El Camino del Diablo

March 6-9, 2015

It's been more 12 or 13 years since my last trip to the magnificent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, that eerie uninhabited wild area in the southwest corner of Arizona. A return trip has been on my list for years, and suddenly the planets aligned and David, Rogil, Dennis and I were all free for four days in early March.

We were on the road at 0-dark-30 Friday morning, aiming to get our paperwork out of the way early in the day. Since we'd be visiting both Cabeza Prieta and the Barry Goldwater Range, we needed to watch two "Your're Gonna Die" movies and initial pages of hold harmless agreements. Then after lunch at the Oasis Cafe in Ajo we were on our way. David did all of the legwork, handing us a quarter-inch stack of maps and GPS coordinates for a variety of itineraries. Since I'm now leading 2-3 trips a month between the Tucson Backpackers and my work with the adventure therapy program for Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Centers, it was a real treat to just go along for the ride!

Like last time, we made our way south along Bates Well Road, stopping for a quick tour of the ruins at Bates Well. The Bates Well Ranch is one of 15 ranches and line camps owned by the Gray family, who controlled nearly all ranching in the Monument for 60 years.

West of Bates Well, we encountered our first "water hazard" — a long puddle about one foot deep. I got out to shoot some video and quickly discovered that there was no scampering out of the slick-walled channel, so down I went!

David and Rogil went in search of a remote benchmark, while Dennis and I enjoyed some quiet time at Papago Well. With a fully-functioning water tank powered by a solar pump, this is a true oasis. We could hear the water trickling into the tank, and the surrounding fields were awash in orange mallow and desert marigolds.

Continimg westward, we encountered the infamous Pinta Sands. I remember this area from a previous trip for very deep sand as fine as confectioners' sugar. It was a different story this year, after a winter of unusually regular rainfall. "El Camino del Diablo" gave way to "El Rio del Diablo", a ruddy stream a foot deep and at least a quarter-mile long. Deeply rutted detours ran away in all directions, but all of them were slippery as vaseline.

Late in the afternoon, we climbed into Pinacate Volcanic Field, the roughest road we would encounter along with some of the most eerily beautiful landscapes. The Pinacate Volcano includes more than 400 cinder cones and lies mostly in Mexico but the northern tip extends into southern Arizona. We determined to make camp there, even though we were within sight of Mexico. We tucked ourselves behind a rock pile and enjoyed a peaceful evening but for some mysterious lights moving north around 1:00 in the morning and raucous coyote serenades. I fell asleep watching an enormous orange moon emerge from the lava, silhouetting a giant ocotillo, while Dennis took pictures of constellations in a nearly light-pollution-free sky.

In the morning we rolled off the edge of the lava flow and back to the Pinta Sands, but the west side wasn't nearly as wet. This section was deeply carved into the red sand and very nicely decorated with a profusion of summer flowers. Rogil counted more than 34 varieties including mallow, desert marigolds, yellow and white evening primrose, prickly poppies, desert lupine and tack stem.

We enjoyed lunch in the shade of a mesquite bosque at Tule Well, and then took a side trip to Christmas Pass. The road here climbs over bare rock toward a small range of gleaming white mountains. We scampered all over the ridge, examining the rocks which were mostly very friable white granite shot with veins of quartz and feldspar and peppered with gneiss. With distant views of white sawtooth mountain ranges and vast plain of saguaros, this is one of the prettiest spots on El Camino del Diablo.

Beyond Tule Well we entered the Barry Goldwater Range, and from there is was 20 miles of smooth sugar sand route straight to the Tinajas Altas Mountains. Along the way we passed Tordillo Mountain, where a 2000-foot-high mound of black lava appears to have overtopped a jagged white mountain range, like scoops of rocky road and vanilla beans ice cream.

We made our way about a half-mile south of the Tinajas Altas trailhead to a delightful side canyon and set up camp for the evening. The rocks here were unlike any we had seen, bubbled and looped into bizarre caves and waterfalls of liquid granite. We scrambled all over them and remarked the incomparable display of classic Sonoran desert plants — giants mounds of chuparasa and brittlebush and desert lavender, and on closer inspection we realized after brushing up againt them that many of the trees were intoxicatingly fragrant bursera microphylla (elephant trees). We were camped on fine-grained white sand, a great canvas for such a lovely floral display.

In the morning we explored the famous tanks — one of nine tucked into these mountains — and found it full to the brim with emerald green water. Nearby there were giant boulders covered with dozens of bedrocks mortars where earlier inhabitants must have ground their corn.

After rumbling over Tinajas Altas Pass, we found ourselves in a lunar landscape that seemed to stretch unbroken all the way to Yuma. It was an absolutely flat and white plain broken only by sparse ocotillos and signs every 100 feet warning of unexploded ordnance. Closer to Yuma, the road receives a lot of ATV traffic, turning into a relentless washboard. I was thrilled to finally see this area, but on a return trip I would probably spend most of my time in the Tinajas Altas Mountains.

Thanks again to David and Rogil for putting together a fantastic adventure!