Imperial National Wildlife Refuge



Elaine Johnson, Refuge Manager
P.O. Box 72217
Yuma, Arizona 85365
Phone: 928/783-3371
Fax: 928/783-0652

Getting There:  From Yuma, go north on Highway 95 for 25 miles. Turn west on Martinez Lake Road for 13 miles and follow signs to visitor center.

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Mesquite Point at Imperial NWR
Photo by Glenn Thoreson


Refuge Quick Facts

When was it established?  February 14, 1941
How big is it?   25,768 acres
Why is it here?   As a refuge and breeding area for migratory birds and other wildlife.

Imperial National Wildlife Refuge Brochure

[Welcome] [Refuge Highlights] [Wilderness]
[Forest in the Desert?] [Marsh Management] [Species Lists]
[Things to do at the Refuge] [Tips for Watching Wildlife] [Painted Desert Trail]
[Hunting] [Safety] [Help Protect the Refuge] [Volunteer Opportunities] [Arizona Links]

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Welcome to Imperial NWR
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Imperial National Wildlife Refuge protects wildlife habitat along 30 miles of the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California, including the last unchannelized section before the river enters Mexico.

The river and its associated backwater lakes and wetlands are a green oasis, contrasting with the surrounding desert mountains.

imperial refuge vicinity mapGetting There:  From Yuma, go north on Highway 95 for 25 miles. Turn west on Martinez Lake Road for 13 miles and follow signs to visitor center.

Download the Vicinity Map (1.5M)

Refuge Highlights

Wetland wildlife is most abundant in winter, when ‘snowbirds’ such as cinnamon teal and northern pintail use the refuge. During the summer months, look for permanent residents such as great egrets and muskrat.

In the desert, wildlife such as black-tailed jackrabbits and western whiptail lizards are plentiful. Watch at dawn and dusk for desert bighorn sheep and mule deer heading to the river for a drink.


More than 15,000 acres of Imperial National Wildlife Refuge is federally designated wilderness. Wilderness is protected to ensure that nature, not people, is the primary influence on this quiet, scenic place.

Forest in the Desert?

At one time, the banks of the Colorado River were lined with cottonwood and willow forests, sustained by the river’s natural periodic flooding. Animals depended on this green forest oasis for breeding, resting, feeding, and shade.

Woodcutting during the steamboat era, clearing for agriculture, wild fire, exotic plants like salt cedar, and use of dams for flood prevention have devastated cottonwood and willow stands along the lower Colorado River. Some animals that depend on these forests, such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, have become endangered.

Refuge staff are working with other agencies and organizations to plant cottonwood and willow trees. From the observation tower, look for patches of restored forest.

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Great Egret

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Gambel's Quail
Photo by Thomas A. Gatz
  Marsh Management

Ducks, geese, shorebirds, and other waterbirds flock to the lower Colorado River each year to spend the winter. Refuge staff and volunteers restore wetlands, protect backwater lakes, manage marsh units, and farm croplands to provide food and resting areas for these winter residents.

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Species Lists

Birds of Imperial NWR

Things to do at the Refuge

The Visitor Center is open from 7:30 am to 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday. From November 15 to March 31, also open Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Enjoy the exhibits, native plant garden, and watch a wildlife video.

See Tips for Watching Wildlife for suggestions
to make your visit more enjoyable.

Red Cloud Mine Road

Follow this scenic drive through the Sonoran desert landscape to access the lookout points and the Painted Desert Trail. If you intend to drive further than the Painted Desert Trailhead, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. Check with the Visitor Center for road conditions.

Lookout Points

Mesquite, Ironwood, and Smoke Tree Points offer beautiful views of the Colorado River valley. Often, both desert and wetland wildlife may be seen. All of the lookout points can be reached by vehicle.

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Painted Desert Trail

Walk this 1.3-mile self-guided trail for an opportunity to see desert plants and wildlife. The trail takes you through a rainbow of colors left by 30,000 year-old volcanic activity and features a panoramic view of the Colorado River valley.

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Meers Point

Looking for a quiet place to canoe or fish? Meers Point has shaded tables, toilets, and a boat launch. The refuge surrounds one of the few remaining "wild" places on the Colorado River. This stretch is valued by boaters for its remote scenery.


See Imperial NWR hunting regulations for more information.

For Your Safety

The desert can be dangerously hot and dry. Be sure to carry and drink plenty of water, use sunscreen, and wear light-colored clothing, including a hat. Watch out for stinging insects, venomous reptiles, and thorny plants. Avoid putting your hands and feet under rocks or into crevices and plants, and watch where you step or sit.

Help Protect the Refuge
  • Hiking, photography, and wildlife observation are permitted on the refuge, except within the waterfowl management units and staff residence area.
  • Travel in wilderness areas is by foot or horseback only.
  • Hunting and fishing are permitted, according to state regulations, in some areas. Please contact the Visitor Center for more information.
  • Unconfined domestic animals are not allowed. Pets are permitted only if under your control at all times.
  • Boating is permitted in some areas. Special regulations apply. Please contact the Visitor Center for more information.
  • Vehicles are permitted on designated roads only. All off-road vehicle travel is prohibited. All motorized vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles, and all operators must be licensed and insured for highway driving. Speed limit is 25 mph unless posted otherwise.
  • It is illegal to remove, deface, or damage rocks, minerals, semi-precious stones, Indian artifacts, paleontological objects, or objects of antiquity.
  • Collecting, possessing, molesting, disturbing, injuring, destroying, removing, or transporting any plant or animal or part thereof (alive or dead) is prohibited, except for legally taken game.
  • Camping is not permitted on the refuge. 
  • Fires are not permitted on the refuge. 
  • Carrying, possessing, or discharging firearms or explosives (including fireworks) on the refuge is prohibited. Persons may use legal firearms for approved hunting provided that when being transported in vehicles they are unloaded and cased or dismantled.
  • Possession or use of crossbows, bow and arrows, air guns, or other weapons is prohibited except when they are used for approved hunting.

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Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteer opportunities are available for individuals interested in assisting with the following programs: biology, environmental education, visitor center, and maintenance. Trailer pad hook-ups are available for volunteers with self-contained RV units. In addition, Student Conservation Association positions and internships may be available. Please contact the refuge at 520/783-3371 or for more information.


See Arizona Links for more information about natural areas and tourism in Arizona.

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