El Camino Del Diablo is a 130 mile trail that connects Ajo and Yuma. The 130 miles that exist in Arizona today is really only about half of the original 250 mile road. The historic El Camino del Diablo has been in use for over 1,000 years. Originally used by Native Americans, it was later used by explorers, conquistadors and even later, by pioneers en route from Caborca in Sonora, Mexico to the colonies in California. It is estimated that around 400-2000 people have died along the trail depending on the source. Today, El Camino sits on the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and Organ Pipe National Monument. Free permits are needed to complete the trail. (See trail page for specific details on the trail itself.) We’d be taking the same Jeep as our last trip with a few upgrades, including a new transfer case and new computer. Completing the trail in late May, in a 21 year old vehicle, by ourselves was probably not the greatest idea, but we felt confident that we were well enough prepared. What could possibly go wrong?
3 days | 140 miles covered offroad | Thursday, May 26th - Saturday, May 28th | Southwestern corner of Arizona
It’s become a tradition every summer that we do a big trip. two years ago, we took a Camaro on Route 66. Last year, we retraced Top Gear’s route and drove from Phoenix to the bottom of the Grand Canyon using as few paved roads as possible. This year, we were even more ambitious. For quite a few years now, we’ve heard and read about a long and grueling trail that runs across the remote southern Arizona desert. We decided it was finally time to attempt the Devil’s Highway, El Camino Del Diablo.
Our journey began in Ajo, Arizona, about 40 minutes south of Gila Bend. With the Jeep loaded down with camping and emergency supplies, we headed south and topped of our tank and reserve tank at the last possible gas station in Ajo. We picked up El Camino 3 miles south of downtown Ajo and aired down. It was about 3:00 PM when we began moving on the trail. The dirt “highway” heads due south past mine tailings outside of Ajo. Almost immediately you come across signs of what makes El Camino so dangerous today – warning signs saying that smuggling and illegal immigration could be encountered. We were slightly on edge and carrying several guns, prepared for the worst.
El Camino continues to head south as it winds across several dry washes. At certain points, there is deep sand on the trail and tight sections where you may get some Arizona pinstripping. Nothing too serious, however. After about 7-8 miles, we entered into the Organ Pipe National Monument, marked by a cattle guard and informational signs. Pay the national monument entrance fee and continue on your way. Not far down the road, we came across another unique feature that reminded us of how close to the border we were, a humanitarian water station sat a couple hundred feet from an emergency beacon. El Camino today has several emergency beacons approximately every 15-20 miles. With lights on top and a big red button on the front, they’re hard to miss. If you’re in dire help, you’re supposed to push the button and Border Patrol will show up within an hour. This first beacon is where we encountered our second Border Patrol vehicle of the trip. While out looking at the beacon, the agents asked if were okay. When we told them we were, they asked us to not push the button, which we assured them, we hadn’t planned on it.
After this, the trail remained uneventful as we made a long right turn and climbed through Cholla Pass. It had been almost 15 miles of open desert and having mountains around us was comforting. Just after 7:00 PM we pulled into our first night’s camp on the north end of the Cholla Hills. We figured this was a safe place to camp since illegal foot traffic would likely not cross directly over the mountain range to our south. The day had been good. We got on the trail late but had already covered 35 of the 130 miles.
We quickly made camp 50 feet off El Camino (the limit since we were in a wildlife refuge). We got the tent set up, air mattresses inflated, our cooking station ready, and broke out the Mexican beers in honor of our proximity to the border. Luckily, we would be eating quite well. After recently acquiring a family heirloom – an old camping cooking box made by our grandpa and great-grandpa – we would be eating a nice hot meal cooked on cast iron on a 35 year old Coleman Stove. The best part, the propane tank (last used in 1982) still worked. Amazing. We started sautéing some veggies and got some water boiling for some instant mashed potatoes. Once that was done we moved on to the main course – burgers. Although they were nothing fancy, having a nice cooked meal after 4 hours on the trail was spectacular. We ate until we were content.
After cleaning up the dishes, total darkness crept over our camp. Despite both carrying side arms, we both were still nervous about encountering someone – or something – unexpected moving in the night. It was at this point when we looked up and were quite surprised by one hell of a night sky. The darker it got, the better it was. You could follow the Milky Way all the way across the sky and the stars were far too numerous to count. After enjoying the unexpected view, we locked up our belongings in the Jeep and crawled into the tent just before midnight. It hadn’t been too rough of a day but we were still exhausted and we were only just getting started.
The next morning I was awakened by what felt like a furnace. Even though it was still before 7:00 AM, the sun beating down through the tent was uncomfortably warm. I stumbled out of the tent and was pleasantly surprised by the view. Mountain ranges off in the distance were peeking out from the vast expanse of saguaros. After hiking around and checking out the surrounding area, I saw our first Border Patrol vehicle in 12 hours. He waved and continued on his way – probably thinking who the hell is crazy enough to camp out here in the summer. Luckily, yesterday’s high was only 85 and the next two days were forecast to be less than 95. Not bad for the end of May. After Daniel woke up we got breakfast going – again, happy to be able to actually warm up some food on the stove. We feasted on bacon, sausage, and eggs.
All of a sudden, we had some company. A coyote was slowly moving by just north of our camp – probably attracted by the smell of bacon. He continued on his way. We were surprised to see him. After relaxing for a while, the silence was broken by the sound of an engine. Not surprisingly, it was Border Patrol again. But this time they stopped to talk with us. The agents made sure we had the number to call in case we came across trouble, although the lack of reception would have made that difficult. They also told us they had passed us the day before and asked how our trip was going. They told us to reference their specific unit “Charlie-120 & Charlie-61” if we came across any trouble and they would “get their asses over to help us out”. We felt significantly more at ease knowing these bad asses were out there watching our back. Shortly after they took off, we began to break down our camp and play tetris getting everything back in the Jeep. We were loaded up and on the trail just before 10 AM.
We hit the trail and again set our sights west. Five miles later we came across Papago Well. Here, we found another emergency beacon but also a large water tank and windmill. The tank had a spickot on it and had flowing water should we or anyone else need it. Another reassuring sign even though we had packed 13 gallons of water.
•El Camino Del Diablo Resources:
•Individual trail video from our trip is available in a playlist on Youtube:
•A documentary of our trip is also available soon on Youtube:
•More pictures/behind the scenes photos available here:
•Special thanks to all the family and friends that provided support along the way and allowed us to do this epic trip.
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Shortly after, we continued on. Sixteen and a half miles from the pavement, we arrived at Bates Well. Bates Well is one of several old ranches along El Camino. Originally built by Henry Gray, he operated the ranch from 1920-1976. This ranch was grandfathered in when the national monument was established in 1937. Today, Henry’s house remains along with several other buildings, cattle pens, and windmills all within a short walk of the parking area. We spent some time walking around the old buildings before continuing west on the trail. It was now close to 4:30 PM and we still had 17 and a half miles to go before reaching our campsite.
Past Bates Well, the trail is only for 4x4’s officially, although we would remain in 2WD for quite some time down the road. A few miles west of our stop, the road passes through a heavily eroded section, marked with steep dirt embankments on either side of the trail – a unique sight for a place that doesn’t get a lot of water. Just past this we came across the first of two Border Patrol FOB’s or Forward Operating Bases. It is here where the Border Patrol mans an outpost for patrolling the vast expanse of remote and rugged desert in the border region. The outpost seemed quiet although we had been passing Border Patrol vehicles every so often. Not far east from there, we came to the boundary of the national monument and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. We stopped here to fill out a card informing the range of our trip plans and details in addition to activating our permits.
Map of our route on El Camino. Click to enlarge all pictures.
Continuing west, the trail continued relatively straight as we crossed the large Growler Valley. After passing a few more emergency beacons, the trail began following a wash. Here, the trail became narrower and the ground became a deep, rutted sand. We managed to stay in 2WD although you could feel the back end digging in as we trucked along. All of a sudden we came to a section of unique “paved” steel plates. For approximately one mile of this section of trail, large sheets of aircraft carrier landing decks lined the road. We figured it must be a measure to help the Border Patrol vehicles navigate this sandy section and reduce the erosion of the trail. A brief section of dirt was followed by another section of steel plates. As we drove over, you could hear the metal creak below as the Jeep passed over.
Three miles west of Papago Well, we came across the second Border Patrol FOB. This one was larger and more active than the one we had seen the day before. Just past the outpost, we pulled off to the side and watched a Border Patrol Jeep drive towards us towing a bizarre trailer type thing. As it got closer, it became clear what they were doing. Dragging behind the Jeep was 7 tires, arranged in a sort of Olympic Ring design. This method is used to drag the trail to create a fresh surface to keep an eye on footprints that may cross the road. We talked to the agent driving the Jeep and another one that passed by shortly after and told them our plans for the day. They were surprised to see us out there and surprised to know that we’d be spending the night 50 miles down the trail.
Pressing on, the trail continues west and climbs through another cluster of hills. It was here where we missed Dave O’Neil’s Gravesite. Rumor has it that O’Neil was on El Camino and somehow ended up face down in a small puddle of water, making him the only known person along the trail who died from TOO much water. Not too bummed about missing it and not looking to join him, we kept west. After about 5 more miles down the trail, we hit another terrain change: this time, extremely deep and fine sand. Shifting into 4WD, we had to keep the RPM’s higher to keep moving through the sand. Looking back, I was happy to see a wall of dust behind me. We were turning gasoline into dust – and it was awesome. We were now in the Pinta Sands for the next few miles as we passed Las Playas (an ephemeral lake to the south) which marked the low point on the trail. This is not somewhere you want to be on the extraordinarily off chance it rains. The powder dust becomes quicksand after adding water making it absolutely impassable. The Jeep bounced around as we picked our line through the washes and navigated the tightest sections of trail so far.
After a couple of miles, the sand vanished and was replaced by the black and sharp rocks of the Pinacate Lava Flow. For the next 8 miles, we would be traversing over the jagged lava rocks that flowed north from cinder cones in Mexico. In order to avoid a flat tire, our pace was slowed. Despite airing down, we were still bounced around inside the Jeep. On the west side of the flow, we stopped to take in the view. El Camino drops off the edge of the flow and continues west across another large valley. It was at this point where an untrained eye could look south and see the border fence. It was less than a mile from our position and we had still not seen 1 sign of illegals.
It was now noon and the heat was beginning to wear on us. At this point, we were halfway done for the day but still had 25 miles to go. So far, the Jeep was doing great. As we dropped off the lava flow, we had to stay in 4WD as we entered round two of the Pinta Sands. The trail is heavily eroded along this section but the ride was fairly smooth. After several tight turns in the wash bottom, we finally emerged back on hard packed dirt a couple miles later. Shifting back into 2WD, the Jeep, which was now running warm from the deep sand, was able to catch a breather.
Within a few windy miles, we were in the heart of the Tule Mountains. Here, it is easy to see how little rain this area receives based on how little the mountains are eroded. The desert floor runs right up to the base of the mountain which juts nearly straight up into the sky. It felt like we were driving on another planet. 13 miles after the Pinacate Lava Flow, we arrived at Tule Well. Here, picnic tables, a windmill and water tank, and small building await. We figured this would be a great lunch spot. After hiking up to see a small monument (built by Boy Scouts in 1930), we headed inside of the abandoned building to have lunch in the shade.
It was just before 3:00 PM when we were back on the trail. Shortly after leaving Tule Well, we passed south of Tule Tank (an optional hiking spot) where early travelers on the trail may be able to find water in the natural tanks after a good rain. We opted to continue moving. The trail continued to wind through the extremely rugged mountains with unique rock formations on both sides of the trail. Six miles later, we pulled off to the south to try and find another gravesite. After parking the Jeep, we got out on foot to look. We were looking for Circle 8 Gravesite – the site where a family of 8 was massacred when traveling on El Camino del Diablo in 1880. Unfortunately, we never found the grave (our coordinates were off – turns out we were less than 500 feet from them) and it was now getting quite hot. We did find some old track marks on the desert floor which could have been left by those traveling the trail a couple hundred years ago. Heading back to the main trail, we got a nice look at Tordillo Mountain – a geologically unique mountain that has a granite base topped with a volcanic cap on top.
Back on the “highway” we crossed into the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range 5 miles later. Here, a small sign signified the danger and reminded you not to pick up any ordinance you might find on the trail. Before the trip, we had to “log” our visit via a website (also available over phone) to let officials know when and where we’d be. It was now 4:00 PM and we were getting anxious about getting to our second night’s camp. We continued west towards the Tinajas Altas Mountains which were now in sight. The road got significantly better after leaving Cabeza Prieta and we were able to hit our new top speed for the day – 45 mph. Shortly after, it got washboardy and we were forced to slow up. It was here where we flagged down a Border Patrol vehicle. Agents at the outpost 45 miles back had told us to inform agents on this side of the range where we’d be staying the night that way they could check up on us.
Five miles later, we pulled off El Camino at the turnoff for Tinajas Altas – Spanish for high tanks. We proceeded south 1 mile along the eastern edge of the mountains. The scenery was fantastic and when we arrived at camp, we were quite pleased with our choice to stay the night here. Surrounded by rugged mountains on three sides, we had another great view of both the Tinajas Altas Mountains and the surrounding Lechuguilla Desert. With some daylight left, we decided to practice with our guns a bit and do some target shooting. After sending a bit of lead downrange, we set up camp. Shortly before sunset we got a fire going and began cooking. Tonight’s dinner: chili, and dutch oven cornbread, with some roasted kielbasa as an appetizer. Because we apparently suck at Dutch Ovening, we ended up having just chili, kielbasa, and some more Mexican beer.
The sunset brought a shroud of darkness and sweet relief from the heat. Once again, the night sky came out in full force. We had a good night talking around the fire and just before going to bed, saw lights approaching. It was just after 11:30 when a Border Patrol truck rolled into our camp. We chatted with the agent. He had been sitting at the junction 1 mile back up the road and had seen lights. The agent was certainly a little bewildered, although probably relieved, to find us. He left and we turned in for the night. Today had been long. We covered nearly 60 miles of the trail. The heat and constantly bumpy ride made our air mattresses a much welcomed relief.
The next morning’s light revealed the stunning Tinajas Altas just to our west. We had slept in today. Sitting around the campfire ring having breakfast, we began to hear the rumble of an engine. A few minutes later, it became a more distinct “whop-whop” sound. Then – out of nowhere – a helicopter flew 100’ over the ridge to the west and quickly dropped down over our camp. It was Border Patrol. We waved as the chopper flew northeast towards El Camino – doing a systematic patrol of the desert less than a couple hundred feet up. Again, we felt relieved to have an eye in the sky watching our back.
We hiked over to the first of the seven high tanks – an important water source for travelers on El Camino. These natural pools fill up from the top down. There are stories of pioneers not finding water in the lower tanks and dying while trying to climb higher to get to water. Fortunately, we were still doing fine. It was getting warm and we still had to break down camp. By about 10:30, we tetrised everything back in the Jeep and headed north 1 mile back to El Camino. We opted to follow the longer, more difficult branch of El Camino as it headed west through the Tinajas Altas Mountains and then north along the west side of the Gila Mountains.
Thirteen bumpy miles later and having not seen a single sign of unexploded ordinance, we turned off the more traveled road in favor of a shortcut to get to Fortuna Mine. Almost immediately, the going got rough and I shifted into 4WD. The 2.5 miles that cross the volcanic and heavily eroded rocks were slow going, but a change of pace from the fast-moving open desert trails. It was just before 1 PM when we rolled into Fortuna Mine, parked, and signed the “guestbook”. It was damn hot and we walked close to a mile to check out some of the closer ruins. From a high point, you can see much of the ruins of the town, which operated from 1896 to 1904 and pulled out $2.5 million worth of gold. Numerous remnants remain today, including that of the 20-stamp mill, several large mine shafts and other buildings strewn about the mountainside. Driving back towards El Camino, I saw a steep trail heading north and had to explore. Up at the top, a large water reservoir, supposedly capable of holding 1 million gallons of water, sits above the townsite. We headed back down the hill and continued on.
The final seven miles of El Camino Del Diablo were rougher. At this point on El Camino, there are many branches and since we were coming from Fortuna Mine, we didn’t follow the “official” trail. To our surprise, we were driving on a now smoother desert road when all of a sudden, a subdivision and paved road came into view. We had done it. 35 miles from our camp at Tinajas Altas and 130 miles from the start of the trail in Ajo – El Camino Del Diablo comes to an underwhelming end in Fortuna Foothills. It was now 3 PM, nearly 48 hours exactly after starting the trail. Looking back, a few signs mark one of the possible entrances into El Camino and the Goldwater Bombing Range but don’t offer the slightest hint at what an epic journey El Camino offers. Before getting on pavement, we aired up and checked the Jeep over.
Determining we were set for pavement, we bid El Camino farewell. We rode off into the sunset(ish) towards Yuma and our hotel for the night, which meant a nice dinner… and toilets… and showers. We had one hell of a trip. Against all odds and warnings, we did the trail in a 21 year old vehicle, by ourselves, in summer, didn’t encounter illegal activities, never felt unsafe, and lived to tell the tale. All the warnings and dangers we read about before didn’t seem as terrifying now. Heed the warnings and go prepared, but also enjoy the trip if you decide to do it. We already can’t wait to go back, perhaps next time in better weather with a few friends to make it even better.
Just a few miles from camp, we had cleared Tinajas Altas Pass and came to a "Y" marked with yet another emergency beacon. Signs marked the way for El Camino and Fortuna Mine to the right; to the left – the Mexican border, now within sight again. At our second closest encounter with the border, we stopped to look. Up to this point, we had still not seen a single sign of illegal immigration or smuggling. As we continued northwest, signs on the left hand side of the road caught our attention. “Danger – Unexploded Ordinance”. Welcome to the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Because we were driving a big red target, we figured it was best sticking to the trail and not venturing off. The miles rolled by and we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of unexploded bombs, rockets, or anything out of the ordinary.
Approaching a marked intersection, we couldn’t help but see a large dust cloud off to the left and a Border Patrol truck flying down the road to meet us at the junction. We held up and told the agent where we were coming from and where we were going. He went back on his way and we continued on ours. Shortly after, we came to another junction with signs pointing towards Cipriano Pass. We decided to check it out. About 3-4 miles from El Camino we came across another bizarre landscape. The Tinajas Altas Range jutted out of the sandy desert floor at Cipriano Pass to our south, and to our north, the distinctly different Gila Mountain Range. This point marks the geologic separation between the two mountains. After a few more pictures of the Jeep, we headed back on the twisty road back to El Camino and proceeded northbound.