Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.
Why RV Snowbirds Flock to the Imperial Dam BLM Area
RVing snowbirds from the northern U.S. and Canada flock to the Southwest to escape frigid winter temperatures and overcast skies. In southern Arizona, huge numbers of RVers boondock on the thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land to enjoy the sunny weather, mild temperatures, hiking, rock-hounding, 4-wheel-drive exploring, and free or very cheap camping.
One very popular boondocking location is the Imperial Dam Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA). The camping areas are found off Senator Wash Road near Senator Wash Reservoir. The reservoir is near Imperial Dam, which is fed by the Colorado River and is about 25 miles north of Yuma. Although the LTVA is actually in California, it's just a stone's throw away from the Arizona border.
Snowbirds arrive at Imperial Dam LTVA and Senator Wash anytime from October to January. Some stay a few weeks and move on to Quartzsite or other BLM areas in Arizona or California. Others set up camp for the season and remain for a full 6 months, leaving in early April when the weather begins to get hot.
Explore the Many Advantages of This LTVA
There are numerous advantages to boondocking in the Long-Term Visitor Areas on BLM land, especially at Imperial Dam and Senator Wash:
- Low Fees. First of all, the cost can't be beat. For the September 15th–April 15th period, Imperial Dam LTVA costs $40 for two weeks or $180 for the full 7 months.
- Variety. This LTVA includes smaller camping areas with such colorful names as South Mesa, Hurricane Ridge, Coyote Ridge, Skunk Hollow, Florida Flats, Ocotillo Flats, and Quail Hill. Each of these areas has its own special attraction, whether it's protection from the wind, a view of the Senator Wash Reservoir, or a beautiful view of the surrounding hills.
- Permit Flexibility. Because this area is all part of the Yuma BLM district, campers can use their permits at several different BLM areas within the district, including LTVAs in Quartzsite, Arizona, and at the Hot Springs near Holtville, California.
- Facilities. The Imperial Dam LTVA has a dump station, trash dumpsters, and a central water station, as well as restrooms with outdoor showers. (There are also pay showers nearby at Squaw Lake campground for those who would like the luxury of a hot shower.) In addition, there is a pavilion in one of the protected gravel beds where residents gather for aerobics, church services, and jam sessions.
- Community. Winter residents have instituted some of their own attractions. For example, one winter resident collects and recycles cans and bottles on Hurricane Ridge. Down in Skunk Hollow, volunteers operate a community library and monitor Channel 12 on the CB in case someone has an emergency. Other areas have transplanted communities of snowbirds from Canada or various northern states. Since some people have been parking in the same spot year after year, some parking spots have been outlined with desert rocks. Natural plants and cacti are sometimes protected with a circle of rocks and become part of the "landscaping" around campsites. Attractive stone firepits have also been built at many of the camping spots.
- Beauty. This LTVA is surrounded by beautiful red-brown hills. Many of the camping areas are set on a plateau overlooking Senator Wash Reservoir, while others are tucked into more protected areas next to the hills and in some of the gravel beds. Hidden in the hills are abandoned gold and turquoise mines as well as many areas that attract rock hounds.
The Beauty of Senator Wash in Photographs
Points of Interest and Recreation Near Imperial Dam
Imperial Dam is approximately 25 miles from Yuma, but there are some interesting things to do without traveling into the city.
1. Visit the Yuma Proving Ground.
Yuma Proving Ground is about 5 miles away from Senator Wash Reservoir. Non-military visitors are allowed on the base to visit the café and bowling alley. There is also an excellent small museum on the base that is well worth seeing.
2. See the collection of World War II tanks along the road.
WWII tanks are on display along Imperial Dam Road as you drive from Rt. 95 to Senator Wash Road. There is room to park and get a close-up look at the big guns, if you wish.
3. Visit the Date Gardens in Bard, California.
You can see groves of date trees being groomed and hand-pollinated during the season. The local date gardens have gift shops and a place where visitors can purchase fresh dates as well as date shakes.
4. Drive to Castle Dome Mine and Museum.
Castle Dome is located several miles to the northeast. There is a museum there as well as the remains of an old mining town. Even if you choose not to go to the museum, the ride out to Castle Dome is a beautiful one through garden-like stands of cactus. In the spring, you will see many wildflowers along the roadside as well as the ocotillo and beavertail cacti in bloom.
5. Explore the Imperial Dam Recreation Area via 4WD vehicle or ATV.
There are many, many backcountry roads to explore. Some are graded dirt roads like Ferguson Road, which meanders through the hills to Ferguson Lake. Others are little more than rough trails through washes and over hills into the wilderness.
6. Go boating or fishing at Senator Reservoir, Mittery Lake, or Squaw Lake.
Public boat ramps allow access to Senator Reservoir, Mittery Lake, or Squaw Lake. Camping is allowed along the water at the Senator Wash Reservoir and Squaw Lake for $15 a night. There are still no utilities or hookups, but there is a beautiful water view at both of these camping areas.
7. Enjoy the Mittery Lake Wildlife Area.
Check out the Mittery Lake Wildlife Area for camping, boating, fishing, or bird-watching and wildlife viewing. There is dispersed camping along the lakeside as well as away from the water.
Points of Interest and Recreation Around Yuma
Going a little farther afield, one can find plenty to do in and around Yuma.
1. Visit Yuma Crossing State Historic Park.
The park contains the quartermaster's quarters as well as other restored historic buildings.
2. Tour the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.
The Yuma Territorial Prison housed inmates from 1876–1909, including some notorious figures like Pearl Hart, a stagecoach robber. Today, you can explore structures like the guard tower, the cell block, and the gated adobe sally port that inmates had to pass through to enter the prison.
3. Observe wild burros.
Keep a lookout for the wild burros who live in the hills. They are used to people, and their curiosity will often bring them into campsites to investigate fire rings or outdoor tables. It's illegal to feed them, though.
4. Visit one of the weekend markets or events.
The Arizona Market Place is a huge flea market that is open Thursday through Sunday. There are also farmer's markets on the weekends. Area events include music shows, rodeos, the annual Yuma Air Show, and the Yuma County Fair.
5. Visit the Quechan Museum.
You can learn about the history and culture of the Quechan (Kwatsáan) Tribe at this small museum, which houses photos and artifacts. There's also a gift shop selling handmade items and crafts.
6. Cross the border into Los Algodones, Mexico.
Go for shopping, lunch, or even services like dental work or new eyeglasses.
7. See the Imperial Sand Dunes.
The Dunes are about 30 miles west of the Imperial Dam. They are a great attraction for ATVs. Even if you don't step out onto the sand, go to see the incredible expanse of golden sand dunes just off I-8 west of Yuma. Stay away if it's windy, though, as blowing sand can be stingingly unpleasant and tough on skin and vehicle paint jobs.
Wild Burros, Sand Dunes, and Fossils
Forget Fees: Free Places to Camp Around Yuma
In addition to the Imperial Dam LTVA, which charges a small fee for camping, there are numerous places where one can camp for free on BLM land. The BLM Yuma Field Office manages 1.2 million acres of land in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California. The area includes 155 miles of the lower Colorado River, a destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors seeking water-related recreation year-round.
While there are some developed campgrounds on BLM lands that charge a fee, dispersed camping (free) is allowed on most BLM land—except land designated for other uses or for wildlife preserves. Dispersed camping is usually limited to 14 days within a 28-day period.
For more information, stop in or call the Yuma BLM Field Office:
- Address: 7341 E 30th St., Yuma, AZ 85365
- Phone: 928-317-3200
Enjoy a Snowbird Boondocking Paradise
Southwestern Arizona and southeastern California are wonderful RV snowbird destinations. There are numerous places to stay in a variety of settings. Camp along a lakeside at Mittery Lake or overlooking a reservoir at Senator Wash. Camp near the Imperial Sand Dunes and play in the sand on your OHV, or enjoy natural hot springs at Hot Springs near Holtville. There is dispersed camping in the hills and on the flat of the desert. Enjoy a few weeks or a few months of balmy weather while those in northern climates are fighting off Old Man Winter's worst.
Whatever you do, enjoy it every day, live in the moment, and happy trails!
The Best Book About Camping BLM and Public Lands
Questions & Answers
Question: How large of a motorhome can stay at Imperial Dam and Senator Wash Reservoir campsites?
Answer: Campsites at Imperial Dam and Senator Wash are dispersed in the desert and parking spots are very roomy. You will see motor homes in all sizes and shapes as well as trailers in every size. You will only be limited by the roads you are willing to travel as some roads are harder to navigate with a larger rig. We have no problem parking our 36 ft. motor home and there are many units larger than ours. When driving a motor home pulling a tow vehicle, I would advise that you go to the check-in point, park your rig, unhook your towed and scouting out the possibilities before bringing your motor home to a campsite. Some of the roads are difficult to navigate with a big rig even though there's plenty of parking room. If you find that you're not happy with your campsite, you can relocate at any time.
Question: is tent camping allowed at Imperial Dam LTVA and Senator Wash?
Answer: Yes, you can tent camp at Imperial Dam, LaPosa and Mule Mountain, but, for sanitary reasons, tents or non-self contained units must be set up within 500 feet of vault toilets or restrooms. Porta johns are not considered a restroom in this case.
© 2011 Stephanie Henkel
Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on August 14, 2019:
As far as I know, you can only stay with a non-self contained unit if you are within a couple of hundred feet of the restrooms. There are some tent and car campers in those areas. None of the public lands areas let you set up a shed --your unit must be on wheels. Some people have enclosed trailers that they use for storage, but any building without wheels is considered a permanent structure. Of course, there are private campgrounds where you can lease or purchase a lot and install a shed, but they would cost quite a bit more.
Phyllis on August 13, 2019:
I am currently at another ltva who suddenly changed their rules and no longer take vehicles that are not self contained. Can suv residents stay there? i also have an 8 x 10 shed (not on wheels, but does have a floor). i am interested in the long term area. I have my own solar set up.
Leland Johnson from Midland MI on September 02, 2018:
Stephanie- Great article. I've never heard of "boondocking" before, but this is a great time for me to hear about it because my wife and I are tossing around the idea of purchasing an RV and travelling around the country post retirement. Granted, that's a ways down the road, but it's so great to hear that this is something that should be within our price range! Great pics too!
Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 30, 2017:
Thanks for writing, Brian and Nora Williamson. So glad my article brought back pleasant memories. We've sure stored up a lot of pleasant memories of our own camping at Senator's Wash.
BRIAN and NORA Williamson on November 29, 2017:
Just come across this article. Brings back happy memories of the three months this small English couple with a very old Winnebago Mini Winnie and how welcome we was made. Way back now in 1996. How time flies, never forgotten.
Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on September 04, 2017:
I would feel ok leaving it for a few days if someone were checking on it. I would hesitate leaving it for 6 weeks unless it was parked close to some friends who kept an eye on it. In fact, I'm not really sure that the rules allow it. You would certainly have to let the hosts know that you were planning to do so.
Grampakoot on September 03, 2017:
Thank for sharing your Imperial Dam experience. It is most appreciated.
I have a question for you. Is it safe to leave our RV on a site, unnatended for 6 weeks while we return home for Christmas?
Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 20, 2012:
Sunnie Day - The Yuma Proving Ground is certainly a remote location. When we camped near the dam, we wondered how those stationed on the base survived the very hot summers. We very much enjoyed our time in the area in the winter months, but usually leave in March when it starts to warm up. The desert near there is very beautiful and interesting. Living in the area must have given you many opportunities to explore it. Thanks so much for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed my hub and that it brought back some good memories!
Sunnie Day on November 20, 2012:
I was so excited to see your title...I was stationed in Yuma Arizona when I first joined the Army many years ago and spent many weekends enjoying the dam and surrounding areas...Yuma Proving Ground was such a small base and it seemed like it took forever to get anywhere. A real shocker for a young soldier. lol Thank you for a great hub and sparking a wonderful memory.
Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 01, 2011:
Eiddwen - Thanks so much for your kind comment, Eiddwen. I love sharing our RVing experiences, especially some of the places where we sometimes stay in the winters like Imperial Dam and Senator Wash. Thanks for stopping by!
Eiddwen from Wales on November 01, 2011:
Your work is always so well informed and beautifully presented.
Thank you for sharing.
Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on April 21, 2011:
Sunnie Day, We do love to visit that area in the winter and usually visit the YPG a few times during our visit. They have a great museum there. You must have experienced some pretty hot temperatures in the summer, though. Thanks for reading and commenting on my hub!
Sunnie Day on April 21, 2011:
What a great hub full of information. It caught my attention as I was station in at Yuma Proving Ground in 1978 1980 I remember many trips to the dam and the surrounding lake. It brought back a lot of memories. Thanks for sharing a great hub.