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.
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.
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.
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.
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.