because of where the refuge is located, you’ll even see saguaros growing among the cottonwoods. “We sit in a transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, so we are presented with plants and animals from both those deserts.”

Even more amazing? What you see today along the Bill Williams River is a snapshot of what the area looked like 200 years ago. “This refuge is a representation of what the entire Colorado River system looked like historically -- before the area was settled, developed, before the dams were built, manned for water, before the floodplain was cleared for farming.”

“Bill Williams was a mountain man who explored and trapped in this area back in the mid-1800s,” Gilbert continued. “[He] took off on his own as a missionary originally and became a trapper and guide. The refuge was initially established in 1941, and we’ve added pieces to that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. But the most significant thing is the construction of Alamo Dam 40 miles upstream.”

When the cottonwoods and willows seed, floodwaters are released from the dam to create new seed beds, allowing the habitat to rejuvenate.

“With periodic flood comes change in the whole landscape at times,” Gilbert explained. “What is a trail today that we can drive on may be the main river channel tomorrow so it’s constantly changing. You’re going to find something different every time you come out on the refuge.”