Permits: Before attempting the trail, you need to pick up a permit. Luckily, one permit covers both the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range and it is free. You can pick up the permits in person during normal business hours at either the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma (928-269-7150) or the Cabeza Prieta N.W.R. headquarters in Ajo (520-387-6483). Permits are also available by mail by filling out this form, attaching a copy of the waiver, your I.D., and a self-addressed envelope. Allow for 2-3 weeks for the mail-in permits. After you get your permits and before you complete the trail, you will have to call or visit this website TO ACTIVATE YOUR PERMITS.
Special considerations: This is a very remote trail that has long sections of no cell coverage. Light traffic means you can’t rely on someone passing by to help out. It is recommended to travel with at least two vehicles and carry several gallons of water per person, per day. Extra fuel, food, and a couple spare tires wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Avoid traveling during the intense summer heats which can exceed 110 degrees. Be prepared to be on your own for the trip and if something goes wrong.
How to get there: Because this is a point-to-point trail you can start at either end. We completed the trail in an east to west direction, starting in Ajo and ending in Yuma. To start the trail you’ll need to get to Ajo. From Phoenix, head west on I-10 to Highway 85, then continue south. Pass through Gila Bend and continue south to Ajo. Once in Ajo, you’ll want to top of your tank, pick up your permits if necessary, and continue about 3 miles southeast of ‘downtown’. Just after a large tailings pile on the right, turn right onto the unpaved Darby Well Road. The trail crosses a cattle guard and begins immediately.
The trail: From Highway 85 three miles from Ajo, continue south on the unpaved Darby Well Road. The trail heads due south just to the east of a large pile of mine tailings. Stay left at 1.9 miles where the trail forks. Here you’ll notice signs talking about encountering illegal smuggling. Ignore all side roads. The trail continues south and remains fairly wide and washboardy. The road crosses numerous dry washes where the trail is typically tighter. Continue straight at 2.9 miles where a lesser road goes right. Stay to the left at 9.4 miles where the trail forks again.
El Camino remains easy as it continues south. At 12.5 miles, you’ll cross a cattle guard and enter into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. There are informational signs and a fee collection box off to the left. Continue down the trail. The road continues west through some scenic mountains before turning back south at 15.5 miles. Off to the right here you’ll notice a humanitarian water station and emergency beacon. El Camino has emergency beacons roughly every 20-30 miles apart. They have a red button on the front and instructions in several languages. If you are in dire need of help, you are supposed to push the button and help will arrive within an hour. Continue south on El Camino.
At 16.6 miles, El Camino makes a right turn and a short spur goes left to Bates Well. Park in the fenced off area and hike around the historic Bates Well area. There are numerous old ranching buildings to explore. Return to El Camino when you are done and continue west. After Bates Well the National Park service recommends 4x4’s only but the road remains easy for many miles.
After some hard packed dirt sections, the trail enters a sandy section where tall borders have built up on either edge of the road. At some points, the road is sunken in a good 2-3 feet. Continue through numerous washes and continue to ignore all side roads. At 25.4 miles, you’ll pass a large Border Patrol Forward Operating Base (or FOB) on the right, and then almost immediately after, enter into the Cabeza Prieta N.W.R. Make sure to pull off on the left here. There are informational signs, and you need to fill out a card to ‘activate’ your permits.
After the N.W.R. boundary, continue west. The road begins to deteriorate as you enter some deep, rutted sands and tight sections of trail. 4WD would be helpful, but isn’t necessary here. At about 29.2 miles, you’ll come to a section of trail that is ‘paved’ with metal grates. This is an interesting feature that we’re assuming helps to cut down on trail erosion and allow Border Patrol vehicles to quickly pass through the deep sand.
Stay right at 30.6 miles where the trail forks. After the split, climb through Cholla Pass, where you’ll make a long right turn through an insane amount of cholla cacti. The trail turns left again and gets easier. We spent night #1 off to the left at 34.1 miles. Technically, you can camp anywhere within the N.W.R. as long as you are less than 50 feet of the main road. There are two designated camping spots along the trail (one at Papago Well and the other at Tule Well), but we found it more convenient to camp at our own discretion. Plan on at least one night on the trail, two if you want don’t want to be rushed.
El Camino continues west and at 39.4 miles, makes a right turn at Papago Well – marked with a large water tank, windmill, and emergency beacon. Stay to the left just after Papago where the trail forks. After more open desert, the trail passes the second, and last, Border Patrol FOB off to the right at 42.8 miles. It’s always a good idea to give Border Patrol a heads up about your trip plans that way they can check up on you. About three-quarters of a mile past the FOB, look for Dave O’Neil’s gravesite off to the right as you approach a hilly section at 43.5 miles. O’Neil died on the trail in the 1800s and was rumored to have been found face down in a puddle of water – probably the only known drowning victim on El Camino.
After another hilly section, the landscape opens up and you enter the famous Pinta Sands at about 46.0 miles. For the next few miles, the trail is a very deep, powdery, and rutted sand. 4WD is necessary for this section and if rain is forecast, don’t attempt this section as it can become impassable. The Pinta Sands are also very tight with thick brush on either side. Keep an eye out for oncoming vehicles. Las Playas, off to the right at around 49.0 miles is an ephemeral lake and marks the lowest point of the entire trail.
At 50.6 miles, the terrain quickly changes as you leave the Pinta Sands and enter the Pinacate Lava Flow. Here, the trail is a mixture of hard-packed dirt and jagged lava rocks. Expect to go slower along this rougher section. On the western edge of the flow the trail becomes rough and looking south from here you can see the Mexican border, which is now under two miles away. As the flow ends at 55.8 miles, you enter round two of the dusty Pinta Sands. Expect to get bounced around as you navigate the tight sections of trail.
As the trail continues west, it leaves the dusty wash bottoms and emerges on hard-packed dirt once again. The terrain changes once again. At the 66.0 mile mark, pass through the rugged Tule Mountains. The trail arrives at a major junction at 70.6 miles at Tule Well, marked by an abandoned adobe building, picnic tables, and a windmill. El Camino continues to the left but Tule Well offers a nice break spot. A small monument behind the cabin was built by the Boy Scouts in the 1930s. To the right at this junction is Christmas Pass Road, an alternate exit point, and leads to I-8 42 miles to the north.
From Tule Well, stay left to head west on El Camino. The trail remains easy as it winds in and out of washes. The road passes south of Tule Tank at 73.3 miles, an optional hiking spot, and site of an early water source for early travelers on the trail. This section of road is fairly scenic as rugged mountains and hills protrude from either side of the trail. After clearing a pass at 76.8 miles, the trail heads downhill and offers a nice look at Tordillo Mountain off to the right. Tordillo Mountain is a geologically unique mountain that has a granite base (lighter rocks) capped with a volcanic top (darker rocks). A small pullout off to the left at 79.7 miles is an optional hiking spot to Circle 8 gravesite about ½ mile to the south. This is where a family of eight was massacred when traveling the trail in the late 1800s. Continue west.
Past Circle 8, El Camino remains straight as an arrow as you head for the Tinajas Mountains off in the horizon. At 84.2 miles you’ll leave the Cabeza Prieta N.W.R. and enter the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. Make sure to observe all the posted rules (don’t pick up unexploded ordinance) and stay on designated roads. Remember you’ll have wanted to log your visit either online or over the phone to let the range know when/where you’ll be. The trail immediately improves and becomes a wide, smooth road. Stay right at the large clearing at 87.9 miles.
At 90.2 miles you’ll arrive at another important junction. To the right is the eastern branch of El Camino which continues 24 miles north to I-8. To the left (the branch we took and will describe here) is longer and rougher, but truer to the original pioneer trail. Stay to the left at this junction. Almost immediately after staying left, several roads head due south on a 1 mile spur trail that leads to Tinajas Altas, or High Tanks. High Tanks is a series of seven natural pools formed in the granite rocks and was used by early travelers. It also makes for a stunning campsite and you should definitely try and stay a night here while you’re on the trail. If you visit High Tanks, continue 1 mile north back to the main junction.
From the junction, head west on the more established trail as it continues through Tinajas Altas Pass. Here, the trail is rougher as it meanders through the jagged mountains. After clearing the pass, the trail comes to an important junction at 93.0 miles. Stay right towards Fortuna Mine. To the left here is the Mexican border which is not far off to the south. After the junction, the trail heads north and crosses numerous eroded wash crossings. Expect a slower pace through here.
Another important junction comes at 96.1 miles where you will want to stay left. Most junctions are marked with posts (such as A16) that can be found on your map of the Goldwater Range. Continue to ignore side roads as you head northwest.
After 100.7 miles, you’ll begin to notice signs every so often on the left hand side of the road: “danger – unexploded ordinance”. It should be pretty obvious, but don’t venture off established trails open to the public.
oAnother major junction is found at the 102.0 mile mark. El Camino continues to the left but an optional side trip goes to the right. The side trip will take you through Cipriano Pass (about 5 miles away) to the eastern branch of El Camino that split off from the main trail back near High Tanks. Cipriano Pass is a very scenic spot. Continue northwest on El Camino from this junction. The trail gets easier as you continue to pass warning signs off to the left.
At 115.3 miles you have a choice to make. Either continue to the left on the easier branch of El Camino, or venture onto the lesser traveled and more difficult route through Fortuna Mine. We took the right branch to visit Fortuna Mine and continue north to the end of El Camino, and will describe this branch.
After leaving the more traveled path, the going gets rough. High clearance and 4WD is necessary for this short, but challenging section. Turn left at 116.3 miles as the trail follows a rocky wash bottom north. Pick the best line as the trail meanders through jagged terrain. You’ll notice mine tailings and abandeond buildings as you approach Fortuna Mine junction at 117.8 miles. To visit the mine and townsite, turn right here. There is a walking tour of the town and several vehicle tracks to explore, including a kiosk and guestbook about a quarter of a mile from the junction. Return to junction and continue north (to the right if coming from Fortuna Mine), following signs towards El Camino.
Leaving Fortuna Mine, the trail remains rocky but not difficult. Ignore numerous side roads for next several miles and stick to the most traveled road. At about 124.5 miles, the trail will pass a few signs and end at a paved road and subdivision in Fortuna Foothills. An underwhelming end to an epic trip. Proceed west on paved Country 14th St. and turn right to head north back to I-8. Yuma (which has gas and food) is a just a few miles to the west.
Summary/Trail Ratings: Overall, this is a long and remote trail that is very rewarding when properly planned. For the best experience I would recommend 1-3 days on the trail. We ended up spending 3 days/2 nights on the trail covering about 35 miles the first and last day and 60 miles the second day. You can complete the trail faster but there is so much to see along the way. As far as difficulty, the trail itself isn’t incredibly challenging. Yes, there are a few sections of deep sand and rocky wash bottoms that need to be navigated, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the context and setting of the trail. This is a very unforgiving and remote place and you need to plan accordingly. Our best advice is to avoid the intense summer time heat, travel with a group to reduce the chances of being stranded, and carry extra fuel, water, food, and vehicle parts should you have any issues. We’ve rated this trail a ‘5’ out of ‘10’. Stock high clearance vehicles with 4-wheel drive will be sufficient. A lift and bigger tires will help during some sections of trail but aren’t required. Any kind of weather can severely impact the trail, and therefore, you should not attempt this trail when it has recently rained or it is forecast to rain. El Camino is a great trail that is experienced by few people due to its challenges, but it is well worth the planning and effort to complete it.
Status: Open - Permit req'd | Trail Type: Point-to-point | Length: 130 miles | Approx. Time: 1 - 3 DAYS | Traffic: Light | Best Time: Fall-Spring
On this rugged and historic trail, traverse 130 miles of remote and scenic desert between Ajo and Yuma. You’ll pass numerous historic spots near the Mexican Border and have to be completely self-sufficient on this multi-day trip.
Page last updated: 12/19/2016