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Lazing along the lower Colorado.

Broad, beautiful, and balmy in spring, this stretch of river draws paddlers and hikers to its shores

We ease our canoe out of the marina and glide into the main channel of the Colorado River near Needles, California.

A muskrat surfaces then dives again as the canoe settles easily into the 3-mph current. Once we've floated beneath the Interstate 40 bridge and passed a gauging station, there is nothing ahead but river and desert.

Even in the early morning, the air feels dry and warm. By this point in its run, the Colorado has already completed most of its descent from the Rocky Mountains. The churning red river that carved the Grand Canyon from the sandstone layers of the Colorado Plateau is a placid blue here.

Slowed by dams and spillways, with much of its flow siphoned off for users around the West, the lower Colorado is highly controlled. For anyone who has rafted the Grand Canyon, a visit to this stretch can at first be a wistful experience. It hardly seems possible that these quiet waters are the same river.

The truth is, the lower section was never the raging Colorado of legend. In 1858--more than a decade before Lt. John W. Powell made his run down the river--Lt. Joseph C. Ives led a steamship expedition upriver from Yuma, Arizona, to the approximate site of today's Hoover Dam, near Las Vegas. By the 1870s, six steamships and five barges were working small ports on the lower part of the river.

However, as we paddle downriver, it's impossible to resist the area's beauty. The effect here is less surreal than the sometimes jarring red rock vistas farther upstream at Lake Powell in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Here the river snakes along low cliffs that narrow dramatically at Topock Gorge, the stretch most reminiscent of the Grand Canyon itself. Volcanic rock rises into dramatic turrets and needles, and the river feels cut off from the rest of the world.

We stop at one of the gorge's beaches to take it all in, especially the play of colors: rusty rock, greenish water, golden beach, and green shoreline reeds. Above us white pelicans--perhaps 20 of them--are riding the desert thermals, circling slowly, with their white bodies and black wings set sharply against a pure, cloudless sky. They are a reminder that there is more to this country than just recreation. Although the river's ecology has been greatly altered by non-native fish species and invasive shoreline grasses that have displaced the indigenous willow-cottonwood forest, the lower Colorado remains a vital wildlife area, especially for wintering and migrating birds,

Our moment of repose is broken as a large jet boat on a river tour comes thundering up the narrow canyon. Its engines echo off the rock, and its wake sends waves bouncing crazily from one side of the gorge to the other. Although Topock Gorge seems remote, it is an easy powerboat run up from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, a mecca for watercraft enthusiasts.

Lake Havasu City gets its name from the 45-mile-long lake that was created behind Parker Dam downstream. But it gets its fame from one of the West's great promotional stunts.

Back in the 1960s, the London Bridge of nursery-rhyme renown was indeed falling down, and the Brits were getting ready to replace it. Industrialist and Lake Havasu City founder Robert P. McCulloch bought the bridge and had its 10,000 granite blocks shipped here to be reassembled above a channel running off the Colorado River--which is how a bridge washed by London fogs for 136 years came to bake beneath a desert sun in what, during summer months, is one of the hottest spots in the United States.

Absurd though it may seem, the bridge certainly put the town on the map. Lake Havasu has become a popular spring break destination. Viticulturally speaking, a floating college kegger may not qualify as Bacchanalia. But when the houseboats line up gunwale to gunwale in a cove thick with blue exhaust, the river becomes a student paradise and every parent's worst nightmare. We have missed the height of spring break, and as we continue to paddle down the river, such notorious party spots as the muddy rise known simply as "The Sandbar" are filled with families.

Farther downstream the river begins to widen into Lake Havasu, and the parade of water scooters and powerboats with massive, roaring engines begins to increase. We stick close to the shoreline, finding refuge in the placid waters of serpentine back bays that are off-limits to the big powerboats. Catfish and bass dart through the shallows, and we find passages barely big enough and deep enough for our canoe.

Huck Finn would have appreciated this labyrinthine desert bayou. And as we return to the river for the final few miles to the takeout at Castle Rock, it's easy for us to appreciate Huck's desire to stay out on the river, to go with its flows, and let civilization wait for another day.

Lower Colorado travel planner

The lower Colorado River is at its best in March and April and again in fall. Summers are beastly hot, but if you plan to spend all your time on the water, they can be tolerable.

March is the peak of the spring break season, which extends into April, and the presence of so many party-oriented college students can distract from the river's natural beauty. Hotel rates also tend to increase at this time. If you plan an overnight stay in spring, you should book early and check to see whether the hotel gets large numbers of students. There are plenty of good motel and condominium rental options in the Lake Havasu City area; for lodging and general visitor information, call Lake Havasu Tourism Bureau at (800) 242-8278. Area code is 520 unless noted.

Attractions

Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge. The lush green delta where this remote desert river empties into the Colorado is one of the more beautiful spots in the area, with several viewpoints from State 95. A 3-mile road (passable for standard vehicles) begins .3 mile south of the State 95 bridge, which crosses the river and leads into the willow-cottonwood woodland. Between Lake Havasu City and Parker on State 95; 667-4144.

Crack in the Wall Trail. A 4-mile round trip follows a desert wash into a steep-walled chute that eventually opens up and leads to the shores of Lake Havasu. To reach the trailhead from Lake Havasu City, take State 95 south, turn right on S. McCulloch Blvd., and in less than 1 mile you'll come to a parking area marked off by a cable. The trail begins here. For more hiking information, visit the Bureau of Land Management Lake Havasu Field Office at 2610 Sweetwater Ave.; 505-1200, (888) 213-2582, or lakehavasu.az.blm.gov.

London Bridge. This surreal landmark can look oddly beautiful in the desert light at sundown. Walk through a park area and an English-style shopping district nearby. McCulloch Blvd. leads to bridge access.

Parker Dam. Notable for its 1930s art deco styling, Parker Dam is considered the world's deepest dam--only the top third is visible. No tours are offered, but some interpretive information is available onsite. 16 miles northeast of Parker; (702) 293-8420 or www.lc.usbr.gov/[sim]pao/parker.html.

Topock Gorge. The best way to experience the lower Colorado is by canoe or kayak, and the 16-mile run from the Topock Gorge Marina off I-40 through Topock Gorge to the beach at Castle Rock is the classic stretch. If you don't have any canoeing experience, you should go out with a guide. Powerboat and personal watercraft traffic can be heavy at times, and it's best to stay toward the left and out of the middle of the river for most of the trip. Guided trips and rentals are available from Western Arizona Canoe & Kayak Outfitters (WACKO) in Lake Havasu City (guided trips from $44; rentals from $20 per day; 855-6414) or Topock Gorge--based Jerkwater Canoe & Kayak Co. (guided trips from $40; rentals from $30 per half-day; 800/421-7803 or www.jerkwater.com).

Dining

Barley Brothers Brewery & Grill. Near London Bridge, this bustling brew pub serves award-winning beers and wood-fired pizzas. 1425 McCulloch; 505-7837.

Shugrue's Restaurant & Bar. At the same address as Barley Brothers, Shugrue's has more formal dining and specializes in steak and seafood. 1425 McCulloch; 453-1400.
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Title Annotation:Colorado River near Needles, California
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:1397
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