Out Along The Devil’s Highway

by Dan Davis Tuesday, February 22nd 2011

The weather's just about right for a trip out the El Camino del Diablo and into the Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta region west of Ajo. The stretch of the Devils Highway between Ajo and Yuma Arizona is the most spectacular portion of the 250 mile historic route from the Sonoran borderlands to the Pacific. This year’s lack of the gentle winter rains pretty much guarantees a sparse wildflower show out there this spring. This isn’t a real concern because flowers only tend to hide and diminish the real attraction of this place – a harsh stark beauty and endless raw dramatic landscapes.

Photo 1 
Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

The Spanish soldier Diaz traversed the area in 1540. Father Eusibio Kino spent time exploring the road and mapping the few water sources as well as keeping an eye out for lost souls to save in the late 1600’s. Even though you know for certain they crossed this same area, gazing west you just know for a fact that they really could not have, especially with only a few horses, limited food and water and no knowledge of what lie ahead of them.

Not long after leaving the pavement south of Ajo, you reach historic Bates Well in the Northwest corner of Organ Pipe National Monument. It has somehow evolved into a Border Patrol compound over the years with new structures and antennas. You can and should still walk out to the structures, but it’s just not the same having to go through the complex of vehicles and a gate.

Farther along you come to a prominent grave next to the road on the right where tradition dictates you leave a tithing. It doesn’t matter exactly what you leave, just some token offering. I leave a quarter, then looking to the west and knowing there are more than 50 unmarked graves in the next 30 miles or so, dig out another one, walk back and toss it on the pile of rocks just to be sure. You never know.

Photo 2
Early Traveler’s Gravesite

You have to get out of your vehicle and walk a bit in order to immerse yourself in this country. Walking south toward the mysterious and shimmering Pinacate, somewhere along the massive flow apron a familiar feeling creeps up on you once more. You experience that strange emotional paradox of belonging to the landscape but knowing in fact that you are only a visitor, an alien here. That same emotion you always feel when in wild country anywhere. For some reason however, R. Carlos Nakai on a moon-lit midnight up in the Cipriano Pass seems like a purely natural and timeless thing.

Photo 3
El Camino Del Diablo Sunset

Sunsets along the Camino are pure Arizona desert - sad endings to amazing days but ushering in the clearest, cleanest nights between the Rockies and Sierras. There are not a lot of sounds out here after dark, but a few times before dawn you will hear the pure joy in the voices of coyotes celebrating a successful hunt. Then there are those strange unknown fleeting sounds out across the deserts and up there in the rocks above your camp that you just can’t identify – a pebble bouncing off the rocks, maybe a raven settling in, who knows.

Photo 4
Bullet Holes In Abandoned Vehicle

Although much less common now than a few years ago, you may stumble upon a stolen and abandoned vehicle, an artifact of the smuggling across the borderlands from Texas to California. It’s just a fact of life in this part of the world, and shouldn’t keep you from making this trip.

The most expansive and amazing ocotillo forest I have ever seen sprawls south of the road and up into the hills a few miles east of Tule Well. The lowering sun ignites the scarlet tips of the branches in the springtime and makes it impossible not to stop and wander out among these strange plants for awhile.

When you reach the Tinajas Altas junction, head north to Interstate 40 and come out at Wellton, near Yuma.

This two or three day trip requires a free permit from the Cabeza Prieta NWR and a little research on camping and equipment needed. Four wheel drive vehicles are required and two vehicles per party is highly recommended. The DeLorme Arizona Atlas Gazetteer and your favorite Arizona 4WD guide should be next to you on the front seat.

This section of the Devil’s Highway closes each March 15th to facilitate the Sonoran Pronghorn lambing season, so now’s the time to go.

Like taking out after a 3 week river trip you’ll feel a bit sad having to leave the area, but there’s always the next time.


Climbing Moby Dick

by Emily Tuesday, January 18th 2011

The day began with a long drive down a deeply rutted dirt road into the far reaches of the Cochise West Stronghold. I swear I have car-narcolepsy; sometimes no matter what the circumstances, I completely bonk out in the passenger seat, and this was happening to me as the truck bucked down the road: despite the beautiful views of open desert ranch land and bald, towering domes, and despite the truck bunny-hopping small boulders in the creek, I managed to fall asleep with my head resting on the back of the bench seat for at least a few seconds between bumps of my head against the window. Eventually Clare pulled my head to her shoulder so she wouldn't have to listen to it bang against the glass. She didn't even tease me, though the boys certainly did.

 Moby Dick, first pitch

Lift off: first pitch of Moby Dick

Pulling closer to the trailhead, the canyons unfolded like granite ribbons. We parked and got out and slung on our packs and dropped into the wash, laid out at the bottom of the canyon like a street cobbled with polished white boulders. I had been here before, so I was the acting guide, which would have made our party irrevocably lost if not for the paved river bed. I knew at least that on the approach to Moby Dick on the Whale Dome, it's not time to turn up the gully until you're directly under the dome. You can recognize the dome because it looks like a whale, kind of. There's a crack forming the smile of the humpback mouth. I also knew we wouldn't be directly under it until we had passed a large fallen tree whose branches curved up from where they cross the trail. The first time I picked through the branches I got the eerie feeling of crawling through whale ribs to get to Moby Dick.


There's something magical about the whole days I've spent out here. The approach is beautiful, with lush tree cover in the desert, and after the ribbed branches, after breaking away from the stream bed and a short jaunt straight uphill we found ourselves at the bottom of the climb, two open cracks that would be the wrinkles of whale underbelly if we were to believe the dome still looked like a whale, which it really didn't from there. In any case, we stepped into our harnesses.

I conceded the first pitch lead to Logan. I told him it was because I'd already climbed it and I thought the pitch would be fun for him; in actuality I was nervous about the first awkward and unnerving moves. I didn't think they would be a problem for him, but just like on my first time up the climb, he got into the first strange off-width crack the wrong way, and about eight feet up, right before putting a piece of gear in the rock to hold a fall, his foot slipped. I gasped sharply, imagining a split second where the slip turned into a fall and my boyfriend came tumbling to the rocky ground. In the next split second he had caught himself and placed his foot more firmly on the rock, clipping a cam as he moved over to the next crack system.

Moby Dick, second pitch

Crack system on Moby’s second pitch

Crack climbing is a somewhat rare treat in southern Arizona, and there's a fair bit of it on the first two pitches of Moby Dick, as the climb follows a couple of cracks up the side of the whale. Sometimes they're just used for protection pieces, but often you can wedge a fist in the gap and pull yourself up, or layback up more open cracks, pressing your feet against a wall while grappling the edge of the crack for counter pressure. I like climbing along cracks because it's more physical; you're using your body like you would hexes or cams, locking limbs in and moving up from there.

Pitch three reveals an amazing rock feature as you climb up this big gaping flake and at the top you can look down and see open air through the side; it's one big slice of rock just leaning on the side of the dome. At the top of the pitch you get to pitch a belay on chickenheads, big plates of rock poking up from the surface of the dome. Some people find this absolutely terrifying, but I think it's neat--it's so amazing to me that these features exist, and even better that they can be so useful.

The next two pitches go like a choose-your-own-adventure book. There's a given direction to go, and there are a few sections of slab, but much of it is climbing over big plated chickenheads, which is great because you have a thousand holds and a similar number of movements you can make. It's like a jungle gym.

Whale Dome Summit

On top of Whale Dome

We summited Whale Dome and drank in my favorite view anywhere while we munched dried mango and cinnamon almonds, compliments of Clare. The canyon continues cutting steep gorges, driving northeast toward the other side of the Stronghold. We prepared our ropes for the descent, which involves anchoring them in and then tossing them down a 170 foot abyss where they get tangled in trees at the bottom. One by one we take on the rappel, edging over the whale's lips and lowering ourselves into nothing: for 170 feet the rope dangles away from the rock wall as the whale recedes into the canyon bed.

(A logistical word to the wise: a windy day can whip ropes all over the wall, tangling them in chickenheads. I've heard of more than one person who's spent the night hanging from a harness while the ropes were hopelessly tangled on the wall. This descent--and the climb, for that matter--are not for beginners.)

And then, the climb done all in a day's work, we headed home. The fading light turned the rocks magenta as we hiked out, stopping in the middle for an acorn fight, girls against boys. We boulder-hopped back to the truck, and I stayed awake the whole way home.


Sweetwater Trail

by Dave Baker Thursday, January 6th 2011

One of the four mountain ranges that cradle the Tucson valley, the Tucson Mountains are home to Saguaro National Park West and the world renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The range is a showpiece for the Sonoran Desert and its exotic ecosystem of desert-adapted plants and animals.

Wasson Peak from the Sweetwater Trail

Wasson Peak and the Sweetwater Trail

The Tucson Mountains are relatively low elevation and therefore blistering hot in the summer as well as in early fall and late spring, so winter is the best time to take advantage of the Park’s trail network and enjoy the unique scenery and landscapes. The range is a very popular hiking destination during winter months, attracting out of town visitors as well as locals.

Located on the east side of the range, the Sweetwater Trail is very easy to access from the Tucson metro area. The trail ends after 3.2 miles, when it joins the King Canyon Trail at a high saddle on the crest of the range. From the saddle many hikers choose to walk the additional 1.2 miles up the King Canyon Trail to the high point of the Tucson Mountains -- Wasson Peak. The 360 degree panorama at the top of Wasson makes the extra effort well worthwhile.

Saguaro and Barrel cactus

Young saguaro and barrel cactus

The Sweetwater Trail presents a great display of Saguaro cactus, the Sonoran Desert’s signature plant species. You’ll also see many specimens of Ironwood trees and Jojoba plants. Easy to access, wonderful views, and a fine experience of the ecology of the Sonoran desert -- sorry for taking advantage of too-obvious play on words, but this is a sweet hike!

Sweetwater Trail

Sweetwater Trail

Find the trailhead by exiting I-10 at the Ruthrauff exit. West of I-10, Ruthrauff becomes El Camino Del Cerro which is simply followed west to the end of the road, and trailhead parking. A hundred yards or so up the trail a junction is reached – the left (south) fork is the Sweetwater Trail. The trail weaves its way south for a while, up and down across a few drainages, before finally swinging west and settling into a steady uphill climb to a prominent saddle and the junction with the King Canyon Trail.

Wasson Peak

Approaching Wasson Peak summit on upper King Canyon Trail

Season: Fall, winter and spring. The Tucson Mountains are low elevation and very, very hot during summer months, late spring and in early fall. This hike is most enjoyable on cool winter days.

Water: None: bring plenty of your own.

Note: Dogs and pets are not permitted on this trail. Though fees are not collected at the trailhead, Saguaro National Park is a fee area.

Difficulty: The trip to trail’s end at the saddle is 3.2 miles one way with a 1,100 elevation gain. Those who continue to Wasson Peak will walk 4.4 miles one way and take on 1,900 feet in elevation gain. Moderately difficult.

Maps: Green Trails Maps Saguaro National Park


Click map for larger image


50 Year Trail

by Emily Monday, December 20th 2010

The 50 Year Trail on the west side of the Santa Catalina Mountains is a magical place. It's hard to explain why really; this network of trails does not go up one of the many scenic and rugged canyons, but rather loops around on the shallow ridges and washes below the range. It was cloudy on the morning that two girlfriends and I went out to shred through the trail on our mountain bikes, and the clouds broke up the sun as it crested over the summit, making huge rays scatter over the valley. When I described how pretty this was to my boyfriend and my brother, both avid mountain bikers who have lived in Tucson much longer than me, they said they had often seen the same thing out here. The late-blooming sun keeps the valley below cool until midmorning, and in the past few weeks the wildflowers have had a second run, filling the valley with California poppies one week, bird's foot morning glories the next, and raging pink barrel cactus flowers throughout. The morning of our ride it was raining in Oracle and in Tucson, forming dark curtains around our slice of the mountains.

Sunrise On The 50 Year Trail

Sunrise On The 50 Year Trail

Kristen invited her friend Terri, who was from Australia and spoke with the most adorable accent in the world. Kristen and Terri are trail builders, and often ride mountain bikes in to work sites, loaded down with a day's worth of water and heavy tools, but Terri had never been mountain biking for fun. Kristen and I got to play the role of guides, leading her through the loops and twists of the trail. We got to a section called the chutes, where the trail is rutted down to a smooth channel. Terri had heard about this section of the trail, which is more intermediate because of the steep drops and turns, and we told her she didn't have to ride it; it loops back to the starting point and she could wait until we got back. But she dropped into it right behind us, taking on the downhill as if it was as easy as... well, as riding a bike.

Heading through the chutes

Riding the chutes

I love the chutes. This section is definitely best appreciated on a mountain bike: on foot it's dusty, steep and rutted, but on a bike it's transformed into a roller coaster. The track is narrow and packed, the downhills are steep enough that you barely ever have to pedal, and you can just ride on the spine of these little ridges, feeling the momentum zooming you around the desert.

The first time I went mountain biking, my brother took me out to Fantasy Island and within the first ten yards I hit a small little rock and went flying over the handlebars, opening up my knee and my elbow; I have scars to show. He laughed at how I just went barreling down the hills, too scared to hit the brakes. It was fun and terrifying at the same time, because the desert housed so many things to scratch and stab you if you fell over, but it was exhilarating to find the right balance through the tough parts. I was always happy to be out in the desert, but also a little relieved when we got back to the trailhead.

Coming out of the chutes

Exiting the chutes

The same kind of relief showed on Terri's face when broke back onto the road, heading toward the car. I wanted to go another round.

Beginners and novices might only be separated by this one detail: when you're ready to go home, and when you still want more

Activities | Trails

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!