La Paz County Arizona is a county of contradictions. The newest county in the state, it holds a history of some of the deepest and richest history of human habitation in the region. The second-least populous county in Arizona, La Paz County swells with millions of visitors in the winter months as desert temperatures drop to comfortable daytime averages in the mid-70s to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and events from desert racing to mineral and gem shows draw seasonal tourists, curious visitors, and part-time residents to enjoy all that La Paz County Arizona has to offer.
County Overview and History
La Paz County Arizona has summer high temperatures that go up in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and winter lows that sometimes get near freezing. Among the beauty and wonder of the natural environment in the area, two of the great geologic features of the western half of North America define the county: the lower run of the Colorado River on the west and the vast swath of the Sonoran Desert across the south of the county.
Named for an original town that was famous in the area in a time long past, La Paz County began in 1983 when voters approved a measure to separate from Yuma County to the south. The old town, La Paz, was long since gone by then but had started as a gold mining town in 1862. It was possibly named after a namesake city further south, either in Baja California or Bolivia. The Arizona Territory didn’t yet exist when La Paz was founded in 1862, so it was part of the New Mexico Territory originally, at least until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln created the Arizona territory and La Paz, located up against the Colorado River near the far border of the new territory, went west with Arizona.
Bordered on the north by the Bill Williams River and Lake Havasu, and on the west by the Colorado River, La Paz County is an example of extremes: a harsh dry Sonoran Desert bordered completely on two sides by water flows. The Parker Strip is a 17-mile stretch of Colorado River known for water sports ranging from jet skiing and waterskiing to parasailing and windsurfing as well as old fashioned pursuits like swimming and fishing. Locals and visitors flock to the Strip for fun at the beach. The annual tube float brings hundreds of soakers onto the river on large inflated tubes to follow the current downstream together.
Where the water gathers at Lake Havasu the Blue Water Resort and Casino host visitors by the millions every year for gaming and fun. Just about a four-hour drive from Phoenix to the east, Parker is located near enough to big population centers to draw crowds for the boat racing events, desert racing events, and other popular entertainment at the resort.
Called the “Jewel of the Colorado River,” the Emerald Canyon Golf & Resort welcomes visitors to the peaceful course along the lake. Tournaments and individual play fill the golf course. Vacationers soak up the sun and spa treatments at the resort, especially during the busy winter months when temperatures are more moderate and comfortable for golfing and relaxing along the lake.
Constructed over about five years spanning 1934 through 1938, the Parker Dam sits approximately 155 miles downriver from the Hoover Dam. Built to create a reservoir for holding and using freshwater in the desert region and to drive a hydropower plant, the Parker Dam accomplishes both tasks. Lake Havasu is 647 acre-feet of water contained by the dam and the power plant drives four Francis twin turbines at 97% efficiency through water pouring over the channels of the concrete arch-gravity dam.
When it was built, Parker Dam was the deepest in the world, with some 235 feet of its total 320-foot height beneath the level of the riverbank. The controversy fueled by the proposal and construction of the dam brought out the Arizona National Guard on the governor’s orders to hold the territory on the Arizona side of the Colorado River temporarily as the dispute went on over who would get the water and who would be responsible for the behemoth wall of concrete in the desert.
The 85 feet or so that are above ground form the concrete gravity arch of the dam, holding back some 210 billion US gallons that form Lake Havasu. When the water pours down through four concrete chutes and over the turbines of the power plant the force generates electricity to power the surrounding community and to send water across the desert to irrigate Southern California.
In 1934 when the dam project was set to begin construction, Arizona Governor Benjamin B Moeur wasn’t having it. First, the governor sent out an exploratory troop consisting of a handful of National Guardsmen to inspect the fledgling dam site and to confirm that it was, indeed, about to be constructed on Arizona territory, on the east bank of the Colorado River. When the surveillance party reported back that the governor’s information was correct, that dam construction was beginning on the Arizona side of the river, he called out more troops to take the territory back and stop the dam building.
The Arizona National Guard forces arrived at the construction site alongside the Colorado River on the governor’s orders and took control over the territory to halt construction. As they had commandeered a ferry on the river in the process, the stories circulated that the Arizona Army was now the Arizona Navy.
The dispute went to court for resolution, of course, and construction resumed in due course. Upon completion of the related California River Aqueduct project, water delivery to the cities of Southern California from the lake commenced. A full fifty percent of the power generated at the dam goes to power the pumps that send the water across the desert to San Bernadino, LA, Anaheim, and parts of San Diego that rely on the water impounded in the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away.
Built by way of a $220 million bond, the California River Aqueduct project was a major engineering effort. Just the portion involving the San Jacinto Tunnel, running 13 miles through the mountains on the way to Los Angeles, took some six years of labor to construct. Without the freshwater from the Colorado River delivered directly to the communities of Southern California, though, there would be no lush green life on the coastal plains, so the battles fought over the water in the desert had real stakes in the development of the lands west of La Paz County.
Communities of the County
Near the middle of western Arizona, La Paz County features incorporated cities including the county seat, Parker, as well as Quartzite, and many smaller towns and communities such as Hope, Vicksburg, Ehrenburg, Bouse, Salome, and more. The Colorado River Indian Tribes, often known by the acronym CRIT, include groups of the Mohave, Chemehueri, Hopi, and Navajo peoples.
Colorado River Indian Tribes
Parts of four different tribes, from the Mohave, Chemehueri, Hopi, and Navajo peoples make up the CRIT in Arizona, of which there are 4070 active members. Set aside by the federal government as a home for the tribal peoples in the area in 1865, the CRIT reservation consists of 300,000 acres on both sides of the Colorado River in La Paz County, Arizona and across the river in California. Parker is the primary community of the CRIT, with Poston another important community, just about 10 miles south. Traditionally the industry of the people has centered on tending to and growing native Mesquite trees and gathering products for the market from them. The income of the tribes is now supplemented significantly by tourism through the ownership of the Blue Water Resort & Casino.
Museum and Library
The CRIT Museum and Library is a cultural preserve for many artifacts, items, and information about the people who called the area home for countless generations in the past. The people of the Mohave, Chemehueri, Navajo, and Hopi who are the native residents of the area have contributed culturally important items and objects for display and education at the museum and library. The CRIT Museum is located in Parker at 2d and Mohave on Highway 95. Donations are suggested for visitors to show their appreciation of the effort and value of the history and knowledge on display in the museum and library. Visit the gift shop on your stay at the museum to take home lasting gifts and memorabilia to recall your time in the native territory visiting La Paz County Arizona.
Although it has stood its ground in La Paz County near Bouse since time immemorial, the fisherman intaglio, or large scale ground art, was first noticed in modern times by a pilot in 1932 who saw the distinctive shape of a human form with arms outstretched that is visible in its entirety only from the air. The art was confirmed on another fly-over sponsored by the CRIT in the 90s, and other shapes have been found throughout the county of human and animal forms and geometrical and other distinct patterns intended to be visible from above that mark human creation on the earth from a time long since passed.
A quiet stretch of river southwest of Parker is set aside as the Ahakhave tribal preserve for nature and human enjoyment. A great spot for birding and hiking through native riparian areas to enjoy the richness of desert life as it comes in contact with flowing water, the 1253 acre tribal preserve lets visitors slow down to the pace of natural life of the region and observe the native wildlife and flora. The natural preserve is an alcohol-free zone and fishing is permitted only with a permit from the tribe, available in Parker. With areas for family gatherings and individual wandering along the shore of the Colorado River, the preserve is an ideal destination for a picnic or a bird-watching adventure.
While two-thirds of the Sonoran Desert stretches south through the states of Sonora and Baja California Del Sur in Mexico, most of the rest of the unique biosphere is in Arizona, and it continues westward to where it ends in Southern California. The desert is a rare bi-seasonal subtropical desert that gets rain in the winter and again in July and August every year, supporting richer and more diverse life than many typical deserts that receive one annual rainfall on average. The Sonoran Desert is the most complex desert in North America, with subdivisions including the Colorado and Mojave Desert adjoining the perimeter of the region. Modern irrigation to the west of the area has given rise to rich agricultural areas on the edge of the desert like the Coachella Valley in California.
Some 9000 US GIs moved into La Paz County, at Camp Bouse and other sites of the Desert Training Facility between 1941 and 1942. Organized under the direction of General George S Patton, the desert camps were the place to train and prepare US troops for desert combat against Nazis a half a world away, in North Africa. Rommel’s forces had been experiencing success in the African theater and were threatening to advance and possibly take the vital Suez Canal, so an urgent request went out for support from the US.
Seeing the Sonoran Desert as North America’s best answer to the harsh conditions of the great African desert, Patton set up a string of training bases across Southern California and Western Arizona and brought thousands of troops to learn to survive and fight in the tough conditions. Camp Bouse, near the current city of Bouse, was the most top-secret of the entire hush-hush project, not even listed on the directory of training camps with the other dozen sites around the area. They practiced artillery fire drills and desert maneuvers and even got a turn at the “Big Gizmo” super tank project that was supposed to bring an end to the war. In the end, the war in Africa came to a natural end as the Nazi troops stalled and were defeated in 1944, ending the need for the desert training facilities in La Paz County.
County Seat Overview and History
In 1908 the town of Parker was established on the east bank of the Colorado River. Parker Arizona has been the county seat of La Paz County since the county was formed in 1983 by a vote to split off from Yuma County. . The history of the city goes back much further, to the 1930s when Parker Dam grew amid controversy and dispute, and back further still to 1908 when the town arose in support of the mining and transportation routes that spanned the area at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century around La Paz, Arizona.
Since 1972, when it was called the Big River ‘400,’ one of the best-known desert races happens in the deserts of La Paz County. The off-road competition has attracted top drivers and curious spectators for more than forty years, as it was known as the Dam ‘400,’ the Parker ‘400,’ and finally now the Blue Water Resort & Casino ‘425’ over the years since it started. Competitors challenge themselves against other desert racers and the elements to navigate the tricky, sprawling course and take home the trophy.
Non-professional drivers can take similar trails throughout the rest of the year to explore the desert and ramble among the lost towns and scattered bits of history throughout La Paz County and beyond. The Arizona Peace Trail represents the work of government agencies from the federal, state, county, and regional levels combining with private landowners and citizen activists from off-road enthusiast groups to combine individual trails throughout the spread-out region into a cohesive loop that connects trails running from Bullhead City on the north down to Yuma on the south.
A lot of land in the area is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, so they were heavily involved in the process of defining and creating the Arizona Peace Trail, of course, as was the Arizona Game & Fish Division and the three county governments on the west side of Arizona: Mohave, La Paz, and Yuma.
Initially, two area OHV groups in 2013 or so, the Bouse Ghostriders and the Arizona Sun Riders Club out of Quartzite, started working with government agencies and private landowners to define routes and look for areas to link up trails into a larger, interconnected system throughout the area. Currently spanning some 700 miles of related trails over three counties in Sonoran Desert terrain, the Arizona Peace Trail spans some 210 linear miles, if following US Route 95 south from Bullhead City to Yuma.
La Paz Incident
The year 1863 was an exciting time in the booming mining town of La Paz, Arizona Territory. While the US Civil War raged in the east, mountain main Pauline Weaver had discovered gold in the area in 1862 and a rush was on to settle in and claim some valuable land. The city quickly grew, and disputes spilled over, including one called the “La Paz Incident,” which is recorded as the furthest west confrontation of the Civil War.
Most of the city business was peaceful as homes and hotels, stores, saloons, mining camps, and other places sprung up in the desert to meet the growing demand for support of the gold rush going on in town and in the mountains and rivers nearby. Over the frantic years 1863 to ’64 a total of 50,000 troy ounces of gold was shipped out of La Paz, and fortunes rose or fell on striking a piece of the active producing vein while it lasted. By the mid-1860s the area was played out, the mineral strikes were done, and the treasure hunters moved on.
From 1864 through about 1870, though, La Paz was considered as a front-runner for the role of the Arizona Territorial capital. The town was the biggest community in the entire territory. By 1868 it was clear, though, the ore that had supported the town in its mining boom and rapid growth was no longer producing the value of previous years.
The town went on for a time as a transport hub, serving steamers on the Colorado River that had previously arrived to load up and ship off the mineral treasures of the area, that now brought supplies and materials to be distributed elsewhere to new mining towns throughout the county. In a final quirk of fate, though, the Colorado River shifted its course westward enough that the town of La Paz was left high and dry, with no more access to the transport waterway and no more purpose for being. The population plummeted, down to 254 by 1890, and the town ultimately perished and withered in the desert sun, today only a remnant of one of the area’s many ghost towns.