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RV Camping at Imperial Dam LTVA and Senator Wash Reservoir, CA

Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.

Our campsite overlooking Senator Wash Reservoir at Senator Wash LTVA.

Our campsite overlooking Senator Wash Reservoir at Senator Wash LTVA.

Senator Wash Camping

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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.

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Exploring the 4WD roads near Imperial Dam—I got out of the jeep while my husband navigated this wash.

Exploring the 4WD roads near Imperial Dam—I got out of the jeep while my husband navigated this wash.

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 to 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.

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
Map of dispersed camping in Arizona.  Yellow areas are BLM land.

Map of dispersed camping in Arizona. Yellow areas are BLM land.

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

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