Hassayampa River Preserve – Beginning a New Chapter

A few from Lykes' Lookout.

The roof of this cottonwood-willow riparian area is visible from the Lykes’ Lookout viewpoint.

Wickenburg, Arizona

Visitors from the Phoenix metro traveling to the old cowboy town of Wickenburg could easily drive by this gem without knowing what they are missing. The Hassayampa River flows underground much of its 113 miles (182 km). Near the town of Wickenburg, however, the river emerges to flow above ground even in the hot, desert summer. The road to Wickenburg parallels the river for a short distance, and the casual traveler might unknowingly drive by the preserve entrance easily mistaking the road to the park as just another ranch driveway. Arriving at the main entrance, a small parking lot and a large sign are the clues that the ranch house behind the tree-lined walk is no longer a private residence.

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The river begins in the high terrain near Prescott, Arizona and flows southerly to the Gila River; the confluence is located near Hassayampa, Arizona. In late spring, the Hassayampa is crossed via a ladder bridge no longer than six feet (2 m) long. The lush growth in this riparian area, however, indicates there is more to this oasis than a tiny stream. Home to almost 300 species of birds and many animals native to the desert, a half-day’s walk in the preserve will easily cover every foot of trail and viewing area in the park.

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In early 2014, the preserve entered into a partnership with Maricopa County Parks and Recreation. The 770-acre (3.1 sq km) preserve became the Hassayampa River Preserve at Vulture Mountains Recreation Area. The original owners, the Nature Conservancy retains ownership of the preserve, but the visitor center, a portion of the river channel and Palm Lake are now under ownership of Maricopa County Parks and Recreation. The transition plan, slated for two years, is coming well toward completion and major plans for future improvements are in the works. More details can be found at the Maricopa County Parks website here.

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My wife and I are not “birders”, and we don’t know the tricks nor have the patience of those who are. We heard many birds calling from the trees, but try as we might, we didn’t see many, and only a couple that we saw stayed in place long enough for me to get a photo. The preserve features a small lake, and from a distance I could see a red and black bird landing in a tree. Too far away and partially hidden by vegetation, he was barely visible to me. I waited, hoping he would move slightly in either direction so that I could get a clear image in my viewfinder. It was not to be. Moving on and leaving the lake shoreline, we began to cross a small clearing. A flash of red and black caught my peripheral vision and landed on a branch. I readied my camera, but just as quickly, he was gone. I don’t know if this was the same bird I saw at the lake, but fortunately, he flew across the clearing and came to rest on a tall tree stump. I grabbed a couple of quick photos, the first of which turned out to be out of focus. The second, pictured above, turned out quite well.

A few steps further along the trail, an older couple accompanied by a younger woman walked toward us on the trail. Obviously birders, equipped with cameras and binoculars, I suspected they would know the species. Excitedly I showed the image I’d captured to the older woman and asked if she knew the bird. She said it is a Vermillion Flycatcher and complemented me on the photo. She then told the younger woman that I got a really nice shot of the bird, and then explained that they have been trying to get a good shot of the bird for quite a while. The younger woman looked a bit disappointed when she came to realize that this novice was able to so easily capture what eluded them.

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There are only a handful of trails in the park, none of which are even a mile long. We were told that the one trail of some difficulty, Lykes’ Lookout, is steep and slippery with loose rock. We almost bypassed it, but as you can see from the photo above, the beginning of the trail didn’t seem particularly challenging. We decided to check it out; we would know in less than a quarter-mile whether or not we would turn back before reaching the top. As we ascended, we were rewarded with ever increasing vistas of the valley below and the mountains that ring the area. The hike to the top is steep and the rock surface is slippery in some areas, however taking the climb slowly and carefully is all that is necessary. We did notice a couple who appeared “of a certain age” and who started the climb after us chose to turn back before they reached the summit.

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This trail and its stunning views from the summit were the highlight of our visit. In addition to several landscape shots, I captured several portrait views sequenced to create panoramic images in post processing. I plan to use them to test out the new panorama-stitching tool built into Lightroom 6… but I have to order the software first… that reminds me, maybe I will do that sometime today. In any case, if you plan to visit the old cowboy town of Wickenburg, plan a half-day at least at the Hassayampa River Preserve. Be careful to check with the park, though, as of this writing, the park is closed on Monday and Tuesday, open 8 AM to 5 PM the rest of the week. As the partnership with Maricopa County Parks and Recreation matures, their open hours may change. I submit for your approval a gallery of images taken on our morning visit to the preserve. Click on an image to enlarge it and to scroll through the gallery.

John Steiner

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