El Camino Del Diablo
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.
The graded road was rapidly becoming more of a two-track, and a few deep washes added some interest. We stayed in two-wheel drive, letting our long wheelbase walk us through. There were a couple of spots that might encourage a small SUV to turn around. We wondered if this was the start of the "4" difficulty rating. We veered left to climb over Tinajas Altas Pass. Numbers on military marker posts seem to have changed, and mileages can vary significantly, so our GPS gave us a warm fuzzy feeling when nothing else matched. We were still not looking for unexploded ordnance.
Things got a little weird around marker A15, A16-or was it A16a? There was an unmarked triangle that was missing signs. One road went northwest, following Camino Del Diablo Este (east). We had been following Camino Del Diablo Oeste (west). (Yeah, there are two main trails.) What we were looking for was the unmarked track to the Tinajas Altas, or "High Tanks." Containing agua escondido ("hidden water"), they are a string of nine natural rock basins running up a cliff in the Tinajas Altas Range. When full, they can hold 20,000 gallons of precious water. Often the lower pools are dry, and the upper tanks are only reached by a difficult and dangerously steep climb. Many died from being too weak to reach them, or fell to their deaths in the attempt.
At length, we found a sign pointing down some well-used ruts to a turnaround. A 10-minute hike brought us to the lower tinaja. It was half full of stagnant, tea-colored water. Nothing you would want to drink. On the other hand, two hundred years ago, this was the only water source for perhaps a hundred miles. If you were exhausted from the 110-degree heat and had been without water for two days, this would have looked like a cold bottle of Perrier or an icy Corona. (Sorry, no lime.)
Backtracking to the ambiguous junction, we took the most obvious road southeast and soon entered the Cabeza Prieta Refuge. A couple of Border Patrol trucks stopped at the entrance parking area to check on their passengers, half a dozen illegal immigrants trying to sneak across the border. We began to see the stately, sometimes humorous, Saguaro cacti. This area is closed to the public from March 12 through July to protect the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn, unless otherwise adjusted. There are over 300 kinds of wildlife calling this parched land home, including 24 species of snakes, six of which are rattlers. Over 90 percent of the refuge is designated Wilderness Area. Vehicles may park and camp up to 50 feet from the main road in areas previously used by others.
Long sections of soft sand prompted us to stop and lock the hubs, but our lowered tire pressure was enough to continue in two-wheel drive. We like to keep four-wheel drive as an option. If you get stuck, you can almost always flip a lever and back up to assess the situation. If you're already in 4x4 mode, you have a problem. Much of the sandy sections had been "graded" using a strange contraption of seven tires chained together and dragged behind a Border Patrol pickup. We assumed the smooth, untracked surface would make it easy to spot illegal foot traffic.
About 11 miles from the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta Refuge, we saw an unmarked trail lined with rocks on both sides. It looked like the entrance to a campground or something important. We followed a graded road that shortly turned into several washouts, requiring four-wheel drive and low-range to crawl through. After a little over a mile, our GPS map clearly showed we were driving straight toward the Mexican border. We backtracked and made a quick stop at Tule Wells to sign the guestbook. The Jeepers were camped there, so we moved on to find more solitude.
Bumping over a low rocky pass, we found what we were looking for 4.3 miles from Tule Wells. Just as we stopped, a Border Patrol agent flashed his lights behind us. Apparently, the little side road we had explored earlier was a known drug running route. The officer had seen the unusual tracks of our Michelin XZLs, and was sure we were smugglers. We all had a good laugh. The next morning, after a long walk up a dry wash and through fields of wildflowers stretching into the nearby hills, we didn't get started until after 11:00 a.m. This camp was so peaceful, we wish we could have stayed a week.
Twenty-one miles from Tule Wells we entered a section of sand, deep mud ruts, and bull dust. Clearly, the braided tracks would not be passable after a heavy rain. For several miles, the trail wound through the desert like a sidewinder in search of a dinner. Perhaps part of the original historic trail, it seemed to be made by someone on foot or horseback, following the best path through the cholla and ocotillo. In other areas, the road was so eroded, vertical sidewalls were over three feet high. It was like driving down a bobsled run through soft sand-the kind of road you wanted to turn around and drive again, but it was so narrow, it would have been difficult to do so. We crept over a rocky five miles across the Pinacate Lava Flow and back into more bull dust. Mesquite trees raked the sides of the truck.
Passing the gravesite of Dave O'Neills, a prospector who died from exposure and dehydration, we came to the huge Border Patrol station, not shown on any maps. A little further on, the Papago Well and tank made a good lunch stop, and there was water, despite repeated warnings that "There is no water anywhere on the route." The sand was deeper now. We could hear the pitch of the engine change in the soft spots. Apparently, it gets even worse in the heat of the summer. One section was "paved" with interlocking steel aircraft landing mats.
As we passed into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the desert was progressively greener. Bates Well was our last stop. Abandoned now, the Border Patrol has a 6x6 flatbed parked at the entrance for a refueling station. From here, it was an easy 15 miles to the blacktop of Highway 85. Ajo to the north held little of interest, and Lukeville to the south even less. We opted for the convenience of the scenic Twin Peaks Campground inside the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Snowbirds were already packing up and heading north with the geese.
El Camino Del Diablo is a beautiful route. By luck, the flowers were spectacular. Maybe ten Border Patrol trucks and a handful of private vehicles passed us in two and a half days. No animals. No illegal immigrants. No drug smugglers. No unexploded ordnance. Just the awesome silence of this unique desert-and that alone is enough to bring us back.