Cooling It On The Colorado
Heading up the Colorado River on the Arizona side, between Parker and Lake Havasu City, we ascend through leathery looking mountains to reach a pair of Arizona State Parks called Buckskin Mountain and River Island, both of them right on the river. River Island is the park where we have reservations, but Buckskin Mountain is where we really want to stay.
We checked for availability at Buckskin when we got there – it’s currently “off-reservation,” meaning it’s first-come, first-served – and sure enough, we were able to swap our reservation for a great full-hookup site near the river. You would think that camping at the side of a major river would keep you cool, but it looked like we were in for two more days of 116-plus degrees. The heat didn’t stop the boaters, swimmers, and campers from enjoying the outdoors;
for others, the river afforded its own solution for beating the heat!
This Ranger Is No Stranger
The real reason we picked this particular state park campground wasn’t for its beautiful views at this bend in the Colorado River, although that would have been reason enough. Buckskin Mountain is the new home of an old friend, Ranger Marlo Buchmann, whom we came to know and love from Kartchner Caverns State Park, an amazing place where we twice volunteered a few years ago.
Marlo was the Volunteer Coordinator at Kartchner, where she trained us, along with scores of other volunteers and all the state park rangers at Kartchner, to become cave tour guides! Over the course of a 40-hour class and follow-up mentoring, Marlo turned all of us into virtual geologist-historian-biologist-entertainers, for the education and enjoyment of cave visitors at Kartchner.
More importantly, Marlo was the heart and soul of the Kartchner Caverns community of staff and volunteers, and it’s difficult to imagine Kartchner without her. But the good news is that Buckskin Mountain is now blessed with Marlo’s enthusiasm and positive energy… Kartchner Caverns’ loss is Buckskin Mountain’s gain!
Ordinarily, Buckskin Mountain State Park would be booked solid at this time of year, but the campground had been taken off reservation to allow for scheduled maintenance and upgrades to the campsites. The work hadn’t started yet, so all the campsites were available, first-come, first-served. As a result, the park was far less busy and less crowded than it normally would have been during the first week in June. That gave us a chance to spend more time catching up with Marlo for the two days we were there. We were delighted to find her in great spirits, and to learn that she has already become Buckskin Mountain’s volunteer coordinator and interpretive specialist!
We were able to hang out with Marlo in the Visitor Center, where the air conditioning brought the temperatures into the 80s… just about the way we remember it inside the cave at Kartchner Caverns, but without the humidity!
Dam The Colorado!
Unlike Kartchner Caverns State Park, Buckskin Mountain doesn’t have space for the Park Rangers to live, so when Marlo goes “home” after work, it’s to Lake Havasu State Park, about half an hour up river. Lake Havasu was created when the Parker Dam was built in 1938.
A few years ago, we visited Lake Havasu City, home to the London Bridge… yes, the actual London Bridge that spanned the River Thames in England for over 130 years! How the London Bridge came to be in Arizona… and how we came to see it there, next to an English village that claims to be part of London England… is a story for another day.
Meanwhile, we hadn’t visited the dam that made Lake Havasu possible until now. Located only a few miles up the Colorado from Buckskin Mountain, Parker dam was built just after Hoover Dam was being opened upstream on the Colorado.
It turns out that Parker Dam was built by the same people who built the Hoover dam, a consortium of builders called Six Companies. Although it is much smaller in width than Hoover Dam, and Lake Havasu’s capacity is far less than Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, Parker Dam is the deepest dam in the world! We were hoping that there would be a visitor center similar to the one we saw at Glen Canyon Dam a few years ago, and possibly a tour of the dam, but we found nothing like that.
Instead, we had to settle for a few photos of Parker Dam, a peek at Lake Havasu on the other side, a few informative Bureau of Reclamation signs and some shots of the Colorado downriver.
Viewing spots along the dam where you could get a good look at Lake Havasu are now closed to the public for security reasons, another sad reminder of the age we live in.
From a Wild River to a Desert Garden
Before the Hoover and Parker Dams were built nearly eighty years ago, the Colorado was one of the wildest, most unpredictable and dangerous rivers in North America, draining seven US states and two Mexican states. It simultaneously provided the water of life, and the means of sudden death and catastrophe, for practically every living thing throughout the southwest. Its wild nature would have precluded a recreational park like Buckskin Mountain, but today, the Colorado has been tamed by fifteen dams along its main stem, along with hundreds more on its many tributaries.
In addition to its primary attraction as a recreational water park, Buckskin Mountain features interesting interpretive features for visitors, including a Cactus Garden and sanctuary for a Desert Tortoise! We stopped by on our way out of the park to see both, but the Desert Tortoise was wisely avoiding the heat of the day.
If you visit Buckskin Mountain, be sure to look for the Tortoise around sundown when he’s likely to come out of hiding… but don’t get too close to the cacti!
Rest Stop, Pit Stop or Destination
We’ve traveled across the country from coast to coast fifteen times since 2008, so we’re no strangers to crossing the California-Arizona border, but we’ve actually camped on the Colorado River only twice. Last year, we stayed at Mayflower Regional Park for an overnight stop on our way to New York.
For this trip around the Southwest, we had a few destinations in Arizona, but still needed to make some overnight stops along the way. Since we wanted to reconnect with Ranger Marlo, we decided to stay two nights at Buckskin Mountain.
Our findings: whether you need an overnight stop on the way to somewhere else, or you want to make the Colorado River your “vacation destination,” you won’t go wrong choosing Buckskin Mountain State Park. There’s plenty to see and do, both at the park and in the area.
And while you’re there at Buckskin, be sure to ask for Ranger Marlo… and tell her Cookie the Travelin’ Dog sent you!