Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On the Hovatter Road: A Kofa Wilderness Odyssey


This a tale long past telling.  It was 11 years ago that I first visited the Kofa Mountains in the western desert; most popularly known for Palm Canyon, the only place in Arizona with wild and native palm trees.  One of the first features on my old website were photos of that adventure I had taken with an old camping buddy.  It generated a small number of emails over the months, including one asking me about some graves near the Hovatter Mines.  It was from a fellow backroad enthusiast, Steve, who had seen my picture of the water tower and mentioned he had found the graves of Ray Hovatter and perhaps a daughter nearby and asked if I knew anything about it.  I didn't but it sounded intriguing and we kept in touch.

Steve was very resourceful...he got in touch with a Col. Hovatter, then on assignment in Kosovo/Bosnia.  The Colonel was a member of the Yuma clan of Hovatters and had met the family out in the Kofas many times, but made it clear they were not closely related.  This correspondence would lead Steve and I on a camping trip to the Kofas to meet one of the sisters who lived out there with her family.

I actually have two tales in this story.

Interstate 10 in Arizona.  Exit 53.  Hovatter Road.  The epitome of the middle of nowhere.  It's the the 1960s and the interstate is under construction.  A young engineer on the project spends some of his free time exploring the backroads crossed by this lonely stretch of highway.  On one trip, he meets and befriends a family living out there, then falling in love with and marrying one of the daughters.  And that's how the road got its name.

The rest is the story of the graves and that, unfortunately, is far more tragic.

Ray Hovatter was a WWII veteran who served under Patton in North Africa.  He may have learned of the Kofas during training for desert warfare.  After the war he moved to the area and started mining for copper.  His wife, Barbara, did scientific illustrations for the University of Arizona, mostly arachnids.  She would keep gallon-jar terrariums of scorpions on the kitchen table.  They had three girls; Sandra, Lindsay, and Jeanette, who kept a menagerie of rabbits, chickens and other animals; carrying wooden ax handles to kill any snakes that tried to go after them.  Their homestead consisted of two trailers and several connected sheds, a water pump, and a rock and cactus garden that Barbara created and took care of.  Everyone referred to it simply as "Camp."

One night in the early 1970s, Ray was working with one of the girls on a leaking propane tank.  Another of the girls came out to help carrying a lantern, but the flame of the lantern ignited the propane and a harrowing fire ensued which destroyed most of the homestead.  Barbara and Jeanette were unhurt.  Ray was burned a little but Lindsay and Sandra were burned very badly.  Lindsay died a month later and was buried on the property (after a long battle with the funeral lobby).  Barbara moved to Phoenix with Sandra for the medical care she would need.  Ray stayed on the homestead and was found dead (from natural causes) several years later.  I'm not sure if anybody asked this time when they buried him next to Lindsay.

Looking back to Coyote Peak from the Yuma / La Paz county line.  Interstate 10 is an equal distance beyond.  You better be well-prepared because it could be days before you see another vehicle on this road.

Just south of the county line, the Hovatter girls called this little canyon "Boulder Wash."  The low hills are part of the Little Horn Mountains, spilling out the northeast side of the Kofa Wildlife Refuge.

This is about as bad as the road gets; it's narrow and you'll get plenty of "Arizona pin-striping" on your paintjob, but almost any car could drive it in good weather.  That basically means, I would have done it in my old 1979 Corolla...your mileage may vary.

Sandra Hovatter shows us around Camp, where her mother's cactus garden still remains.  Then she summons us down the old runway to surprise us with largest ocotillo I have ever seen!

Palm Canyon splits the western face of the Kofa Mountains.  The palm trees (Washingtonian fan palm) are located in a cleft on the north side of the canyon and are in sunlight for only a couple of hours each day.  Despite appearances, the trees can be reached by clamboring up a steep rocky chute contained by a separated slab of cliff face on the right side of the cleft.

If you exit the Kofa Wildlife Refuge to the southeast, you may find yourself having made an inadvertent crossing of the Yuma Proving Grounds.  Oops.


  1. Beautiful country and what an interesting story. Andy

  2. Just returned from a weekend 4x4 trail ride..and camp out along Engesser pass trail, fantastic views along the way, returned to I-10 via the Red Reven trail heading east out of Kofa Nat. Wildlife Refuge, made a stop by the Hovatter homestead, WHAT A HISTORY THIS PLACE HAS ! God bless them,Ray and Lindsay, and the people of that era who settled and improved these areas so that we could live here today !! it was a very cool visit and thank you for the work on this web site. Joe