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Southwest 4x4 Adventure - Quartzsite in Arizona

Arizona Mountains
Bob Norton | Writer
Posted February 1, 2009

Adventuring In Western Arizona

Striking beauty in the southwestern Arizona mountains.

Riches are often found in some of the most inhospitable places. Such is true of western Arizona. Generally dry much of the year, temperatures are often at unbearably intense levels. Yet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the face of the heat, considerable mining activity took place in the Sonoran Desert mountains surrounding Quartzsite, Arizona. While Gold was the primary magnet, other minerals such as Lead and Silver were found. Even today, a handful of mining operations are still active.

Mining's heyday has passed. Now it is chiefly tourism that supports the local economies of Quartzsite and nearby towns. It is said that over one million folks visit the area in the winter months. RVs by the thousands set up in the area's RV parks and on designated Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camping areas. Visitors, many retired, travel from the Northwestern and Midwestern states as well as Canada to escape the cold and snow for the relative warmth of the region. These are the so-called "Snowbirds".

A series of rock-and-mineral swap meets take place here throughout the winter months, including a huge one in early February. Quartzsite was named for the abundance of quartz found scattered about. It was not a misspelling of the metamorphic rock quartzite, which cannot be found in this area. While some 10,000 folks claim Quartzsite as their permanent residence, less than 300 stay year long through the grueling hot months.

Much of the adjacent lands are managed by the BLM. With hundreds of miles of four-wheel-drive roads and OHV trails in the region's desert mountains to explore, this is a 4x4/OHV "paradise". My friend Dr. Bob, my "Snowbird" father, and myself investigated some of those old mine roads in the Quartzsite, Salome, and Wenden, Arizona, surroundings.

Colorful Plamosa Mountain scene.

Dripping Spring Trail, in the Plamosa Mountains, was the first destination. This route begins just south of Interstate 10 at Exit 26 / Gold Nugget Road. Not far, a turn is made at the "Primitive Road" sign and the trail then follows Apache Wash for some distance. The branch route to the Gold Nugget Mine is avoided, as that mine is currently active.

A number of roads braid the wash and several veer off to old mine sites. This can be somewhat confusing. The use of a GPS and real-time mapping software on a laptop computer helped considerably to stay on the correct route to Dripping Spring. Still, a critical turn was missed and our progress continued up Apache Canyon in error. Eventually reaching higher ground, it was obvious that the fork had been missed and back-tracking was required to find the correct trail to Dripping Spring.

The drive further up Apache Canyon, however, is quite pleasant. It follows along a portion of the western border of the New Water Mountains Wilderness. That designated area is known for its favorable Desert Bighorn Sheep habitat. The hill and mountainsides nearby are a profuse potpourri of Saguaro and Barrel Cacti, Ocotillo, Creosote, Catclaw, and several varieties of Cholla. The abundant green-toned Paloverde trees, plus Ironwood, line the washes.

The correct turnoff for Dripping Spring Trail is just north of a small stone cabin at the edge of the wash. Being somewhat close to the many RV parks and camping areas, expect to share this particular trail with other motorized recreationists driving ATVs.

Some dugout climbs and a few narrow spots may cause some apprehension for those driving larger 4x4's. A long steep climb out of the wash is required to drive up to the actual site of Dripping Spring.

There are remains of a stone building at Dripping Spring. Nearby is a diminutive cave set into the canyon walls where water slowly drips from the ceiling. Uncommon in the desert, Dripping Spring weeps water year round. Ancient petroglyphs adorn a number of the boulders and rockfalls in the vicinity.

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