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Devil’s Highway: Exploring the Remote Camino del Diablo

Brian SumnerPhotographer, Writer

There is something about the name El Camino del Diablo, the Devil’s Highway, that drew us in. The 114-mile-long trail travels through the Sonoran Desert close to the U.S.–Mexico border in southern Arizona. The first explorers used the route to reach California as early as 1540 before it became popular as a shortcut to the missions in the 1700s. Many travelers along the road often suffered from hunger, dehydration, and fatigue. The number of deaths along this route may never be known. We wanted to see for ourselves just how rugged and remote this well-known trail was.

Our adventure began in Ajo, Arizona, at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge visitor center. A free permit must be obtained in person prior to traversing the route. We watched a training video about the dangers on the military range and then acknowledged with our signatures all the dangers that could be encountered on the trail. Armed with maps and pamphlets of rules and regulations, we left to begin our journey on the Devil’s Highway.

The Sonoran Desert is a vast area with both rugged mountains and flat desert terrain. Part of the Camino del Diablo trail passes through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in this area. This spur road is an entry to the halfway point of the trail that passes through the Cabeza Prieta Mountains.

After airing down, we hit the dirt midafternoon. Our first stop was Bates Well, where we hiked around the former ranching homestead stopping at each building and the water tank. We continued on, hoping to reach Papago Well for our first night’s camp. Soon we were leaving the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and entering the wildlife refuge. Call towers for distressed travelers on foot dotted the road every few miles. Soon we reached the next well and the Papago Well campsite.

As the coyotes howled in the distance and the sun rose over the hills, we packed up and continued toward the next watering hole just as early travelers had done. We didn’t know at the time, but this would be our favorite section of the entire trail between Papago and Tule wells. The desert terrain had everything from sand and silt to lava beds and mountain passes. We reached Tule Well and stopped to look around. Christmas Pass was nearby, so we took the spur from Tule Well to see what else we might discover. The pass was rocky and narrow with great views we would have otherwise not seen. We returned to the Camino del Diablo and continued into the Barry M. Goldwater Range and towards the High Tanks mountain range.

Right from the start, several large signs warned us of smuggling and illegal immigration in the area. Despite the numerous warnings we never saw anything out of the ordinary during our adventure along the Devil’s Highway.

We spent the remainder of the day exploring different spur roads, passes, and sections of the Camino del Diablo. We found the border fence with Mexico, a military tank, and the Fortuna Mine site before calling it a day. We made our final camp just miles from the nearest town and interstate. The Devil’s Highway did not disappoint, the solitude and desert scenery makes this trail worthy of any adventure bucket list.

Bates Well is a good example of the ranching that took place in the area in the mid-1900s. The site consisted of several buildings, a windmill, a water tank, and a corral. The site is spread out over a small area and is reached by hiking in from the parking area just off the main road.

We saw bundles of used tires sitting on the ground at many different spots along the length of the trail. The tires were tied together with cable and are dragged behind trucks to smooth out the road and erase all signs of tire tracks and footprints. After dragging the road, Border Patrol agents look for fresh signs of traffic.

Old military landing mats were laid across two different sections of trail on the eastern end. We could tell the mats had been in place for a long time, perhaps to control erosion, as sand was nowhere to be found and it was too narrow and bumpy to be a landing strip. The mats clicked and clanked as we drove over them, adding excitement to this short section of trail.

Several official campsites are along the trail. We stopped for the night at the Papago Well campsite. Picnic tables and grills are the only amenities they offer nestled between the creosote bushes. Camping is allowed anywhere along the road in sites that have been used previously as long as vehicles are parked no more than 50 feet off the road.

We were rewarded for our first day on the trail with a vibrant sunset against the O’Neill Hills and saguaro cactus. Saguaros can grow up to 60 feet tall and live for 200 years.

The Pinta Sands surround a lava field in the middle of the Devil’s Highway. The sand in the trail gets churned up so fine it turns into a powder known to many as silt. The silt goes everywhere when disturbed. Pro tip: Roll your windows up before driving through! We got caught off-guard and quickly reached for the window button.

The trail is well marked with posts and signs. On the Cabeza Prieta Refuge the signposts in green mean the road is open to the public, while markers in yellow signify the road is open to government vehicles only. The yellow-flowering brittlebush dotted the landscape along many parts of the road.

The adobe casita at Tule Well is slowly succumbing to the elements. The shade structure that we saw in front of the building in previous photos was nowhere to be found. We stepped inside and signed the guestbook before leaving the area.

Christmas Pass is a spur trail that leads north from Tule Well. We decided to see what it had to offer. The trail was tighter and rockier at the pass than the Camino del Diablo; however, we had no problems negotiating it in a fullsize truck. The best adventure vehicle is the one you own. The 2006 Ram 1500, equipped with a leveling kit and 35-inch tires, worked well the entire trip.

The Tinajas Altas (High Tanks) range extends towards Mexico and lies near another junction in the trail. These mountains are a source of water that collects in natural rock pools that are found high up the slopes. We hiked near the base of the mountains searching for some pools but never found any.

Another marked spur road we explored led us directly to the international border fence with Mexico. Feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere in this remote border zone, we wondered if we were being watched. Contrary to the earlier warning signs, we still hadn’t seen any illegal smuggling or immigration.

The Devil’s Highway is very remote, and we only saw another group of two vehicles on the trail the entire time. On the other hand, border patrol vehicles were a common sight along the route. Two remote stations that they operate out of are located right along the trail.

This old tank rests next to the trail on the military range. We had to stop and check it out. Made of thick aluminum and powered by a V-8 engine, this tank is only a decoration piece now. Or maybe it was for target practice—we didn’t stick around for long to find out!

These signs lining the edge of the trail every few hundred feet on the westernmost part of the military range warn of unexploded ordnance and lasers. We kept on moving. The view from the trail was just as good. We did debate whether to set up camp that night to watch the laser light show, although we don’t think those are the kind of lasers the sign warned of.

The Fortuna mine operated in the early 1900s and produced gold. Several open mineshafts are in the area, the deepest of which is 1,100 feet. The mine covers a large area with a system of roads and trails that connect points of interest. This old footing was just behind one of the shafts; perhaps it was the site of the boilers and steam equipment used to operate the lifts. The Fortuna Mine trail loops off the western end of the Camino del Diablo.