Leaning cacti and jagged desert peaks frame Arizona’s backcountry; pierced and criss-crossed from north to south by the veins and capillaries of the mighty Colorado River. From the wicked Yuma and Sonoran Deserts to the sprawling valleys of pine and Douglas fir that clad the lands of the Colorado Plateau, this is a land at once startling in its natural majesty and alluring in its ruggedness.
For wildlife lovers and nature enthusiasts traveling the United States, Arizona simply cannot be missed. Not only does the state boast some of the most unique habitats in America, but it’s also home to a kaleidoscope of flora and fauna that can’t be spotted anywhere else in the country. If that whets your appetite, then check out this list of Hopper’s top places to spot wildlife in the state; from the verdant river banks of the east, to the volcanic borderlands of San Bernardino.
Running east to west across Arizona, the Bill Williams River strikes right out of the rugged badlands of the Mojave Desert like a belt of wild greenery. Today it’s perhaps best known as the home of some of the last remaining willow and cottonwood forests along the banks of the Colorado River, providing a unique and rare combination of habitats that are perfect for its various wildlife. Guests here can expect a whole host of indigenous and migratory birds, some coming from as far afield as the Amazon and Mesoamerica, not to mention the iconic bobcats and beavers of Arizona itself.
Since time immemorial the area around the Leslie Canyon and the nearby crater-peppered basin of the Arizonan San Bernardino Valley has been inhabited by humans seeking to cultivate the rich water table and bubbling springs that once issued from hillsides. However, after more than two centuries of intensified agriculture, the region’s natural wealth is all but dried up and many of its native species gone extinct. Consequently, this national wildlife refuge stands as one of the last bastions of protection for creatures like the Yaqui chub fish, the whitetail deer, the Chiricahua leopard frog and more than 250 migratory and resident bird species.
It might be hard to imagine that one of Arizona’s longest standing wildlife refuges is to be found nestled amidst the undulating dunes of the harsh and inhospitable Yuma Desert. But it is. Encompassing more than 600,000 acres of land, the Kofa Reserve is home to some of the last remaining populations of bighorn sheep in the country. They can be found roaming the craggy outcrops and jagged peaks of the Castle Dome and Kofa Mountains, between the lingering ghost towns of Arizona’s mining past and the blooming cacti of the desert.
Situated on the northern fringes of the Sonoran Desert, the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge clings to a thirty-mile long stretch of the Colorado River, blooming like an oasis of greenery between the arid hills and rocky dunes north of Yuma. The site forms one of the most wildlife-rich riparian zones in all of Arizona, with huge populations of river geese and migratory birds at different times of the year. What’s more, just a stone’s throw from the river basin, guests are able to spy out black-tailed jackrabbits moving between the smoke trees, not to mention the elusive bighorn sheep higher up in the hills.
Wildlife seekers coming to the magnificent and sweeping landscapes of the Petrified Forest are in for treat, because this patchwork of grasslands and arid desert rises is home to one seriously formidable array of fauna. However, those hoping for a sighting should be sure to arrive as early as possible, when the smaller crowds have yet to scare away the clusters of pronghorn herds (the fastest land animal in all of North America), marauding coyote packs or jumping black-tailed jackrabbits from the plains.