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El Camino Del Diablo

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Queen of the Walkabout

Joined: 15 Jan 2004
Articles: 35
Comments: 1
 Posted: 11/12/2004, 1:18 pm

El Camino Del Diablo

Last year I wanted to drive this historic route. Rumors abounded of possible closures, the illegal immigrant problem, drug runners and difficulty getting a permit. I decided I'd better get on the stick and get out there before it was all taken away. My friends Jerry and Debbie offered to meet me at the Yuma end and together explore Tinaja Altas etc. We set the weekend and I had no problem getting the free permit from the nice folks at the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness office out of Ajo.
You have to sign a "hold harmless" agreement that specifies, since you cross an active military area, if a bomb is dropped on you you have no legal recourse.
I had a couple of guide books and one hiking guide. This trip was exploratory and since I was to meet my friends on the other end not much time for hiking.
I set off early out of Gila Bend, picking up my permit from the box at the Refuge in the dark. Then you have to call an 800 number and give your name, rank and serial number and trip plans to an operator. The border patrol and others monitor this area and you can expect to be under some surveillance. Watch where you pee.

Out of Ajo it was a bit confusing to find the right track but I was on my way as the sun came up. First stop at Bates Well, until recently a caretaker lived here. It is also the site of the last rancher to hold onto his land out this way. A couple of structures stand as well as the windmill for the well, a hall mark of all the water sources on this route.
In the old days this developed well was not here. For many miles the only water were natural waterpockets near Tule Well and Tinaja Altas at the far end of this route about 100 miles away. Many people died on this treacherous route, trying to avoid the warring Apaches farther to the north around Gila Bend. Some marked graves can still be seen along this drive, it is chilling knowing there are many more out there.

I drive on thru Growler Pass and admire the lovely rocky low mountains here. The road is rough and rocky, no problem to my stock Jeep Cherokee. Soon you pass onto and through part of Organ Pipe National monument, with the trademark cactii all around. I hiked a bit here to some awesome specimens off the road. This area is beautiful and serene. Unfortunately a closed road nearby is a major smugglers route. I must admit this trip I was very observant of my surroundings the entire time I was out there.

A sandy area had some metal grating tracks laid out, very wide wheel base so I suppose for the hummers the border patrol uses. Annoying to try and stay on with the Jeep. Passing out of Organ Pipe I pass Papago Well, with an obvious vehicle camping site with 4 vehicles all with Colorado plates. The mountains in this area are rocky and austere, and beautiful with lots of Saguaros'.
As I drive on I drop through a pass and start across the Pinacate Lava Flow. Careful driving here to avoid sidewall damage to tires. I decide to do a short hike and park the Jeep on an area of "desert pavement" off the road. Before I leave I leave out a gallon jug of water. I feel if anyone needs water they should have it; no matter the circumstances.
I take off cross country and line of sight to a cinder cone on the almost flat plane. In and out of washes, on a flat area of blackened lava rock, I soon approach the base and am treated to lots of yellow flowers blooming out of the black soil. I climb the cinder cone at the gentlest slope I can find, the rock is very sharp. Ahi type lava.

At the top the cone is collapsed in the middle to the ridgeline is like part of a cirque without a lake. Its about 10-12 feet wide at the top. I find lots of tiny white daisy like flowers and a cross someone made laying down and entwined with flowers; its poignant.
The view over the playa is surreal, the Pinacate extends on into Mexico, where the bulk of it lays. Its a primeval feeling surveying the stark area. I walk around the C- shaped ridgeline and decend an inner slope via a run off chute. I come out the back side and circle the cone to walk back to my Jeep. I can't see it but hike right back to it, remembering land marks along the way.

Driving on to Tule Well, my spot for the night, I come across an awesome bloom of Verbena and desert primrose. There've been some winter rains here and the plants are victorious. I stop and again walk among natures' wonders. The plants come right up out of the sand.

Tule Well is a developed area but has been used by many travelers, the natural water tanks here are off the main El Camino, and are very unreliable. Many a traveler had to try to hang on until Tinaja Altas to the distant west. I drive out a little bit and car camp on desert pavement off the road. The Colorado group comes and camps in the main area. I admit I was a bit nervous out here by myself so chose to sleep in the back of the Cherokee. Again I sat my gallon jug of water out for those who might need it. Sunset and sunrise in these jagged hills was inspiring. The other group was pretty quiet and we all enjoyed the desert night at its best.
In the morning as I strolled around with my coffee I noticed some footprints in a wash about 30 yards behind my campsite. Fresh. Some travelers had passed in the night, my jug of water undisturbed.

I leave early-- Jerry and Debbie are driving out of the west end of the El Camino and when we meet they will turn back and I will follow to Tinaja Altas (the high tanks). The mountains west of Tule Well are awesome looking. I would like to hike in there. The Sierra Club gives some details on the highest peaks in this area.
Jerry and I literally almost run into each other, they hardly recognize my dark blue Jeep as it is almost white with dust; there is some deep sand driving along this route.
We turn back and journey across a desolate plain to the rough and rocky Tinaja Altas mountains. We go to this historic waterhole- a series of rock tanks stacked in a steep and almost inacessible gorge in these mountains. Large boulders at the base show morteros and petroglyphs from earlier times along with early white/spanish explorers signatures. Some people made it this far to die because the lowest tank was dry and they lacked the strength to climb to the upper tanks. There are about 7 tanks. Debbie and I climb up part way, mountain goat Jerry goes to the top and has a slippery climb down, he is wishing he had a rope. I note some rebar sticking up out of the rock a few inches at several places. Tie off point for ropes to climb or to lower buckets to get water???

We have lunch here and pass the time, the sun warming up the rocks. We elect to go through a pass pioneered in the 1700s by Juan De Bautista. It's beautiful low desert terrain thru here, you can imagine all sorts of early explorers resting here.
Down the other side to a confusing set of roads winding about the edge of an active laser sighting bombing range. We drive past some ordinance buried in the sand; I do not alert Jerry because I know he would want to go poking about.
We end up driving along the border road; the Interstate into Mexico is at times less than 100 yards away. There is no fence here and some tell tail vehicle tracks in the sand. We encounter a couple of border patrol vehicles but they do not stop or engage us. I take a photo of the old boundary markings.

We finally find the way into the edge of Yuma to get gas and regroup. I elect to head back to Tucson, a relatively fast trip on I-8. I have heard via resources that the El Camino is now heavily patrolled, a generator has been set up at either Tule or Papago Well, and your campsite will be checked every two hours by the Border Patrol. So much for desert solitude. This is a wonderful area, its virtues extolled by Ed Abbey and Craig Childs. I am glad I went when I did and want to go back and do more hiking, I am not sure if that's possible now. What a world we live in-- its wonderful and sad all at the same time.

Rating: 5.00/5.00 [2]

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