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.

Trips

Hopi Lands

by Dan Davis Monday, September 13th 2010

The most terrifying event of my life happened in Old Oraibi when I was 8 years old.

I haven’t been back since, but I’m heading uphill out of Moenkopi Farms and onto the Hopi Reservation toward First Mesa and Old Oraibi. Huge sensually green expanses of Mormon Tea remind me of spring Kansas wheat fields, with lone trees replacing grain silos on the flat landscape. Things are a little different up here. People drive slower and are in less of a hurry to walk through their daily goings on. The graffiti common in Flagstaff and Tuba City is absent. The roadsides are surprisingly free of litter.

Mormon Tea
Mormon Tea

All geographic landmarks are lost for awhile except for the omnipresent Nuvatukaovi (San Francisco Peaks) to the west, home of the Kachina gods and the sacred mountains of the Hopi people. All of a sudden the land falls away to your right and you are reminded that you are on a high northern Arizona mesa. The village of Old Oraibi appears almost invisible, blending into and perched on the tan cliffs high above Oraibi Wash.

Nuvatukaovi
Nuvatukaovi

The last time I was here I was with my father on a visit to a Hopi friend to attend a Hopi dance and sacred ceremony. This was when kachadas (non-Hopis) could attend ceremonies as friends of a Hopi and before the days when the dances became entertainment to the outside world.

Four large and hideously masked kachinas with large sharp teeth and long sticks appeared suddenly from a narrow alley and one of them struck me hard on the leg with his stick. They were not shy about using their sticks and pieces of rope as they chased every person off of the dirt streets and into the closest doorway. My father grabbed my arm as we ran into the nearest home, not knowing who lived there. The room was packed with Hopis gathered there for the same reason we were. We sat on the dirt floor, the only kachadas in the room. No one dared to peek out of the sheet covered windows while the Kachinas conducted their secret and very sacred and serious business outside. This is the first time I recall truly recognizing mortality and the first time I saw a baby being breast fed. Only after a couple of hours were we allowed go back outside.

Kachina
Kachina

My old friend Phyllis Yoyetewa-Kachinhongva (Eagle clan) from Shongopovi on Second Mesa chuckled softly when I told her this story some years ago at Grand Canyon. Phyllis is the epitome of the calm grace and friendly gentle spirit of the traditional Hopi. With a permanent twinkle in her eyes she told me stories of Hopi life on the Mesas and how Old Oraibi has maintained the older traditional ways of the Hopi.

Unlike other surrounding Hopi and Navajo Reservation communities, this way of life continues in Old Oraibi in spite of the strong attraction of Flagstaff and Winslow to the younger Hopis. Modern “progressive” Hopis have mostly moved off to places like Keems Canyon and Polacca.

Widely recognized as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States, Old Oraibi was built around 1100 AD and “discovered” by one of Coronado’s lieutenants on his quest for the Seven Cities of Gold.

As I returned after all these years my memory of the village was surprisingly accurate. I parked my truck by the highway and walked down the ancient dirt road into the stone and adobe village. The only thing reminding me that this wasn’t the twelfth century was the bright orange school bus stop sign on the outskirts and a pickup truck or two. Visitors are welcome the village, although the residents keep mainly to themselves.

As I lingered in the village, I felt uncomfortable and a bit awkward – like I was intruding on a way of life that was not mine, and was not only different, but in many ways better. It was not the few gracious residents I encountered that brought on these feelings, they were my own.

Photographs are not allowed in Old Oraibi, and I would recommend you leave your vehicle off the paved highway and walk into the village – respect Old Oraibi and its residents as they respect you as a visitor.

You can reach Old Oraibi and the Hopi Mesas by traveling south on Highway 264 south from Tuba City and the Navajo Reservation or by going north on Highway 87 from Winslow on Interstate 40. Services are limited on the Hopi Reservation, but the quality of the silversmith and carved Kachina businesses is excellent.

Old Oraibi is not an attraction or tourist spot. It is not even a village made up of homes and families. It is much more; it is perhaps the only place left where centuries old traditions, beliefs and a very special way of life continue today.

Trips

Wolves, Wilderness and the Last Grizzly Bear

by Dan Davis Tuesday, June 8th 2010

There are places on the land where events and ideas take place that are more significant than the landscape itself – places like Gettysburg, Thebes, Monticello.

Places like Escudilla (ess-coo-dee-ya) Mountain. The third tallest mountain in Arizona at 10,912 feet, beautiful as it is, is not as impressive or majestic or even as noticeable as some of its neighboring peaks in the Apache National Forest in Eastern Central Arizona.

Even so, you know there is just something about this place long before you start up the west slope of the mountain. Even the name Escudilla is one of the sweetest words in any language.

The last grizzly bear in the state of Arizona was shot and killed on Escudilla. And it is in and around the Escudilla that Aldo Leopold, a co-founder of The Wilderness Society, worked for the US Forest Service in the early part of the last century. It is here also that he learned to “think like a mountain” and as a result helped change a nation’s way of thinking about its wild areas. He is credited with convincing the Forest Service to establish the first Wilderness Area in the country in the Gila National Forest just over the line from Escudilla in New Mexico.

Escudilla1

The mountain is the centerpiece of the Escudilla Wilderness Area and is incredibly rich in wilderness lore and mystique.

Old growth fir and Engelmann Spruce surround huge prairie like meadows and mingle with some of the most expansive aspen groves you will see anywhere.

The single most poignant statement I have ever read in defense of wildland preservation in wilderness literature was penned by Leopold after coming upon a mortally wounded wolf here. In A Sand County Almanac he recounted that he got there “in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes”.

Escudilla 2 

Mexican Grey Wolf

It is fitting that the Escudilla country is central to the Blue Range Mexican Grey Wolf Recovery Program. The on ground program began in 1998 when 11 wolves were released into the wild. If there was ever a place that wolves should freely roam, it is Escudilla. It even resembles the Yellowstone meadows and fir forests, where wolves are once again an important part of the landscape. If I were a wolf, I think I would welcome being kicked out of the back of a US Fish and Wildlife pickup truck in the Escudilla country. On the other hand, maybe not, as the program is sadly plagued by a high mortality rate, mostly from wolves being shot.

I spent a day and an evening on Escudilla but did not see or hear any wolves. I was a little disappointed at first, but given the tenuous status of the animals, it was actually good to see they remained elusive. Just knowing something is out there is sometimes good enough. Even though the population has dropped to less than 50 wolves in the region, there is no question in my mind that a couple of them were up there on the mountain that evening.

Escudilla 3

Escudilla Mountain rises up next to Highway 191 in the Apache National Forest. It is accessible by driving east from the highway on Forest Road 56. A 3 mile moderate hike from FS Trail 308 at Terry Flat leads to the rounded summit of the mountain. I haven’t been up the trail, as I prefer cross country hiking, but the trail looked well maintained. I instead hiked up through the aspens on the south flank to a meadow below the summit. The only thing missing that afternoon was my ragged copy of A Sand County Almanac to thumb through and maybe a couple of ravens.

You can find information on Escudilla and the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests at http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf/

If you are interested in the status of the Grey Wolf in the west or just want more information on the recovery program, visit http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/ .

Trips

Arizona’s Southwestern Desert

by Dan Davis Tuesday, April 20th 2010

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…

Tinajas 
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.

Tinajas Ocotillo

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.

Tinajas Missile Part

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.

Trips

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!

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