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Bill Williams River, Arizona
Report by Marc W. McCord

Alamo Dam to the Colorado River
~ 36 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Bill Williams River is a short, 36-mile long river flowing east to west through the Buckskin Mountains of westcentral Arizona from Alamo Lake to the Colorado River at Lake Havasu. Bill's sister, the Santa Maria River, flows into Alamo Lake from west of Prescott, or perhaps the river just had a sex-change operation when it reached Alamo Lake. Who knows? Bill's streambed forms the line between La Paz County to the south and Mohave County to the north, straddling the Swansea and Rawhide Mountain Wildernesses on either side. Its flow depends almost entirely upon dam-released water from Alamo Lake, which is primarily fed by the Santa Maria River with occasional monsoon seasonal help from the Big Sandy River, Burro, Trout and Date Creeks. The river has a shallow gradient and slow current with occasional Class I to II rapids that can escalate to Class II to III status in rare high water conditions. The mountainous area surrounding the Bill Williams River is very remote low desert with limited access and no services or signs of civilization to be found. This is a Mojave Desert run just south of Needles, California, where the hottest U.S. temperatures are routinely recorded.

The Bill Williams River, named for an Arizona mountain man who inhabited this area long ago, is a natural wilderness area that is protected from development. Three sections of about 21 miles total are being considered for "Wild and Scenic" designation. The area is home to a variety of wildlife, birdlife, fishlife and indigenous vegetation. Riverbanks are lined with willow and cottonwood trees. Deer, javelina, ringtail cats, foxes, bighorn sheep, coyotes, turtles, beavers, muskrats, and raccoons may be seen along the river. It is suitable for canoeing, kayaking and rafting, but much of the land adjacent to the river is privately owned ranchland, and trespassing is strongly discouraged. There are only two public access roads below Alamo Dam, the El Paso Natural Gas Pipeline Crossing and SH 95 at Lake Havasu. The El Paso pipeline crossing is no "major highway". High clearance vehicles are recommended. Off-road vehicle operation is illegal and strictly prohibited in this wilderness area. If you plan to paddle the Bill Williams River, then make sure that you are thoroughly prepared and have adequate drinking water and other provisions. The run will be long and slow, probably taking 2 full days, and possibly more, from just below Alamo Dam depending upon river conditions and paddler stamina. 1-day trips can be taken by starting at either of the two public access roads, This is a scenic desert adventure for strong-willed and strong-bodied boaters who really like to get away from crowded rivers. This one will NOT be inundated with throngs of paddlers!


Far westcentral Arizona, in the Mojave Desert of La Paz and Mohave Counties, Arizona. Phoenix is about 120 miles to the southeast and Prescott is about 120 miles to the northeast. Lake havasu City is about 20 miles above the take-out.

Distance from major cities

Phoenix 120 miles; Flagstaff 210 miles; Tucson 240 miles; Albuquerque 578 miles; Durango 574 miles; Grand Junction 744 miles; Denver 933 miles; Salt Lake City 765 miles; Oklahoma City 1,100 miles; Dallas 1,122 miles; Austin 1,141 miles; San Antonio 1,141 miles; Houston 1,284 miles; Little Rock 1,445 miles; Kansas City 1,355 miles (all distances are approximate, depending upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally good to very good, flowing clean and clear, but seldom at navigable levels. Flow depends upon dam releases at Alamo Lake, occasionally augmented by monsoonal showers in the Mojave Desert.

Best time to go

The best time to paddle the Bill Williams River is when it is flowing at navigable levels. Typically, December through February is the "rainy" season.

Hazards to navigation

The most significant hazards on the Bill Williams River are desert temperatures, scoarching sun, cactus, rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, hot, desert sand, hot, desert winds and a vast remoteness that has paddlers a long way from any type of services. Mountains along the riverbanks make cellular communications next to impossible, if possible at all. There are no significant hazards to navigation on the Bill Williams River.

River Access Points

End of the road through Cunningham Pass going north from US Highway 60 between Wenden and Alamo Dam at 0.0 miles; El Paso Natural Gas Pipeline Crossing, an unimproved desert road northwest of Prescott between Wikieup and the river, at about 30.0 miles; SH 95 below Parker Dam on the Colorado River at about 36.0 miles. There are no other access roads for the Bill Williams River. The roads leading from highways to the river are slow and long, as well as indirect. Actual distances are MUCH longer than straight-line distances. High clearance vehicles, preferably with 4-Wheel drive, are recommended.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Alamo Lake State Park, above the dam, offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and showers. Buckskin Mountains State Park, off SH 95 below the take-out, offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and showers. Lake Havasu State park, off SH 95 above the take-out, offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms and showers. There are no other known campgrounds near the Bill Williams River. Natural campsites can be found all along the river, but you will be camping in the desert, so heed the warnings in the "hazards" section above regarding snakes, Gila monsters and cacti.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

FAT CHANCE! There are no services anywhere near the Bill Williams River. Bring everything you need for a low desert river run and do your own shuttles, which will take several hours at each end of your trip.

Reviewer's comments

The Bill Williams River almost always has water, but seldom is it at navigable levels. Late-winter through early-spring months offer the best chances of finding boatable conditons. If you can make it from Alamo Lake to the Colorado River, then you will find plenty of water for relaxing flatwater trips down along the Arizona-California border, assuming you have any energy left after the first 36 miles. Remember the Boy Scout motto - BE PREPARED! Personally, I would have my .44 Mag with me on a trip in this area - one never knows what he or she might encounter in the desert wilderness of western Arizona.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II (III)
Length 36 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Alamo Dam
Lat/Long 34.2319412 / -113.6008301
Last Take-out SH 95 at Lake Havasu
Lat/Long 34.2919006 / -114.0758972
Elevation msl
Gradient max.
USGS Gauge Web: Alamo Dam