Best Winter Escape
Paddle through Topock Gorge in January;
pack beer and sunscreen.
If you have an extra few grand to give yourself a Christmas present, go ahead and book a flight to the Turks and Caicos. We won’t stop you. But for a T-shirt-and-Tevas escape that doesn’t require a home-equity loan, head to the Lower Colorado River’s Topock Gorge. The 20-mile red-rock canyon is the crown jewel of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, itself a little-known prize of nearly 40,000 desert acres tucked away on the California-Arizona border. Look for rare birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, plus frequent visitors like roadrunners, herons, and egrets. The mellow flatwater allows you to soak up the sun while scanning the cliffs for bighorn sheep, bobcats, and Native American rock art. Jerkwater Canoe and Kayak (www.jerkwater.com) rents boats and shuttles paddlers on day and overnight trips.
Get there For a daytrip, paddle 16 miles from Topock Gorge Marina (off I-40 in Needles, CA) to Castle Rock (west off AZ 95 north of Lake Havasu City). Or camp at one of the riverside sites just downstream from Castle Rock (no camping is allowed in the wildlife refuge) and take out at Lake Havasu State Park.
Season October through April
Contact Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, (760) 326-385; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/havasu