The biggest mistake that visitors to Lake Havasu City make is packing swimming trunks and fishing poles but leaving the hiking boots at home. Yes, people come for the water. But for hikers like me, this sliver of real estate is one of the most intriguing in Arizona. Here the desert crashes against the sea creating a unique and haunting habitat, one that begs to be explored by foot.
I’m a man who likes to walk around this remarkable state. An avid hiker, I top the 1,000-mile mark many years (1,212 miles of Arizona trails in 2018). Hiking is great exercise for both body and spirit. It provides intimate access to the texture and character of the state. Along the trail, I savor diverse scenery, wildlife, wildflowers, ever-changing light, dramatic skies, broad panoramas and intimate details. Plus, I love to walk off a few calories so that I can pack them on later with a juicy burger. That’s a big win-win!
While hiking opportunities abound throughout Arizona, it’s always my pleasure to roll into this lakeside town and prowl the network of trails. If a perfect day can be carved from a combination of sun, sky, water and stone, you’ll find it at Lake Havasu City. Here are 5 of my favorite trails.
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The slot canyon runs through a banded rhyolite lava flow, preserved like swirls in marbled ice cream. The pearl-smooth walls are only a few feet apart in the heart of the narrows as you wind your way through the stone-wrapped tunnel. There’s a seven-foot dry waterfall perfect for sliding down.
Slot canyons impart long forgotten life lessons, stuff we knew when we were kids but lost sight of somehow. Things like, tight spaces are meant to be squeezed through. If walls weren’t meant to be touched they wouldn’t be so smooth. Focus on small things. Slide at every opportunity. The world can be big and overwhelming at times so you should always have a good hideout.
Mockingbird Wash is a jackpot hike. It requires a minimal investment of time and energy, yet ends with a big visual payoff. Ka-ching! From the streetside parking, simply head down the wide gravel wash. Soon you’ll notice a small canyon entering from the right with a distinct pathway between craggy formations. This trail leads to Chemehuevi Wash, which runs parallel to Mockingbird. Take a minute to explore the little defile but then keep strolling down Mockingbird. In late winter and early spring, the wash harbors a good assortment of wildflowers.
After two miles, a grove of scrubby trees blocks your progress. Look for a trail clambering over the right bank. Then prepare for a jolt. After passing through such harsh desert, you climb a ridge and discover a stunning lake stretched out before you. The short path leads to the Solitude Cove campsite perched on the edge of the water. Other trails zigzag higher on the slope, which is where I head.
Grab a comfortable sitting rock and savor gorgeous views of the lake framed by ragged mountains. Sunlight dances on the water and glints off boat sails. Jet skis, motorboats and pontoons skim across the surface. What an amazing state. I started out hiking in harsh desert and a half-hour later I’m lounging on my own private beach, all courtesy of Lake Havasu and Arizona’s West Coast.
Cattail Cove State Park, hugging the south end of Lake Havasu, offers a web of fun hiking trails. The easy trek to Whytes Retreat starts from the south side of the boat ramp. The sandy path traces a shoreline ridge. From the elevated perch, views across the water to the Whipple Mountains in California are unceasingly beautiful.
It’s a mile to Whytes Retreat, a private beach along a curving spit of land. The beach consists of fine gravel, spiced with small white shells. On the backside of the spit is another hidden cove. I like to climb down the hill along a spine of rock poking into the water. It’s easy to sit there on a sliver of bank, in that sheltered place, completely out of sight and off the grid. How nice to be temporarily marooned, away from computers, cell phones and deadlines. One of these days I promise myself, I’ll build a bamboo hut here with a recliner of coconuts like they had on Gilligan’s Island, and live out my days happily stranded.
Until then, I return via Ripley’s Run. Ripley’s swings a wide arc through the desert as it drops into a narrow wash that squeezes between stone walls. It’s sort of a mini-slot canyon, an intimate little defile. You have to navigate three dry waterfalls in the gorge but they’re fairly simple. If you can manage slightly uneven stairs, these should be no problem. Once the trail emerges from the wash, it climbs a rocky slope. I follow the crest of the hills back toward the developed portion of the park. Along the way, I enjoyed big panoramas of the lake, which seems even more vibrantly blue when set against these mountains of chocolate and fawn and a sort of naughty beige.
Beautiful any time of year, Pilot Rock Trail has been a favorite of mine ever since I hiked it following a wet winter when the rough hillsides were splashed with colorful wildflowers. Look for sand verbena, desert marigold, brittlebush, scorpionweed, lupine and the neon pinks of beavertail cactus. Rising from the Colorado River, Pilot Rock is a burly outcrop of lava once used by steamboat captains for navigation.
From the parking area the trail crosses a soft rolling landscape before quickly dropping into a wash. Lack of signage and a web of social trails can make the route confusing, so stay alert. Follow the left bank of the wash. At about the half-mile point an unmarked trail scrambles up over the shoulder and spans rocky flats framed by volcanic cliffs. The trail soon crosses Grand Wash and climbs a low ridge.
Even close to town, the stillness of this rugged outback engulfs you. Views careen across a jumble of slanted hills to the slash of water beyond. Turn right onto an old jeep road and follow it until it forks at a palo verde tree with a singletrack peeling off to the right. Take the singletrack, curving through a shallow valley. The path reconnects with the jeep track just before the trail ends at river’s edge in a picturesque setting of water, stone and desert.
Okay, I’m cheating with this one because it’s not a hike at all, just a stroll. But it’s one of the most exquisite strolls in Arizona and a welcome embrace for all visitors—a reminder that the wonders of the state extend far beyond the cosmic gash of Grand Canyon. Taking a leisurely saunter on the Shoreline is one of the first things I do when I hit town. I like how it reconnects me to this place.
In a couple of short miles, I am immersed in all the sights and sounds that make Lake Havasu City so special. I walk beneath the iconic London Bridge, pass lighthouses, sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. Boats glide through the channel, music seems to always be wafting over from the parks, and seagull wings flash white in the sunlight. And just like that, I know I’m on vacation. That’s what this town does so well. It instantly puts visitors into relaxation mode.
Be warned: Walking can be addictive. You start with a gentle stroll amid soothing beauty and the next thing you know, you’re hiking deep into the desert admiring vistas that squeeze your heart while dreaming about a tender burger waiting at the end of the day.
Roger Naylor is one of Arizona’s premier travel writers, contributing to numerous national publications. In 2018, Naylor was inducted into the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. Since 2007 he has written most of the Explore Arizona features in the Arizona Republic. He also pens the cover story for the official Arizona Visitor’s Guide most years.
He is the author of several books, including The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon, Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers, Arizona Kicks on Route 66 and Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth.
For more information, visit www.rogernaylor.com.