Willcox Playa

November 24, 2012

In a state known for geologic oddities, Willcox Playa is one of the most bizarre. We've been fascinated by the Playa for years, and finally got a chance to explore in the company of friends from Willcox.

Measuring about 8 miles wide by 10 miles long, this interior-draining lake is covered with fine white silt and clay washed down from nearby mountain ranges. This shimmering surface creates Arizona's largest and most convincing mirage. Distant hills double in size while passing trains glide across a mirrored surface.

For earlier generations, the playa was a wasteland, and it had a brief career as a practice bombing range after World War II. Low-flying planes strafed targets with machine guns, and unexploded bombs were found there as late as the 1960s. Today the surface is still littered with thousands of .50 caliber bullets.

You may have remarked the rows of concrete pilons, visible fromI-10, that criss-cross the playa. In the post-World-War-II era, these pylons were covered with aluminum plates and served as electronic targets. The aluminum plates were stolen in the 1970s.

But bullets and shell casings aren't all you might find on the Playa. During our day-long exploration, we also found

  • fragments of an A-10 that crashed in the Playa near the Apache Generating Station in the 1970s
  • a weather balloon
  • a calcified bible
  • plenty of mummified mouse, beetle and grasshopper carcasses, flash-fried on the dry lakebed where summer temperatures exceed 105 degrees.

And on the east side of the playa, there's a series of concentric circles nearly 300 feet across and clearly visible on Google Earth.

Small wonder that locals tell tales of stagecoaches filled with ghosts, and more recently, of drug runners using the playa as a staging area. It was a beautiful moonlit winter night, and we had planned to camp on the Playa, but thought better of it after a possible encounter with those modern-day ghosts.