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Rural Travel | What To Do in Winterhaven, California

Winterhaven is the smallest of all the small towns I’ve visited in America. The town has a population size of just 192, as of 2019. One of its most unique features is that a part of it belongs to the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, while the rest belongs to Imperial County. Because of this, you can count on more diversity and a greater prevalence of liberal ideology than you would find in most other small towns.

Even so, the town curiously seems to consider itself more Arizonan than Californian: so much so, that it used Arizona time and proudly displayed this at local businesses. It does share a border with Yuma, Arizona, and you do have to travel into Arizona to get most of your supplies, such as propane or groceries. It is also a stone’s throw from Los Algodones, Mexico.

Most people who live in or visit small towns often complain that there is not much of anything to do. This might be true if you like bright lights and active nightlife. I do not, so I found plenty to keep me busy in Winterhaven. You can start with the video below and then move into my more organized list.

1. Offroading

If you have an ATV or off-road capable vehicle and enjoy scenic drives on dirt roads, you will never run out of things to see and experience around Winterhaven. In the video above, the desert mountains were located on Ogilby Road. They were beautiful from the highway, but nothing beats driving along that dirt track and seeing them up close and in-person. It is, in my personal opinion, one of the most beautiful roads I have ever driven in the desert.

2. Camping

If you watched the video above, you might notice there were RVs out there. It is a common, free camping spot that is open to the public. I never personally camped there and can’t speak to the restrictions. However, it is BLM land, so you can stay put in your camping spot for about two weeks or so. You can also choose spots with neighbours if you are new and don’t want to camp alone or you can choose more isolated areas.

3. Hiking

When I first looked up hiking trails around the reservation, I was disappointed to see there really weren’t that many. However, after seeing those mountains on my way to Vegas, I went back to Ogilby to see if hiking was allowed. There were no signs telling me I couldn’t go up the mountain and the RVers laughed and told me to do anything I liked when I asked. The view from up there was amazing, which you can see much better in the video.

4. Mountain Biking

While in the area, I was completing a 30-day cardio challenge, so I did get some cycling in. The dirt roads on the reservation are ideal for mountain biking. I followed a river or canal for about two miles, one afternoon. The water was so insanely blue and beautiful. You can see that toward the end of the video above. If you have a fat-bike, which is better for true off-roading in sand and gravel, I recommend heading back out to Ogilby road.

5. Fishing

Believe it or not, agriculture plays a big role in the local economy. You would have to try very hard to starve there. I’m still trying to work my way through all the free food I received. The waterways they nurture for agriculture also make great fishing grounds, but you need a license. I got some free fish from the friends who invited me to stay on the reservation.

6. Boating

Yes; you read that correctly. I’m recommending that you go boating, in the desert. There are lakes in the area, such as Senator’s Wash and Mittry Lake Wildlife Area. These are great spots for fishing or relaxing for an afternoon. I saw no signs prohibiting kayaks, paddleboards, or canoes. If you are a Person of Colour, be mindful that I saw Confederate Flags flown by RVers. It sure didn’t stop me from exploring, but it might give you pause.

7. Sight-Seeing

Whether you’re a master photographer or just want to experience Insta-worthy places, you will not run out of options in Winterhaven. I watched trains roll through farmlands at sunset. I visited abandoned houses. I saw man-made waterfalls at old dams. My favourite sight was the date palms, where I managed to very carefully back Samson down a narrow, muddy road and take a pic of my big boy looking nice and rugged.

8. Learning History

If you’d like to experience Winterhaven by learning more about related or nearby history, I recommend the following stops:

9. Gambling

Like most Indian Reservations in the desert, Fort Yuma has a casino. I drove by it once and never visited. Even so, I would imagine that it’s the place one would find nightlife in the middle of nowhere. No one I knew at the reservation spoke of visiting the casino, so I gather it’s more a tourist attraction than a local hotspot.

10. Crossing the Border

Because of the pandemic, I did not cross the border into Mexico. However, because I spent so much time along the border, I did pass through border checkpoints a few times and the officers were friendly. I was never searched and experienced no hostility, despite having expired Georgia tags. Note that Los Algodones, the nearest Mexican city, is where many Americans go to get excellent dental work at affordable prices.

I would love to go back to Winterhaven next year, but there is so much else to see that I can’t guarantee that. If you ever make it there, I think you’ll agree it’s an experience worth having. You just can’t beat 80-degree weather in the winter!

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