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Arizona 4x4 Adventure - The Ghost Trail

Posted in Events on April 1, 2008
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During the 15th century, the Spanish Empire laid claim to most of North America calling it the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Explorations of the new territories were funded, and missions were established. A myth materialized by word of mouth about the existence of "The Seven golden cities of cbola."

The myth is based on an event from a time in the 11th century when Muslims conquered the city of Mrida in Spain. Supposedly, seven priests fled the city taking sacred religious relics to a faraway land and established the cities of cbola and Quivira. For centuries, the location of those cities was unknown.

In 1539, a man named Fray Marcos de Niza crossed into Arizona and became the first European to explore the territory west of the rockies. A monument can be found at the border- crossing town of Lochiel, Arizona, recording April 12 as that day in history.

De Niza discovered the Zuni people living in seven cities throughout territories now in the states of Arizona and New Mexico. The Zuni are believed to be descendants of the Anasazi cliff dwellers. Whether or not they lived a peaceful life prior to de Niza's visit, there would be nothing but trouble to follow.

De Niza was not allowed into the cities. He observed them from a distance and imagined they were hiding many treasures. His claims developed into rumors that the Seven cities of cbola had been found and were filled with riches beyond anything ever known. Other explorers, eager to claim the treasures, ventured into The territory. Some never returned, and others who did return embellished the stories that great wealth was there to conquer.

Those stories evolved into the myth of the Seven golden cities of cbola.

In anticipation of claiming the treasures protected by the Seven cities, another explorer named Coronado assembled an army. He conquered the Zunis and was soon in control of the Seven cities but found no treasures. The myth was dispelled and de Niza was dishonored for his false claims.

The Spanish Empire retained control of territories in North America until the 18th century when its dominance began to crumble. Mexico declared its independence in 1821, and the United States took the rest of the Empire's claims in North America in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War.

The crossing used by de Niza to enter Arizona continued to be a popular trail. During the 1880s, a community consisting of a few hundred people sprung up at the crossing to support mines being worked in the nearby hills. Smelters, boarding houses, saloons, and numerous stores made up the community that eventually became Lochiel, Arizona.

Even the famous outlaw, Pancho Villa, used the crossing. His banditos would cross into Arizona, steal as many cattle as possible, then run back through Lochiel into Mexico. His visits were a tense time for the citizens of Lochiel. Although he might spend money during his visit, he might take back more than he would spend.

Modern-day Lochiel is a ghost town. The area around it is best known for drug smuggling. If you visit the area, mind your own business and do not stop to visit with anyone except those in border-patrol vehicles.

Lone Writer and Happy Jack left Tucson early one Sunday morning to visit the country where Spanish explorers and Pancho Villa spent so much time. Their first stop was the town of Patagonia.

Patagonia is a quiet ranching town. It was founded during the 1880s to serve ranches and mines in the outlying mountains and grasslands. It was the supply point for those who defended what little they had from roaming banditos.

A hitching post still spans the front of the Stage Stop Inn, which is a complex including a motel and restaurant. A boardwalk shadowed by a porch covering the full length of the building could have come right off the pages of a Wild West novel.

After enjoying breakfast at the Home Plate restaurant in the Stage Stop Inn, Lone Writer and Happy Jack used the Harshaw road to leave Patagonia. They stayed on backroads to the border town of Lochiel. When de Niza crossed at this point in 1539, there was probably nothing more than a watering hole to mark the location. When Pancho Villa frequented the crossing during the 1800s, Lochiel was a bustling town with hundreds of residents and lots of saloons where his banditos could party. Another century passed before customs established a border-crossing station. A few decades later, the abandoned buildings became home to ghosts and the beginning of what some call the ghost Trail to Nogales.

Arizona has more than one trail with a theme from those who have passed on. The Devil's Highway is probably the most famous. Immigration across the border from Mexico is nothing new, even though it gets a lot more attention in this century. For the most part, the ghost theme for such roads in Arizona is recognition for those who died in search of a better life in the United States. In the early days, such treks were done on foot across many miles of waterless desert where temperatures can swell far above 120 degrees F. Those who had wagons sometimes died when mechanical failure put them at the mercy of the environment. Others simply could not find the isolated watering holes.

It is likely the ghost Trail became known for those same reasons. On the other hand, there were others who died from gold fever. Mining was a hazardous occupation. If claim jumpers didn't get them, and they survived any number of mining disasters, they were likely to die with a lung disease from working in the dusty tunnels. The land was ruled by survival of the fittest.

Lone Writer and Happy Jack stopped at the customs house in Lochiel and studied its locked gates. It seemed strange to have such an elaborate gate when a few miles in either direction, the border could be crossed with no effort at all. There were several buildings standing in Lochiel, but nothing looked inhabited. The best choice seemed to be staying in the car and not staring too long in any one place.

At the edge of town, the monument for de Niza stood in a state of decay. Obviously, no one really cared about it, and only curious travelers even look its way. De Niza's monument claims the first European west of the rockies arrived on April 12, 1539. Being the skeptic as usual, Lone Writer wondered if records in those years were really accurate enough to be that certain.

With the windows down on a cool January morning, Lone Writer turned the rental SUV away from the monument and started the journey along the ghost Trail. The first stop was the ghost town of Duquesne. The entire mining camp is posted as private, but much of it can be viewed from the road. There are numerous mining claims in the area including the Washington camp. The two towns were so close together that miners teased, "If you step on the tail of one, the other will bark." During the 1880s, more than 1,000 residents lived in or around Duquesne. Those Who did not work in the mines supported others who did.

Lone Writer and Happy Jack left Duquesne on the Duquesne road. It took them up a steep grade to the pass overlooking Nogales and the valley below. The scenery was beautiful. They spent some time admiring the many views from the pass before continuing down the pass.

The ghost Trail may be used by ghosts of those still wandering the hills in search of gold, but Lone Writer and Happy Jack did not find them. There is no doubt that many people died in battles between miners and Apaches, battles between miners and claim jumpers, and just individual confrontations among the hard cases who lived and died in the Santa rita Mountains.

Lone Writer and Happy Jack spent the night visiting rusty, a friend who is part-owner of the Abrego Self Storage in green Valley. He has explored just about every backroad within a hundred miles of Tucson and recommended they visit Bull Springs road to see ghosts of a different kind. Rusty would not be able to join them due to other obligations, but he drew out a route for them on some very tattered maps.

Early the next morning, Lone Writer and Happy Jack took the exit off Interstate 19 for Elephant Head road. They had Happy Jack's Explorer with them for this trip since rusty had pointed out that Lone Writer's rental SUV might not have enough clearance. They headed toward the Santa rita Mountains and left the pavement with a turn onto Bull Springs road. At first, the road surface was not too demanding, but some of the dry creek crossings required careful negotiation in the rental. The road was lined with prickly pear cactus, desert ironwood trees, and a variety of other desert plants.

Lone Writer's rental car was pushing its limits long before they reached the sign stating "4WD recommended." The rental car was left parked at the sign. Lone Writer took the shotgun seat in the Explorer, and the trip continued. As it turned out, the most difficult obstacle along the route was the one where the rental car was parked. There were several steep descents and climbs through dry washes, but nothing that challenged the Explorer.

The "ghosts of a different kind" were everywhere. All makes and models, all colors, and in every state of disassembly. The route was a graveyard of abandoned vehicles. Stories tell of thieves driving the vehicles into the mountains and stripping them to the metal. Other stories say the thieves were trying to get the vehicles across the border but abandoned them when the Border Patrol closed in. Regardless of why the vehicles were driven into an impossible terrain, they became a part of the landscape and will likely remain there for many years.

In one place, Happy Jack pointed out a group of people in the distance. They seemed to be in no hurry as they crossed the road about 1/2 mile ahead. They all wore backpacks and faded clothing that blended in with vegetation and landscape. As quickly as they appeared, they were gone.

Another ghost appeared beside the road ahead. Alto is a Spanish word meaning "high" and was the last identity used for the town where only one building remains. Spanish Jesuits began mining the area where the town of Alto was established as early as 1690. The post offi ce operated from 1907 to 1933. Prior to being called Alto, it went by the name of El Plomo taken from the Spanish word for "lead."

A short distance past Alto, the road surface changed from rough and rocky to graded. It is a county road passing private lands that are posted and locked behind gates. The next 8 miles went by quickly. After a creek crossing, the road connected to Highway 82.

A few minutes later, they parked the Explorer facing the hitching rail at the front of the Stage Stop Inn.

On the following day, Lone Writer dropped the rental SUV at the airport in Tucson and boarded a plane to Indiana. A motorhome that needed to be delivered to a dealer in Los Angeles as waiting at the factory. Other rails in Arizona would have to wait for another day.

Larry E. Heck has been writing backcountry adventure stories since 1985. Some of the newer e-book products in the camp- fire Tales series can be found at his website ( The site also contains campfire Tales written decades ago. If you have an idea for a historic backcountry trail that you think Larry should consider, write to or call (303) 349-9937.

Bull Springs Road from {{{Tucson}}} to Petagonia
Trip Meter Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 31 47.3636 111 1.2473 Take Exit 56 off I-19 and go to the stop sign on the
  east access road stop sign. Turn right (south).
3.1 31 44.9324 111 2.6445 Turn left (east) on Elephant Head Road.
0.0 31 44.2493 111 1.3491 Right on Mt. Hopkins Road.
4.7 31 41.3670 110 58.4566 Right on Bull Springs Road (dirt).
6.8 31 40.2181 110 {{{57}}}.9275 Right fork.
7.8 31 39.6082 110 58.1083 Left fork.
8.4 31 39.5346 110 57.5443 Entering National Forest on Road 143. Stay on
  143 until next note.
9.8 31 39.3472 110 56.4174 Exit National Forest.
10.5 31 39.2295 110 55.8017 Right fork.
10.9 31 39.1045 110 55.6456 Begin 4x4 recommended.
11.7/0.0 31 39.0279 110 54.9404 Right fork.
2.5 31.38.2316 110 53.4854 Right fork.
3.4 31 38.3122 110 52.9644 Right fork. This ends 4x4 recommended.
4.1 31 37.8984 110 52.7822 Left fork.
5.2 31 37.2270 110 52.5418 Alto town site.
5.8 31 36.6993 110 52.5649 Entering private lands. Stay on road.
7.3 31 35.6453 110 53.1611 Stay left on main road.
16.0 31 31.0597 110 47.7014 Right fork to highway.
16.4 31 30.9333 110 47.3649 Highway 82. Left is Patagonia.
PhotosView Slideshow
This route begins at the Stage Stop Inn in Patagonia and through Lochiel to Nogales.
Trip Meter Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 31 32.4203 110 45.1954 Stage Stop Motel. Go north.
Connects to Harshaw Road.
6.0 31 29.3274 110 41.5525 Straight onto dirt road.
0.0 31 27.2980 110 39.0785 Straight toward Lochiel.
3.6 31 27.1019 110 35.4800 Right turn.
0.0 31 22.7250 110 34.1812 Right toward Lochiel.
1.8 31 21.2977 110 34.7626 Right toward Lochiel.
5.5 31 29.9885 110 37.3258 Lochiel border crossing.
0.0 31 20.3554 110 37.6422 Historic marker for the first European
west of the Rockies.
3.2 31 22.0669 110 40.1713 Left on Duquesne 128.
4.2 31 22.1902 110 41.1046 Duquesne town site. Right fork.
5.0 31 22.7545 110 41.2223 Left on Duquesne Road.
5.7 31 23.1982 110 41.5148 Left toward Nogales.
7.3 31 23.1779 110 42.8622 Pass. Cross over the top and
follow the signs to Nogales.
24.9 Nogales.
PhotosView Slideshow
PhotosView Slideshow

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