El Camino del Diablo

Written by John Hill, Mon March 2, 1998

We had a fabulous time Saturday and Sunday (Feb 28 and Mar 1, 1998) on "El Camino del Diablo". John Waack and Skip Bohling in John's Blazer, Bob Peterson and Robbie in "Willy", Mike Drake in a stock Cherokee, and John Hill in "River" left from the Kitt Peak turnoff at 9:15 on Saturday. We added Rick Marsh and his daughter Kathryn in a stock 4runner at Why. They had camped overnight at Organ Pipe campground. After topping off on gas, we headed south from Ajo on Bates Well Road. This road crosses the northwest corner of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This group had lunch at Bates Well, then headed for Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. We ran into Virgil the ranger about 3:00. He had some trucks and tents along the side of the trail where they were hauling out some old AirForce target drones. Even then he was hedging about whether the playas would be passable. Because of this uncertainty earlier, the official Tucson Rough Riders' trip with ~30 trucks was cancelled. We promised to turn back if we started tearing up the trail. The trail was bone dry the whole way! The only time our tires even touched moisture was one puddle on the road in Organ Pipe. The rain gauges along the trail had 2.5 inches of water in them, so it must take some serious water to get the playas muddy.

The wildflowers were spectacular! Yellow and orange everywhere in patches of several acres. White and purple and red along the edges for contrast. The weather was cool and pleasant so it lacked that authentic "diablo" feeling of being near hell.

We caught up to the Old Philosopher and three other trucks of Rough Riders with him at the Pinacate Lava flow. They had camped near the Cabeza Prieta boundary on Friday night. Both groups camped separately about a mile west of Tule Wells on Saturday night. When we got there at 5:30PM, the main camping area was already quite full with about 10 trucks. We had passed another 10 or so trucks along the trail. We were surprised by this amount of traffic. The sky was crystal clear, so we had fun looking through John's telescope. Once the wind died down, it wasn't even too cold (65 high 40 low). The telescope was the only trail damage, it got misaligned by bouncing through some gullies at high speed. John was able to realign it to get reasonable images of M81, M2, M35, M42 ....... The sky was wonderfully dark, just a wee bit of light from the mines at Ajo. I think this was the quietest place I have ever camped. No wind in the trees (no trees), no bubbling brooks (no water), no crickets --- only a few doves at dawn. Probably cancelling the Rough Riders' run was a good thing for us. Eating the dust of 20-30 trucks certainly would have cut down on the fun.

Sunday morning we continued on to Tinajas Altas on the Goldwater Gunnery Range. We met with 6 dune buggies going West-East. They were the only oncoming traffic of the whole trip. We fooled around there at the tanks for a while and had lunch. Bob and the two kids made it up to Tank #2, but nobody was intrepid enough to go beyond that. (The upper tanks are at least 300 feet up a rocky cliff.) All the tanks had water in them. One helicopter flying at "tree" (saguaro) height was the only sign of military activity we saw. After lunch we made warp speed for Wellton -- the big gullies have been graded out of that road. A BLM ranger stopped us about halfway there. He said our Cabeza Prieta permit only allowed us to drive through the Barry M. Goldwater Gunnery Range range, and that we needed another piece of paper if we wanted to stop and recreate or camp. I assured him that we had filled out the Marine hold harmless forms. He was very friendly and said that the Air Force, the Marines and the National Park Service (and the BLM?) were trying to streamline the process of getting these permits.

Obtaining Range Permit Cards
Visitor Regulations

Again, we had a blast --- even without shifting out of 2HI. If you are sorry you missed this trip, there will likely be a second chance in the fall when the Tucson Rough Riders reschedule. Stock vehicles can easily make this trip. But be sure to have off-road tires and good shocks.

The best flowers were in the fields along I-8 east of Wellton. There were more acres of color there than either Cabeza Prieta or Picacho Peak.

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Last modified: Fri Mar 22 18:38:37 2002