The Southwestern desert can be a hostile, menacing climate for those who venture out unprepared. The dry heat that is the trademark summer climate can send temperatures soaring well above triple digits for much of the day and well into the evening after the sun has set. But hot temps won't keep everyone at home. Some just won't be denied their playtime in the sand and the rocks.
As August wandered its way into the Arizona summer, the trails grew hotter, only to be temporarily quenched by afternoon monsoon showers. When the clouds cleared, the sun shined again, ringing the water out of the desert washes. But there was still 'wheeling to be done.
Among the well-known trails east of the Phoenix Valley are old mining routes and pathways of bygone days. These were days when men toiled in this hot region hoping to strike it rich digging for precious metals. One of these routes is commonly called the Woodpecker Mine Trail, its name having been derived from the abandoned Woodpecker Mine that lies on its path down a canyon wash.
While still a challenging trail itself, the upper end of Woodpecker is no longer the seriously hard-core trail it once was. However, at the end of this trail lies the start of a truly gnarly piece of wash that offers some excellent challenges and rockcrawling fun.
Aptly named Highway to Hell, the entrance has been officially dedicated by four-wheelers who have tackled its obstacles. A metal sign with the name torched in it stands at the entrance and is adorned with a collection of 4WD parts. Broken axleshafts, steering mechanisms, and other bent and shattered pieces stand as testimony to the toll this trail takes on vehicles that enter it.
Our goal for the day was to tackle this devilish trail without breaking, have some fun, and try to beat the afternoon heat back home. We had a small band of vehicles ready to go, and we hit the trail early in the day while the sun was still well below the canyon walls.
Locking the hubs and shifting to Low range, we began our trek up the sandy wash scattered with large rocks. The rock here is jagged and sharp along the sides and more rounded down in the wash itself. Years of rain have smoothed the once-sharp edges.
The first big challenge is a 50-yard-long line of obstacles all strung together. You must first negotiate a tight squeeze through a long rock trough that tilts you steeply to the left. Negotiating that, you exit this slot by three-wheeling a rock ledge, carrying your front left tire a few feet through the air. Next was another squeeze between a washing machine-sized boulder and the canyon wall. Good alignment here saves wheel rims and rockers.
One obstacle remains to exit this area. As the wash narrows further, you meet a 5-foot rock ledge positioned at an angle to the wash. This climb proved trickier than it looked, and several in the group got hung up on skidplates or gas tanks. The loose sand up top provided no traction to help with the climb out.
Moving along the trail, we encountered many minor obstacles scattered along the way. There was a double-hump obstacle with one ledge climb right after another. Both climbs had steep faces, and once again, loose dirt and water made gaining traction more difficult.
Random boulders lay all about in the sand and lay in wait to bite at pumpkins or high-center you one way or another. At one point, one of the drivers slipped off one of the boulders and slammed the rear driveshaft into another big rock. Torque and dent combined to begin to pretzel the shaft in a sad spiral pattern. Not to dampen our spirits, a quick field swap was undertaken and we moved on.
Highway to Hell has plenty of tight spots to tease your sheetmetal, and the rocks bear signs of past scrapes and paint markings. One particularly nasty spot lies in another tight slot where the canyon narrows again. A rock wall outcropping lies to your left, and a lower ledge to your right. But the bottom of the wash tips you hard to the right, leaning your driver-side door into solid rock. Several in our group did significant door and side panel damage, creeping past this metal carnivore. The rock was not kind.
Not to be daunted, we pressed on and completed the trail by mid-afternoon. With sun blazing and a good day's 'wheeling done, we all said our goodbyes and headed home to cooler environments. It was a successful trip, and we agreed we'd be back some day to do it again.