The Turtle Expedition Explores A Wilderness Corridor Through Arizona's Remote Deserts
The Turtle Expedition normally doesn't look for trouble, but when we saw 130 miles of remote dirt tracks leading through the 2 million-acre air-to-ground and air-to-air Barry M. Goldwater Air Force training range (the third-largest land-based military range in the U.S.), the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Area (the third-largest in the lower 48 states), and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument-all in close proximity to the Mexican border, it sounded like an adventure. The route was basically going in the direction we needed to go anyway, so it was an easy choice. Never mind that they don't recommend you drive this route alone.
Despite what some sources advised, we only needed one permit for all three areas. We picked ours up at the Marine Corp Air Station outside of Yuma, Arizona. Using the detailed instructions in the Backcountry Adventures of Arizona guidebook published by Alder Backcountry Guides, we found the trailhead off Interstate 80. El Camino Del Diablo (The Devil's Highway) was given a difficulty rating of 4. The map supplied to us at the Marine Corps Air Station (last updated in 2008) gave trail markers, and in combination with a detailed map for Southern Arizona we had loaded in our Lowrance Global Map 6000, we always knew where we were, even if we didn't know where we were going.
We aired down our big XZLs to 35 psi and headed east on a washboard-graded road across a wide valley below the Gila Mountains. This was a drive in the country so far. Flaming ocotillo flags gave color to the desert. Concentrations of spiny Teddybear cholla and signs warning "Danger-Laser in Use-Do Not Enter" kept us from even thinking of wandering off the road. Unexploded ordnance was not something we wanted to find. At least we didn't have the problems of thirst or exposure faced by early Spanish explorers and missionaries, who used the trail as a shortcut to California. More than 2,000 souls could be buried in the desert, victims of what has earned El Camino Del Diablo a reputation of being the most deadly of immigration trails. The number grows today as illegal immigrants and drug smugglers attempt to sneak into the U.S. across the unfenced border.
A couple of hours took us past the A8 marker, across a faint trail to Spook Canyon, and south to the tip of Vopoki Ridge. Strange rock formations resembling melting wax in the setting sun prompted us to find a camp. The silence was amazing. In the clear desert air, the stars seemed within arm's reach.
Morning was cool enough to build a little fire in an existing pit. There was plenty of down wood, and the ridge behind us gave an extra couple of hours of shade as we watched the sun slowly burn across the desert in front of us. It was the beginning of a mild April day, but heat waves gave a clear sign of what summer could bring. Three CJs from the San Diego Jeep Club rumbled past us. They stopped to give us their CB channel in case we needed to communicate.
The Route Description in our Alder Backcountry Guide gave us a wash-by-wash, sidetrack-by-sidetrack, mile-by-mile log. Using our Lowrance iFinder 500 as a trip meter, we quickly saw the mileages were not always accurate, but the GPS coordinates were right-on. Particularly in the Goldwater Range, we were instructed to stay on the main road at all times. It was sort of like being on a train. We knew where we were, but there was really no choice, so sit back and enjoy the scenery. Thanks to late rains, nearly every flower and cactus was in full bloom. We explored a side trail at the A9 marker leading up the backside of Vopoki Ridge on the edge of the Davis Plain. There were some nice campsites and a colorful display of ocotillo and brilliant brittlebush.