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El Camino Del DiabloSouthwest, AZ
Southwest, AZ
4x4 Trip avatar Jan 02 2017
4x4 Trip182.30 Miles
4x4 Trip182.30 Miles3 Days         
1st trip
Linked none no linked trail guides
Partners none no partners
In hindsight, there were bad decisions, bad information, good decisions, good food, good company, a lot of history, and some adventure.

A buddy and his dog were accompanying me on an attempt to traverse El Camino del Diablo west to east. Given the recent rains down there, I'd pretty much decided to call off the effort the week before. Rain turns the fine silt found along the trail in several places into something that looks like a chocolate milkshake, sticks like glue, hardens like concrete when dry, and is slicker than cat #%^* on a mirror. But the buddy had a buddy that told him all was well, "totally passable", "2WD all the way". So off we went.

Day one started well and ended better. Swung by the Oatman Massacre site, Painted Rocks and the Sundad ghost town. Gassed up in Wellton and made some last minute phone calls (including the informative buddy - "yep, still no problem. Have fun." Racing down the wide sandy roads to the Tinajas Altus mountains in my relatively new 4Runner was peacefully exhilarating, if there is such a thing. My buddy's Tacoma was keeping pace nicely. Stopped for the obligatory photo at the huge El Camino sign. I'd camped near the Tinajas Altus (High Tanks) before in a flat box canyon with plenty of mesquite waiting to turn into coals for grilling steaks to perfection. The canyon opened north and the rugged Tinajas Altus mountains shielded us on three sides from the border a few miles to the south. Security and firewood. Doesn't get any better on El Camino. We were off to a great start.

After a leisurely breakfast, we made the short drive and quick scramble up to the high tanks that give the mountains their name. These rock pools up in the whitish gray granite mountains hold as much as 20,000 gallons of water. That water is critical to desert fauna and the early travelers that laid out the El Camino route -- water source to water source across the Sonoran Desert.

We headed south and then east, stopping at the boundary of the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness to read the informative signs. A few miles later we hiked south to the Circle 8 gravesite, apparently a family of 8 from Mexico was massacred at this site way back. Graves would become a theme along El Camino.

Tule Well is a favorite stop for sojourners along El Camino, just as it was for hardy souls of the past. The well now has a solar powered pump and big tank. Picnic tables and BBQ grills hide in the mesquites along the nearby wash. The adobe brick building looks ancient but was built by Luke Air Force Base folks who worked on the bombing range which takes up most of the area between Interstate 8, the Mexican border, Yuma, and Gila Bend. I've got a few thousand hours of time dog fighting and bomb dropping on those ranges. It looks different on the ground, bigger, and more remote for sure. Hiked up to the Boy Scout Memorial with its flag flying proudly.

Miles later we hit the western edge of the Pinta Sands, a fine silt that makes for easy, but dusty, driving when dry. No dust today, just fast easy wheeling. The Pincate Lava Flow came quick there after slowing us to a crawl over the rough rock strewn road. We stopped and hiked up to the rim of Monument Bluff, a volcanic cinder cone close to the border with a great view. Nameer's grave was close by. Not much is known about Nameer other than he apparently died here in 1871. A few more miles of bumpy volcanic driving put us into the eastern portion of the pinkish Pinta Sands. Things were going way too well.

At 4 PM we had half hour of driving ahead to make our camp at Papago Wells. I was beginning to hurry a bit, had been lulled into a sense of security by the ease in which we were crossing this barren and remote land. The 4Runner was handling like a dream with a little southern rock pumping out of the sound system. What's this ahead? Road flooded a bit? Sunken several feet below the desert floor? Ah, who cares. Camp awaits. Sixty seconds later the muck had rendered my tires totally tractionless and my forward momentum stalled. My buddy's Tacoma was also motionless 75 feet behind me. Over the next hour we got a satellite message out to the Border Patrol in hopes they'd bring a truck as an anchor point for my winch. Initial recovery efforts were met with bemused laughter from the mud. OK, I know mud doesn't laugh, but you get the point. Some creative winching and then a set of MaxTrax finally got my front tires up on the elevated and somewhat drier desert floor. The 4Runner powered out from there. Take that mud!! I yanked my buddy out backwards and a few minutes later a grinning Border Patrol guy shows up. "We normally drive around that." Well, no @#&* Sherlock. He did admit they recently had six trucks stuck at the same time in this area.

Camp was fairly quiet at the start. I wasn't pleased with myself. Rigged up a cold shower and got the head-to-toe mud off me. The buddy, who had stayed much cleaner than me, grilled some burgers for us and kept his distance until I saw the humor in the situation. Not long after dinner, a helicopter showed up from the east and some BP trucks roared past from Camp Grip just to our west. For an hour we got ringside seats for a nighttime counter-drug op about a half mile away.

We made 10 miles on day three, across Chinaman Flat and through Cholla Pass, before hitting a long stretch of muck at San Cristbol Wash. Scouted it on foot and looked for a bypass. Nothing looked promising. We had driven 93.9 miles from our start point in Wellton. Less than 3 miles away I could see the radio towers of the other Border Patrol base along El Camino. From there it was easy driving to Ajo and the eastern terminus of El Camino. We wouldn't make that drive on this trip. We turned around and sped back the way we'd come.

182.3 miles and 45 hours after we had left Wellton, my 4Runner was at the same fuel pump getting stares from everyone given the amount of mud smeared across every panel of the vehicle. Dried clumps fell off at random intervals. I admit that there is a certain sense of pride to be had in giving a dismissive sneer to a gawking Prius driver while standing next to an unimaginably dirty truck.

Between our recovery from the muck of the Pinta Sands and our camp at Papago Wells, we'd stopped briefly at O'Neill's Grave. O'Neill was a prospector back in the day who supposedly had an affinity for the bottle. One evening after a particularly strong rainstorm and stronger whiskey, he face planted into a small shallow wash and became the only person known to have drowned in the Sonoran Desert. Following tradition, I'd tossed a penny on his grave asking safe passage on El Camino del Diablo. Looking back, it was a penny well spent. We'd gone in. We'd had fun. We'd had an adventure. We'd come out intact. Maybe not where we planned, but hey, there's always another day.

Some lessons learned for those who might want to attempt El Camino:

1. Verizon has a Travel Pass. $2 per day in Mexico, but only if you use your cell phone. Don't use it, you don't pay. We were close enough to the border to ping Mexican cell towers in some places. Could be a life saver if you really needed it.

2. Stay out of anything that is wet and rutted. It is worse than it looks and you won't come out easy.

3. Bring a variety of recovery gear and know how to use it. Only one vehicle at a time in or on any obstacle.

4. Stop and talk to the BP guys and gals. Let them know your plans. Ask about the road ahead, smuggling activity, safe places to camp, etc. They are helpful.

5. 99% of your trip will be fun and easy. 1% is all the Devil needs. It isn't called El Camino del Diablo for no reason.
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