Triumphant and Challenging: The KOFA Wilderness

Written by Virginia and Ethan (S Trek 2) 

For our first expedition, we drove four hours southwest from Prescott, AZ to the KOFA Wildlife Refuge. The drive itself was smooth until the last hour when we all had to hop out of the bus and create makeshift ramps with rocks. That first night, we got a taste for backcountry living and dinners made on a whisper-light stove. The next morning, we hiked a grueling one mile to the campsite where we would spend the next two nights. After a layover day at our campsite near a wash, we walked three miles to our first of several enchanting water tanks. The KOFA is full of large, gorgeous Saguaro cacti and the smaller, more aggressive, “teddy bear cactus.” It is an extreme landscape with limited water. The only way to get water is to travel to a few sparsely laid-out water tanks. The water tanks can range from clear to fairly questionable water that requires a long boil time in order to purify. Our first water tank had a few “floaters” in it –also known as small animals that have perished in the water. We were scared to drink it but also learned that a long boil and some Aquamira (the water purifying drops we use) can get the job done to get you healthy. As we gritted our teeth and drank the tank water we were rewarded with a sighting of one of the KOFA’s protected species–and the reason for the wilderness area’s existence–the Bighorn Sheep. 

The most epic day of our trip occurred when we crossed the KOFA mountain range. Although navigation was difficult at times—considering we were all off-trail–the views were the best of the trip and worth every mile. When we arrived at our camp that night, down in the valley, we were promptly greeted by threatening storm clouds. Thankfully, the rain only lasted 10 minutes and the next 24 hours were drama-free. Day seven brought fresher food with a re-invigorating re-ration. We also got to drink some lovely tap water—it never tasted so good! That day we also hiked to “palm canyon” where you are able to see the only native palm trees to the Sonoran Desert left–just 100 of them! 

The following couple of days brought the highest temperatures of the trip, the first scorpion sighting, and quite a few scratches courtesy of the Teddy Bear Cactus! Along with some of these less glamorous moments of backpacking came funny memories–Nicholas (our instructor) led a dance party and we competed against each other in many camp games. On the morning of our final hiking day, we woke up to find our instructors were gone along with a mysterious note left behind where their camp used to be. After decoding their message we realized we needed to hike the 2 miles down the road to our next camp, without our instructors. We thought we were alone the whole day–until we arrived at our destination and found out they had been following us the entire day from a 100 yd distance! This experience proved just how much we’d learned over the course of the first expedition and we were proud of forging on by ourselves–even if in reality we were never truly alone. 

When we arrived at the bus, we set up camp for the final night. The last night gifted us the most spectacular sunset yet–it just kept getting better as the night went on. Through the triumphant moments, and the challenging ones, our group bonded and became closer. This first trip is just the start of what is sure to be an incredible semester together.