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Charlie Bell Road - Cabeza Prieta NWR, AZ

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Guide 4 Triplogs  3 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Southwest > Ajo
3.7 of 5 by 3
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Difficulty 2.5 of 5
Route Finding 2 of 5
Distance Round Trip 3.25 miles
Trailhead Elevation 1,463 feet
Elevation Gain -361 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 2.5 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 5.06
Interest Historic
Backpack Possible - Not Popular
varies or not certain dogs are allowed
editedit > ops > dogs to adjust
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
6  2017-12-13 AZWanderingBear
14  2017-12-13 Steph_and_Blake
15  2016-12-17 Hansenaz
26  2016-12-16 AladdinSane
22  2008-03-15 Randal_Schulhaus
Author Randal_Schulhauser
author avatar Guides 71
Routes 98
Photos 9,967
Trips 1,009 map ( 9,248 miles )
Age 59 Male Gender
Location Ahwatukee, AZ
Associated Areas
list map done
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge USFWS
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Feb, Jan, Dec, Nov → Early
Seasons   Late Autumn to Early Spring
Sun  6:20am - 6:29pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Flora Nearby
Culture Nearby
Rock the Cabeza!
by Randal_Schulhauser

Some History
"Cabeza Prieta" means "dark head" in Spanish and refers to the distinctive black lava topped peak on a granite dome near the western boundary of the refuge. It is believed that Jesuit missionary explorer Padre Eusebio Kino named the peak as he crossed the area multiple times between 1699 and 1701 making the first maps of the region.

In 1774 Spanish conquistador Juan Bautista de Anza pioneered a 130 mile route from Sonoyta Mexico to the Colorado River crossing near present day Yuma Arizona known as El Camino del Diablo (the Devil's Road). Hundreds perished along this route choosing desert heat as a more manageable risk than marauding Apaches further north. The 1849 California gold rush served to only increase traffic.

With the arrival of the railroad in the 1870's, human visitation to the area waned. In 1939, the area was designated a "Game Range" for the conservation and development of natural wildlife resources. By presidential order in 1941, the lands were designated for use by the US Army Air Corps to train World War II pilots. This brought upon a complex co-management of the lands by the US Department of Defense and US Fish & Wildlife Service continuing to this very day.

In 1975, this Game Range was renamed the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge becoming the 3rd largest refuge in the United States.

Who was Charlie Bell? He's presumed to be a local rancher in which the name-sake pass and well are named after. I couldn't track down any specific information and NWR Rangers and Volunteers didn't know. I didn't notice any homestead ruins or foundation remains when we explored the petroglyphs around Charlie Bell Well. I did turn up information on rancher Charlie Bell from the Sedona/Wet Beaver Creek area. Could they be one in the same person?

Check out the El Camino del Diablo for additional information and history. Check out the Bell Trail for Charlie Bell reference.

Having obtained the necessary permits and signed a "Hold Harmless" agreement at the Cabeza Prieta NWR Office in Ajo, travel 1/4 miles north on Hwy 85 until you reach Rasmussen Road. Travel west along Rasmussen Road which will eventually become Charlie Bell Road. Having traveled about 4.25 miles from Hwy 85, you will come to Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge boundary. Cross the cattle guard and enter the wildlife refuge.

Childs Mountain dominates your view to the north. You should be able to spot brilliant white radar installations on Childs Mountain. This is a reminder of the interwoven coexistence between National Wildlife Refuge and the Department of Defense. I found it interesting that when we stopped to check out some wildflowers, a cactus wren chirped its displeasure while a jet fighter screamed overhead.

As you pass between the gap of Childs Mountain (to the north) and Cardigan Peak (to the south) you enter an area with an extensive stand of wildflowers and lush saguaro forest.

At about 5.25 miles from Hwy 85, Charlie Bell Road will veer sharply to the south following a wash. At about mile 7.5 you will reach a Y-intersection with Copper Canyon Loop Road. The sign will point you west along Charlie Bell Road towards a windmill and well. At about mile 8.0 you will reach Little Tule Well (There is a Tule Well along El Camino del Diablo further west...). This is also where we had our "alien encounter".

As you leave Tule Well, the saguaro forest will begin to thin out being replaced by hedgehog and barrel cactus. We were fortunate on this mid-March day as many cacti were beginning to bloom.

Near mile 11.0, you will notice a small hill to the south with an observation blind at its crest. This is Pack Rat Hill where an ongoing Sonoran Pronghorn wildlife management operation is in progress. You will notice a black tarpaulin radiating from the hill a parallel to Charlie Bell Road. This is a one-square mile semi-captive breeding enclosure to help re-establish the Sonoran Pronghorn population. The 2002 drought wiped out 80% of the Sonoran Pronghorn population leaving only 21 animals within the refuge. Until further notice, portions of the refuge will be closed to protect the Sonoran Pronghorn during fawning season. This includes Charlie Bell Road. In 2007, closure was March 15th to July 15th. For 2008, fawning season closures will be from April 15th to July 15th.

As you travel west of Pack Rat Hill, take note of the wash crossing the road and spot a rare crested saguaro immediately to the south of Charlie Bell Road. Open grassland dominates the topology and the road soon changes from the rough rocky gravel to sandy conditions. This creates ideal conditions for the Ajo Lily.

At mile 14.5 Charlie Bell Road will pass Daniel's Arroyo Road (no public access) and at mile 15.0 it will pass Jack's Well Road (no public access). Charlie Bell Road will slowly climb Daniel's Arroyo. You will notice a gap in the Growler Mountains to the west. This is Charlie Bell Pass.

Near mile 16.5 you will crest Charlie Bell Pass. Trail Head parking is available if you wish to explore the many petroglyphs within Growler Valley. The volcanic soil in this area seems to stimulate Sonoran flora. Although the double track continues west from Charlie Bell Pass, vehicular access is restricted. This will serve as our hiking trail into Growler Valley.

If you hike about 3/4 miles along the trail, you will lose about 275 feet of elevation and reach what appears to be the valley floor. The trail now descends more gradually following a wash strewn with large boulders. Turn around and catch Growler Peak dominating your view to the north.

Having hiked almost 1.5 miles, the windmill at Charlie Bell Well will appear. Take note of the boulders with black desert varnish to the right of the windmill (ie. North). Upon closer examination you will notice many are covered with petroglyphs! As I boulder hopped up this wash, more and more petroglyphs came into view! I noticed that the wash forked into two separate drainages. Both contained petroglyphs. Although there are boulders with black desert varnish to the south of the windmill, petroglyphs were sparse. My recommendation is to further explore upstream to the north...

This is a great introductory hike to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge with a variety of Sonoran Desert flora and fauna. And don't forget the rock art... Enjoy!

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your hike to support this local community.

2008-03-15 Randal_Schulhauser
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent Triplog Reviews
    Charlie Bell Road - Cabeza Prieta NWR
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    After completing El Camino del Diablo [ photoset ] earlier in the day we ventured out Charlie Bell Road to find some petroglyphs. A friendly Federal Wildlife Officer stopped us along the way to check our passes and give us some advice on the area and security. MJ was excited to see the pronghorn feeding area south of the road on the drive in.

    We parked on the saddle above Charlie Bell, as far as vehicles are allowed, and hiked down. Luckily we had the official track and found the large scattered areas of glyphs and the village remains above it easily enough.
    Charlie Bell Road - Cabeza Prieta NWR
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    Randall's careful description is still correct today and this trip requires some advanced planning since an in-person permit is needed. I was invited to come along by a couple of serious petroglyph people so I went to Ajo Friday afternoon and got my permit.

    I took advantage of the Ajo dark skies to try out "star mode" on my camera - not bad for a point and shoot.

    Saturday AM we took two cars in on the rough road. No big problem for the Subaru, but it does get rocky and rough the last couple miles.

    The petroglyphs cover a large area, and there are a lot of them. They seem to be old ones showing mainly geometric figures, not many people or animals. But they're well preserved so fun to look at - I took about 180 glyph pictures.

    Not clear to me why this spot was so popular for the artist/story tellers. No doubt it is along some ancient path over the pass but it's well below the pass and certainly seemed dry there these days - maybe there was water there a thousand years ago.

    Good day with partners who really enjoyed being there.
    Charlie Bell Road - Cabeza Prieta NWR
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    Charlie Bell Road - Cabeza Prieta NWR

    Knowing the kids had March Break and a week off school, I'd booked some vacation days off work as well...

    A first-time sojourn to Death Valley was on my "to-do" list, but alas, a commitment from a 2nd vehicle couldn't be arranged. Always have a "PLAN B"...

    "SUNSHOT - peril and wonder in the Gran Desierto" by Bill Broyles and Michael Berman is in my home library and describes El Camino del Diablo (the Devil's Highway) and the surrounding environs. I think this book and photographs has provided some of the spark to investigate the back country within Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the Barry M. Goldwater Range.

    I've been thwarted in tackling the Devil's Highway due to the lack of 4WD (my F-150 is only high clearance 2WD). I discovered that Charlie Bell Road and El Camino del Diablo to Bates Well can be permitted for a 2WD vehicle. So these became "PLAN B" substituting for Death Valley...

    Lynn and I started the day before dawn's first light and headed down to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters & Visitor Center in Ajo to obtain the requisite training and permits. There's a 20 minute training video that's required viewing to gain access to the Barry M. Goldwater Range.

    With permits in hand, we were bouncing along Charlie Bell Road by 9:00am. There is a consistency in Cabeza Prieta literature mentioning the "isolation" and "remoteness" of the area. With this in mind, Lynn and I were prepared not to see a person all day.

    At Little Tule Well, we parked the truck to capture some images. There we had an "alien encounter" as 4 trekkers appeared out of the adjoining wash and walked up to the well to get water. Later saw 2 trucks of NWR Rangers returning from the Sonoran Pronghorn observation area at Pack Rat Hill. We also passed a couple from Colorado at Daniel's Arroyo and a couple from Minnesota at Charlie Bell Pass TH. So much for being prepared not to see a person all day!

    When we hiked down from Charlie Bell Pass to Charlie Bell Well on our "glyph hunt", the advice we received at the Cabeza Prieta Visitor Center in Ajo was "spot on";

    "When you get to the windmill, stay to the right into the boulder field and you will find the petroglyphs..."

    And many petroglyphs were found!

    This was a great introduction to the Cabeza Prieta NWR. Snakes, petroglyphs, alien encounters, coyotes (4-legged kind), ranch ruins, crested saguaros, fawning pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep, and tracking down the elusive Ajo Lily - what's not to like?

    Map Drive
    High Clearance possible when dry

    To hike
    From Phoenix, take I-10 east towards Tucson. Turn right at exit 164 for Hwy 347 (aka Queen Creek Road) and travel south 15 miles towards the town of Maricopa. Turn right at the Hwy 238 (aka Maricopa Road) intersection and travel 40 miles towards the town of Gila Bend. Travel west on Hwy 85 through the town of Gila Bend and continue along Hwy 85 south towards the Mexican border. When you reach the mining town of Ajo (42 miles south of Gila Bend), obtain the necessary permits from the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters & Visitor Center located at the north end of town. NOTE: Visitor Center is closed Saturday and Sunday. ALSO NOTE: High clearance vehicle (2WD or 4WD) required to obtain permit for Charlie Bell Road.

    Having obtained the necessary permits and signed a "Hold Harmless" agreement, retrace your path 1/4 miles north on Hwy 85 until you reach Rasmussen Road. Travel west along Rasmussen Road which will eventually become Charlie Bell Road prior to entering the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge. About 17 miles from Hwy 85 you will reach Charlie Bell Pass where there is Trail Head parking.

    GPS coordinates for the intersection of Rasmussen Road and Hwy 85 are 32o 23.345'N, 112o 52.337'W. GPS coordinates for the trail head at Charlie Bell Pass are 32o 23.635'N, 113o 05.141'W. My GPS noted 135 miles traveled from my Ahwatukee home to the trail head. Travel time was just under 4 hours.

    For more information, contact: Cabeza Prieta NWR Headquarters 1611 N. Second Avenue Ajo, AZ 85321 (520) 387-6483
    7:30 to 4:30 Monday to Friday
    Closed 12:00 to 1:00 Monday to Friday
    Closed Saturday - Sunday
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