When most paddlers think of the Colorado River within Arizona, visions of Grand Canyon-type rapids and mile-deep chasms come to mind. But downstream of the Grand is another remarkable canyon. This one has no whitewater thrills, just placid, highly canoeable waters coursing through a spectacular gorge, mountain desert scenery, and at either end of the fissure, a fascinating river with wildlife-filled marshes and sloughs.

Topock Gorge, which is located on the border between Needles, California, and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, has been called a “Baby Grand Canyon” for good reason. The 16-mile redrock cleft, under the jurisdiction of the 37,515-acre Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, is the last untouched natural portion of the Colorado River before it reaches the Gulf of California. It also is the closest thing to the Grand Canyon that most canoeists and kayakers will ever paddle. Even beginners will have no problem negotiating these gently flowing aquamarine waters (havasu means “clear blue-green waters”).

Incised into the lower Colorado River valley, the gorge is a wonderful weekend winter destination within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson-parched, river-starved cities. By contrast, my partner and I were from the river-rich Midwest, but they were all frozen at this time of year. Wishing to combine a canoe trip with an early February drive tour of some Southwest national parks, we enlisted a local canoe outfitter to take care of the details. All we wanted was to get out on the water and immerse ourselves in the gorge.

We began our trip near the small town of Topock (pop. 900), just upstream of the Interstate 40 bridge. On a cool, but soon-to-be-hot morning, we rose in the dark, slipped into our rented aluminum canoe, and paddled toward the chasm’s maw under the faint starlight. The desert scents were invigorating, the blush of anticipation thick in the air.

We were all eyes and ears, since the lush river bottoms and adjacent high rocky mesas support a tremendous range of plant and animal species, some highly rare and unusual. We nearly bumped into beavers ending their nightly patrols, saw and heard all manner of birds (nearly 250 species have been identified in the refuge), spooked a couple of mule deer at the water’s edge, and were yipped at by coyotes. The surrounding harsh landscape is also home to the endangered desert tortoise and the Gila monster, America’s only venomous lizard, but actually seeing these critters up-close would be serendipitous at best.

As bright sunlight began flooding over the rocky desert, we were swallowed up by sheer canyon walls. The current moved lazily, about two to three miles per hour, allowing us ample time to gaze at the reddish-orange cliffs rising several hundred feet above the river.