Camp-Fires on Desert and Lava
History: "Primarily, the expedition described in the following pages was an exploration of a genuine terra incognita. While it is true that the Pinacate region was known to a few Papago Indians and perhaps half a dozen Mexicans, to the reading and thinking world it was totally unknown; and the more we gathered maps and inquired about it, the less we know." - CAMP-FIRES ON DESERT AND LAVA by William T. Hornaday, June 1908
"Then with one man driving and the others pushing we triumphed. We felt that we were now out of danger. We were on the trail and only about fifteen miles from the Tule well. That night we camped at the abandoned Tule well. Its water was both brackish and offensive, but on the desert one may not be squeamish. Several months later a friend who had been over that route on a survey asked; "How did you like the Tule Well water?" "Not much" I answered. "Naturally" he said; "We found and left a man in it two years ago"..." - TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES OF RAPHAEL PUMPELLY - MINING ENGINEER, GEOLOGIST, ARCHAEOLOGIST AND EXPLORER by Raphael Pumpelly, March 1920
"Yet, in spite of the manifold dangers, thousands of miners and adventurers of every kind and description eagerly took their chances along this bleak and dismal trail - all bound for California in quest of wealth and romance." - EL CAMINO DEL DIABLO by Barry Goldwater and Benjamin Kinsey, March 1943 Arizona Highways Magazine
"The first white man known to die in the desert heat along The Devil's Highway did it on January 18, 1541. Most assuredly, others had died before. As long as there have been people, there have been deaths in the western desert. When The Devil's Highway was a faint scratch of desert bighorn hoof marks, and the first hunters ran along it, someone died. But the brown and red men who ran the paths left no record outside of faded songs and rock paintings we still don't understand" - THE DEVIL'S HIGHWAY by Luis Alberto Urrea, April 2004
"Give the devil his due: if this indeed is his highway, he surely picked a special place for it. If we're lucky, we won't have more than one flat tire and a few new scratches in the paint, but we'll have rubbed the desert heartland and wheeled across our own history on one of Arizona's first highways. We'll know we've been somewhere." - SUNSHOT by Bill Broyles and Michael Berman, January 2006
Why would anyone want to travel the "Devil's Highway"? El Camino del Diablo was a shortcut, saving at least 150 miles over going by way of Tucson and Gila Bend, following the river routes along the Santa Cruz and the Gila. This shortcut also reduced the chances of meeting hostile Apaches, as did traveling in summer instead of winter, which raiding parties preferred. To those able to brave thirst and block out the fear of peril, "The Road of the Devil" was the route of choice. When the railroad reached Yuma in 1870, El Camino del Diablo travel declined dramatically.
Almost 160 years after the 49er's and 101 years after William Hornaday, one could almost repeat his words (or those of the other authors quoted) and you'd think they were written about a trek today through the El Camino del Diablo region.
Hike: This is not a true hike, but a 4x4 excursion along a National Backcountry Byway - the El Camino del Diablo - with plenty of stops for hiking opportunities. Hiking is only limited by the amount of time you can spend along "The Devil's Highway". I'll describe logistics and a recent 3-day trek...
Permitting: Although permitting is possible through other administrating agencies, I will describe the process followed by the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. On one of my travels through Ajo, I stopped in at the CPNWR headquarters and completed my "Hold-Harmless" Agreement and obtained my BMGR/CPNWR/SDNM Permit. I indicated that I was organizing a group trek along El Camino del Diablo expecting about a dozen people and half-dozen vehicles. A Special Use Permit is required for groups with 4 or more vehicles. I targeted a 3-day weekend in late-February for the trek, 2/20 to 2/22, and the CPNWR opened a file for our group indicating names could be added as "Hold-Harmless" Agreements were completed. The CPNWR was able to confirm that there were no planned military operations that could affect our trek on our targeted dates. With blank forms in hand, plus 4-pages of Visitor Regulations, I distributed them to our group and was able to complete the permitting process long-distance leveraging scanned documents via email and originals via snail-mail.
Note: It is MANDITORY that you call prior to each visit to record specific trip info for each area visited - permit number, date, number of people, destination, duration, vehicles in party. See phone numbers on your Approved BMGR/CPNWR/SDNM Permit. Since our planned route would traverse both the CPNWR and BMGR-West, we are required to phone-in the requisite information to two phone numbers.
Special Note: Illegal entry and drug smuggling activities are common within CPNWR, BMGR and SDNM. Anticipate Border Patrol inspection. Have permits at your ready. Most of the refuge falls within the air space of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Numerous low-flying aircraft cross the refuge on their way to air-to-air bombing and gunnery ranges located to the north. Some military training exercises over the refuge may require limitations on travel and even short periods of closure of the refuge to the public. You may find unexploded ordnance - DO NOT TOUCH IT!
Also Note: Periodic road closures corresponding to Sonoran Pronghorn fawning season may be implemented. Typically fawning season is mid-March to mid-April, call the CPNWR for specific closure information...
Mile 0.0: Junction of Hwy 85 and Darby Wells Road - Although this marks the beginning of our current day El Camino del Diablo trek, albeit not the original route. That would lie 35 miles further south starting at Sonoyta Mexico. See Hornaday's 1908 map for the original route. Given the back country closures within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Port-of-Entry border crossing restrictions, a true historic recreation can not be legally reproduced. Our first 40 miles will follow the Yuma Wagon Road, a connector trail used by freighters in the 1850's to the mines near Ajo...
Mile 1.0: Massive tailings dump from the New Cornelia Copper Mine looms to the north side of the El Camino. In the 1750's Spanish settlers exploited Native American mines in the vicinity of Ajo. Although Ajo had proven copper veins, it wasn't until circa 1900 and the arrivals of a rail spur line and open pit steam shovels that the operation was truly economically viable. The open pit mine shut down in 1983 due to low copper prices.
Mile 2.0: Darby Well can be seen on the southeast side of El Camino. This is a good spot to air-down your vehicles.
Mile 12.7: Leave BLM land and cross the northern boundary of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Once inside the National Monument, note the organ pipe cacti frequenting the dark volcanic slopes on the north side of El Camino.
Mile 14.2: Growler Pass funnels traffic, legal and illegal, between the Bates Mountains to the south and Growler Mountains to the north.
Mile 15.0: Note the lushness of the Sonoran Desert in this region. Flora and fauna abounds
Mile 16.6: Bates Well and Ranch Ruins is a great place to explore. The website for OPCNM lists 16 historic structures at Bates Well including the Ranch Main House. Bates Well Ranch was owned and operated by Robert Louis Gray, Sr. from 1935-1976. The ranch was one of the fifteen ranches and line camps in the Gray family partnership cattle business which developed the ranching potential of the Sonoran desert country north of the border and dominated the lands of Organ Pipe National Monument for nearly 60 years. The ranch house was moved from Growler Mine to Bates Well in 1942, "recycled" as was traditional frontier and the Gray family practice-adaptively using available materials at hand. Probably originating as a miners' cabin, the northern portion was presumably added after its relocation at Bates Well. The Bates Well property represents a very complete and intact example of the frontier ranching pattern in Arizona typical of the Sonoran Desert during the first third of the twentieth century. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on May 20, 1994. Bates Well also serves as a Border Patrol FOB (Forward Operating Base). High clearance 2WD vehicles are allowed to drive to Bates Well. Beyond Bates Well, it's strictly 4WD...
Mile 22.7: Intersection with Pozo Nuevo Road. This road runs north-south from Quitobaquito Springs at the international border to Growler Valley in the CPNWR. This is a well known border crossing route for smugglers - both drugs and people. As we approach the intersection I count 6 people being loaded into one of the Border Patrol trucks. This will be our only "alien" encounter during the trek - but serves as a very visible reminder that undocumented border crossing is very real. Strange that one of my "pre-reads" was "The Devil's Highway" by Luis Alberto Urrea, the true story of a May 2001 border crossing gone wrong - 14 men died. The route the coyote chose started at Quitobaquito along Pozo Nuevo Rd to Growler Valley and beyond...
Mile 25.3: Exit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
Mile 28.5: San Cristobal Wash can collect standing water during seasonal rains. Some road improvements have been made across the wash. The San Cristobal Wash tracks an ancient north-south salt and shell trade route from Gila Bend to the Gulf of California. The "Lost City" archeological site lies north along the wash.
Mile 31.5: Travel through Cholla Pass and enter the Antelope Hills region.
Mile 32.5: Cinnamon Flat and Deer Hollow are noted for frequent Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope sightings. We didn't see any on this trek, probably due to heightened Border Patrol traffic from "incident" earlier in the day back at Pozo Nuevo Road.
Mile 39.1: Papago Well has picnic tables and BBQ's making it a perfect candidate for a lunch stop. A spur road heading east about a mile and a half will take you to Papago Mines.
Mile 43.8: Camp Grip is one of the Border Patrol FOB's (Forward Operating Base) along the El Camino manning the drag. Drags are created by bundles of 5 tires attached to a frame looking somewhat like the Olympic 5-ring symbol. Every day a Border Patrol vehicle chains a drag to its back end and drives the El Camino ironing the sand to a smooth surface. Sign-cutting is the low-tech tracking technique employed by the Border Patrol - looking for fresh footprints in the sand.
Mile 44.3: Dave O'Neil's Grave is located on the north side of El Camino as you enter O'Neil Pass. A local prospector, O'Neil was found face down dead in a pool of water in 1916. This makes O'Neil the only known drowning victim along El Camino del Diablo.
Mile 50.0: Las Playas is an ephemeral lake on the south side of El Camino straddling the Mexican border. This was an important yet unreliable water source for ancient travelers along El Camino as the lake tends to be short-lived only after sufficient desert rains. Note the elevation low point of 659 feet acts as a water catchment rendering the El Camino impassible after severe rains.
Mile 52.0: Pinta Sands and Pinacate Lava Flow stretch as far as one can see. The black lava and yellow sand provide stark visual contrasts. The powdery sand and razor sharp lava will challenge any vehicle for the next 10 miles.
Mile 53.4: Look for the rock cairn on the side of El Camino marking path to Nameer's Grave 1871.
Mile 65.5: Gravestone Pass has half a dozen graves marked on both sides of El Camino.
Mile 71.1: Tule Well and Tule Cantina. There are picnic tables and BBQ's located in several locations around the well. We set up our camp in the sandy wash just to the south of the well. The well marks the junction with Christmas Pass Road which travels north to Wellton and past the Mohawk Dunes.
Mile 73.6: Tule Tank turn-off. Vehicle traffic is now forbidden, but you can hike the mile and a half to Tule Tank. This is an important watering hole sustaining much of the local wildlife. There's also archeological evidence of ancient encampments at the site.
Mile 74.4: Cabeza Prieta Mountain turn-off. A network of roads no longer accessible fans out to the north into the Cabeza Prieta Mountains. The turn-off can serve as a staging point for a hike into the mountains, perhaps even peak bagging Cabeza Prieta Mountain.
Mile 80.2: Tordilla Mountain turn-off. We travelled the 1 mile spur road north to explore the black lava flows.
Mile 81.0: Circle 8 Gravesite turn-off. Hike south about half a mile to the mass grave where a family of 8 was massacred in 1880 while traveling El Camino del Diablo. Just south of the grave you'll notice a faint double track heading east-west. These are remnants of the original El Camino del Diablo.
Mile 85.8: Exit the Cabeza Prieta NWR and enter the Barry M. Goldwater Range. You are in the middle of the Lechuguilla Desert - home of the namesake small agave plant.
Mile 89.5: Tinajas Altas turn-off. As the main drag bends gradually to the north, take the beeline cut-off straight to the Tinajas Altas.
Mile 91.4: Tinajas Altas or "High Tanks", perhaps the most infamous watering hole in the southwest. There is much evidence of human occupation near the tanks with ancient grinding stones and rock art in abundance. There's multiple routes to the upper tanks, all with varying degrees of exposure.
Mile 94.0: Tinajas Altas Pass or "Anza" route verses the "Gila River" route via Wellton was a decision to be made by El Camino travelers. We planned on taking the "Anza" route setting up camp in the pass before heading to the Fortuna Mines the next day. There are many reminders that you are on a military range with ordnance found in many locations throughout the pass.
Mile 95.8: Exit Tinajas Altas Pass onto the Davis Plain. You are greeted by a Border Patrol "lifesaving tower". The signage certainly grabs you; "ATTENTION! You cannot walk to safety from this point! You are in danger of Dying if you do not summon help! If you need help, Push red button. US Border Patrol will arrive in 1 hour. Do Not Leave This Location!"
Mile 104.2: Cipriano Pass turn-off. This pass marks the geologic separation between the Tinajas Altas Range to the south and the Gila Mountain Range to the north.
Mile 116.0: Fortuna Mines turn-off. The main road will bear west with a stony 4WD track gently curving north following a wash beside a lava flow.
Mile 121.0: Continue climbing the cobblestone-like track until you reach the basin site of Fortuna Mines. There is a trail head kiosk that marks the beginning of a self-guided walking tour of the turn-of-the-century mining town. A rich outcrop was discovered in the volcanic rock in 1894. Soon the La Fortuna Gold Mining and Milling Company was established on the site employing about 100 miners. A 20-stamp mill was build and water piped in from the Gila River. Between 1986 and 1904 more than $2.5M in bullion was extracted from the site. The saloons and whorehouses did a roaring trade. By 1904 the vein was lost along a fault line and the site soon became the ghost town seen today.
Mile 125.0: El Camino del Diablo forks left into a wash. The right fork eventually reaches the Gila Mountains.
Mile 127.5: The dirt track of El Camino del Diablo abruptly ends at Fortuna Foothills beside a golf course! Travel about 1 mile west along E. County 14th Street until you reach the intersection with Foothills Blvd. Travel north on Foothills Blvd about 3 miles until you reach the I-8 overpass.
Mile 131.5: The El Camino del Diablo ends at I-8 Exit#14 intersection for Foothills Blvd.
Summary: The "Road of the Devil" is perhaps the most infamous Native American and Pioneer Trail in the southwest. Its notoriety is associated with the 2000 or so trail side graves commemorating those who didn't make it. Today, this is a complex logistical trip crossing BLM land, National Monument land, National Wildlife Refuge land, Military Range land and Border Patrol buffer zones. A little planning and preparation (don't add to that 2000 count) and you to can go back in time and make the desert crossing viewing it as it appeared hundreds of years ago. Although primarily a 4x4 excursion, I have read recent accounts of those hiking the route (see Bill Boyle's SUNSHOT) and mountain biking the route (see Scott Morris' BIKEPACKING.NET). Enjoy!
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.