If the Colorado Plateau is Rachmaninov, Arizona’s far southwestern desert is pure Black Sabbath. This country is so intense you swear you can smell the heat and the dramatic sepia tones of the landscape. Your ears ring in the silence of midday. At first glance, you are convinced that there is simply no life here at all, save for a few skinny saguaros, ocotillos and bushes that just fade into the ground and may as well not be there at all. Maybe the occasional peep of a small bird you can never see. There’s not a lot of subtlety out here.
Dark Head (Cabeza Prieta)… 120°… Unexploded bombs all over the ground… Small groups of people walking north, always north, close to your camp at 2 AM… Sidewinders under every rock in every wash… Water, well, there really just isn’t any… Bad dirt roads. The best campsites are in the middle of an active military bombing range.
This area along the Mexican border in the Cabeza Prieta NWR and the Barry Goldwater Range is hands down my favorite place anywhere. Well, one of them…
There’s just something flat out wrong with a person who wants to go in there.
So, if there’s something wrong with you, a 4WD vehicle and a free permit (both required) will get you there. The main access from the east, El Camino Del Diablo, is closed to traffic from March 15 – July 15 (exact closure dates may vary from year to year) for the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn fawning season, so I’ll leave this even more remote and fascinating region to chat about in the cooler fall months.
The town of Wellton, on I-10 between Gila Junction and Yuma in western Arizona, is an ideal jump off point to the Tinajas Altas, Gila and Cabeza Prieta Mountains. Take the dirt road south out of town through the Lechugilla Desert and down to the Devil’s Highway and it all unfolds in front of you.
The Tinajas Altas (“High Tank”) and Gila Mountains are granite ranges that jut straight up out of the sea-flat desert plains. Although only a bit more than 2500 ft. in elevation, they are every bit as impressive as the east face of the Sierras. They are full of beautiful and intimate side canyons, each one inviting you to explore. The canyons in the Tinajas Altas and Cipriano Passes offer excellent camp sites.
They come out here just about every day late in the afternoon. Most of the time you hear them after they’ve passed by, or you may catch a silver or black flash through a break in the granite cliffs. Fighter jets seem out of place in the largest de facto wilderness area south of Alaska, but I look forward to them each day. Politics and environmental concerns aside, there is something about seeing a jet screaming in just off the ground and making an abrupt turn straight up and out of sight in just a few seconds. The bombs and missile parts in this area are from earlier times – shooting at targets with laser beams is more common now. They head back to the east after a short time and then the place is all yours again.
It suddenly springs up and startles you like a huge dark snake in front of you as you pick your way south along a small dirt road on the west side of the Tinajas Altas. There is no denying that the border fence is impressive. What used to use a braided complex of vehicle tracks is now a single road. I visited with a Border Patrol agent who told me this is now one of the most boring stretches of the border to be working, as the fence has virtually stopped the northbound vehicular traffic in this section. These routes are the ones that have been used for centuries by peoples wandering north from the Sea of Cortez to trade with the Ancient Ones in central and northern Arizona.
Perhaps the darkest place you will ever see, this is not a place to have a campfire on a moonless night. The sparkling canopy that stretches from one horizon to the other over the great Tule and Lechugilla deserts shames even the most spectacular nighttime urban skylines.
After a few days of exploring these borderlands, you realize that there is actually an abundance of life here, animate and inanimate. Peek one eye out of your sleeping bag and watch the morning sun bring the granite to life and the dramatic transformation from black to deep orange. There are ravens winging around the rocks and up and down the canyons, so you know it’s a good place.
If you are heading east on I-10 on your way out, there is the mandatory stop at Dateland, just east of Wellton, for a freshly made date shake.
Travel Notes: Required free permits to enter the Cabeza Prieta and Goldwater Range are available at the Fish and Wildlife office in Ajo, AZ or may be obtained by calling (520) 387-6483.
A second vehicle in your party is recommended, as there is no cell phone service in the area and the cost of towing or vehicle repair can significantly cut into your life savings. Make sure you fill up with gas before heading into the region, and carry extra water.
Fall, Winter and Spring are the ideal times for a visit, as summer temperatures commonly soar above 115°.
The wildlife out here exists on the edge and is dependent on the few tanks (water holes) in the area. Don’t camp near these water sources and avoid approaching and stressing them at any time.