Arizona Peace Trail Trip - 2019
Our 200 mile off-road journey from Dateland to Kingman
Every year, our summer trip takes us on an adventure several hundred miles across Arizona. This year would be no different, but would be different would be the time of year. This year, my cousin & I would be met up in February to tackle a mostly desert trail, which actually worked out quite well as far as weather is concerned. This year, we would be tackling the Arizona Peace Trail, a newer and massive OHV loop system.
The Arizona Peace Trail is a nearly 700 mile off-highway vehicle route that spans 3 counties in western Arizona. It reaches from Yuma to Kingman and back and contains a variety of climates and difficulties for all sorts of off-road enthusiasts. However, in our 5 day/4 night adventure, it would be impossible to do the entire trail justice. But we had a plan to cover a good chunk of it. Our planned route would be taking us on about half of the AZPT route. Beginning in Dateland in Yuma County, we would head north for the next 2 days along the eastern branch of the trail. Past Salome, we would use a dirt connector to head northwest and meetup with the western branch of the trail near Swansea. From there, we would follow the remaining AZPT route north as it passes through Bullhead City and eventually goes east towards Kingman. This route would allow us to see a lot of the stuff we wanted to check out, cover a significant portion of the Peace Trail, and stay in mostly lower elevation sections which had mild temperatures and no snow like the higher sections of the trail.
Airing down the Jeep didn’t take long, and we were shortly northbound on the trail. The trail begins alongside a massive solar farm. Not long after this, the trail made a hard right turn, crossed a wash, and continued north along the Palomas Mountains. Here, the trail really opened up as numerous tracks split off in all directions. A recent rain had left a few pretty good sized puddles in this otherwise dry desert region. The trail remained easy and the miles rolled by quickly. Small creosote bushes and saguaro cacti dominated the barren landscape.
After snaking around a large hill on our left, the trail headed in a northwesterly direction. The trail remained mostly smooth and fast moving. At around the 15 mile mark, we reached a second large hill, and split off to the left to check out a building near the base of the hill. As we approached the cabin, a small group of what appeared to be Sonoran Pronghorn crossed our path and made a beeline for the open desert.
We continued over to the small cabin and got out to investigate. This simple cabin was inside of a fenced area, and was built by the Arizona Game & Fish Dept. to serve as a refuge for hunters, federal workers, or anyone else venturing through the area. The inside of the cabin wasn’t much to write home about. A table and chairs remained indoors while a few shelfs and sink area remained in a worse state of decay. We closed the cabin back up and walked around the outside, where we found a small water tank and a few other cement foundations. Just east of the cabin was a small animal watering station, which is likely where our pronghorns had been before we scared them off.
From the cabin, we continued back to the main trail. We headed northwest along the large, volcanic hill, and through a major trail junction shortly after. From here on out, the trail was far less traveled and rockier. The surrounding landscape once again opened up as we were now in the heart of the Palomas Plain. Rugged mountains surrounded us on all sides, but were far off on the horizon for now. The trail remained slower paced as we picked our line northwest through a few dry wash crossings – some of which were quite narrow. It was along this section where we passed a small group of side-by-sides, which were the first & only people we would see for the rest of the day. The miles continued to tick by.
At around the 25 mile mark, we reached another intersection in the absolute middle of nowhere. The rugged mountains to the west were part of Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and those to the south were part of the Tank Mountains. It was here where we made an important turn to head north along a set of even lesser traveled tracks. The trail got rougher in places as we crossed numerous dry washes. The Jeep with its tired coils springs, which was under a heavier load than normal for this trip, did scrape on a few of the more off-camber sections through the washes. We were able to remain in 4-high, however as we continued on.
As we approached the Little Horn Mountains at around the 30 mile mark, we pulled off to the side of the trail at a large rocky area to try and investigate something on foot. What we were looking for was, well – more rocks. And we found them a short distance off the main road. But these weren’t just any rocks. From the ground, these large rocks which are arranged into a series of different numbers and letters seem meaningless. However from the air, they tell a very different story. It is here, in what seems like a completely random location, “AZTEC 41” and a simple North compass marker remain inscribed into the desert floor. While slightly overgrown nowadays, these markers would have been used to help overflying military planes find their way back to base when out training in this massive and barren area. The town of AZTEC sits just east of Dateland along Interstate 8 where we started our journey about 40 miles to the south. During WWII, Dateland and a few other surrounding towns, housed army airfields that were part of the Yuma Army Advanced Flying School. This isolated area would have been used to train pilots, sight guns on B-25’s, and provide an unobstructed area to train pilots that would fly throughout the war. The airfields were abandoned in 1957. However, the area nearby still remains in military hands today as the more modern training area of the Yuma Proving Ground, which spans an incredible 1300 square miles.
It was cool to find and check out this easy-to-miss relic of the past out here in the desert. However, it was nearly 4 o’clock, and it was time to continue moving. From here, the trail would get briefly rougher as we continued north. The trail continued crossing some large wash crossings. We continued to climb in elevation as the trail became quite narrow and rocky in places. Our pace was slowed along this section.
We continued to work our way into the Little Horn Mountains. The road remained mildly rocky and washed out in places as we dropped towards our junction with Hovatter Road. Just before 35 miles, we reached the easier Hovatter Road and turned right to head east into the volcanic hills.Things remained a bit rough, but got progressively easier as we moved along. The road swung north and reached a high point for the day, before crossing into La Paz County. The trail dropped a bit more before we reached our turnoff for the night. It was right around the 40 mile mark when we left the main road and headed to a large clearing where we would be camping for the evening. It was around 5:00 o’clock, and the surrounding volcanic hills and desert were filled with a beautiful golden light.
We got to work on setting up camp. We leveled the Jeep the best we could, got our kitchen area and chairs set up, and popped the tent open. Within 15 minutes or so, camp was set up, and we sat for a few minutes to enjoy the view. This nice, wide open area provided a glimpse of Coyote Peak and the Ranegras Plain just north of us, which we would be crossing tomorrow. We got to work on dinner. Tonight’s meal was going to be a special one. We fired up the stove and got the steaks cooking in the cast iron. Mashed potatoes soon followed, and eventually got the creamed corn open. When everything was done, it looked incredible and tasted even better. We sat to enjoy dinner as the sun quickly set.
Darkness descended and the temperature dropped quickly. After mopping up some dishes and cleaning up camp, we got a fire started which we would enjoy for the next couple of hours. As the fire began to die shortly after 9:00, we got ready for bed and retreated into the tent for the first night of sleep along the AZ Peace Trail. Even though we were in the desert, the low for the night was forecast to be in the mid to upper 30s. We bundled up and hit the sack. Today was a solid and productive day on the trail covering around 40 miles on top of the highway drive to the start of the trail. Tomorrow would be an even busier day as we continued our journey north along the Arizona Peace Trail.
We were up just after the crack of dawn. It was a frigid morning as the temperature had dipped to the mid-30s. With the sun just barely peaking above the horizon and not quite hitting our campsite yet, we stayed in the tent a little longer as we let things warm up. A little while later, we were finally up and around. We fired up the propane stove and got some water boiling for a quick and warm oatmeal breakfast.
After a bite to eat, we began to work on breaking down our camp. We packed up the back of the Jeep with our kitchen gear and then turned to the tent. With all of the flaps closed last night, the tent actually kept us quite warm throughout the night. We collapsed the tent and buttoned up camp before getting in the jeep and on the trail just before 10 o’clock.
We returned to Hovatter road and headed north. The road remained extremely wide and smooth, and we were able to cover the miles quickly. The trail quickly dropped into the Ranegras Plain and the prominent Coyote Peak just up ahead broke up the otherwise flat horizon. As we neared Coyote Peak, a small earthen dam came into view. This dam and the nearby monument was dedicated to Bob Crowder, an early Arizona pioneer cattleman. We continued north as the trail split upon passing Coyote Peak. From here, the trail opened up. The trail had a few sandy sections, but overall was quite scenic. The pace remained fairly quick moving which allowed us to make some time from our later-than-expected start this morning.
The trail passed underneath powerlines and an old corral as we eventually passed through a series of small hills just south of I-10. Fifteen miles from camp, we reached a brief pavement section as the road passed over the CAP and reached interstate 10. Here we quickly passed over the bustling interstate, and less than half a mile later, were back on dirt. We were now on Harquahala Road, which remained wide and fast moving as we headed deeper into the Little Harquahala Mountains.
After a few quick miles, we pulled off onto a lesser traveled trail and headed east to the Harquahala townsite. Numerous buildings and mining remnants remain here perched just a few hundred feet above the main trail. We parked the jeep at a building with metal sidings and got out on foot to explore more in depth. This was Harquahala townsite, which began in the late 1880s. Gold was discovered here in the Bonanza and Golden Eagle claims, and the area quickly boomed. The town was home to a post office and even had its own newspaper, ‘the Harquahala miner’. Ownership changed hands around the turn of the century as most of the high-grade ore had played out. The post office was discontinued in 1918, and although the town briefly reopened from 1927 to 1932, it quickly was abandoned.
Today, numerous buildings remain in varying states of decay. Past the townsite sits the remains of the actual mines, which were rumored to have had its fair share of high-grading, or stealing ore, from the company. The pink clay tailings spread around are evidence of the chemical leaching that was used to treat the ore on site before hauling it via wagon to Sentinel near Gila Bend.
After a walk around the townsite, we returned back to the main road, where just a ways north, we found the Harquahala cemetery off on the left. This small cemetery lays to rest those residents of Harquahala that lost their lives while working and living in the area. All of the graves are unmarked, and one interesting one remains encased in concrete. A short distance up the trail, we once again split off the main road as we headed east to attempt to see some more mining ruins. It didn’t take long to find some more mining tailings near the Golden Eagle mine, however, we were stopped in our tracks and forced to turn around by no trespassing signs. While we didn’t see any active workings, someone clearly still owns the property and mining efforts that remain off the trail side today. We continued back the way we came and eventually returned back to Harquahala Road.
We continued north as the road climbed. About 12 miles north of I-10, we began to pass through the outskirts of Salome. It is here where we quickly aired up our tires before getting back to a brief highway stint. Airing up was a quick process that was made easy now that we had hardwired our compressor into the back of the jeep. In Salome, we hit a small gas station to top of the tanks and grab a quick bite to eat. The pizza didn’t seem “fresh”, but we certainly weren’t complaining about it. From Salome, we continued east on the highway where in the small town of Wendon, we turned north along Alamo Lake road.
After our short 20 mile highway cruise, we turned off the paved road near Cunningham pass. It was here where we would pick up our dirt road connector through the Butler Valley to get to the west branch of the AZ Peace Trail. The trail followed the powerlines northwest. While rough at first, the trail eventually became smoother. After passing through a gate, we pulled off the main road again at our next stop.
We followed the road east before parking and getting out at the flagpole, which marked the site of the former Camp Bouse. Camp Bouse was part of General George S. Patton’s massive, 31,000 square mile Desert Training Center and California-Arizona Maneuver Area. This area was used during World War 2 to prepare troops for combat in North Africa. Camp Bouse was just one of many military installations spread across western Arizona & California. Camp Bouse however, was unique. Opened in August of 1943, this camp here was used for a top secret project nicknamed “the gizmo”. The gizmo, better known now as the ‘canal defense light’ was a 13 million candlepower light mounted to the tops of M3 tanks, designed to confuse and stun enemy troops. Around 10,000 troops were stationed here as part of the 9th tank groups and numerous other special armored battalions, which were under top secret orders to never share what happened here.
Numerous buildings were constructed as part of the installation. A hospital and surgery center were built on top of these cement foundations on the north end of camp. Training here was so secretive that if someone was injured, they had to remain on camp property to avoid any possibility of information being leaked. A huge water reservoir, a large pit rumored to be used for boxing matches, and numerous other buildings and sidewalks were built at Camp Bouse. The camp shut down in mid-1944 after the troops were deployed to Europe. Most buildings were removed after the war, however cement pads and foundations remain today. Upon further investigation, tank tracks can even be found on the desert floor between the camp and the firing ranges further to the north.
While we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Camp Bouse, it was now around 3:30, and time to continue on our way to camp. We returned to the powerline road and continued northwest. The road remained mostly smooth. After around 10 miles, we reached the Midway junction and continued north. At a remote 4-way intersection, we proceeded east towards our overnight stop. The road reached a steep grade and dropped down towards the ghost town of Swansea. Just after the 80 mile mark for the day, we arrived at Swansea at the bottom of the hill.
The ruins at Swansea are spread out along the hillside. An extensive walking tour connects many of the important spots. We parked the Jeep and got out on foot to check out some of the main ruins. The story of Swansea began in the 1860s when the area was first prospected. However mining here wouldn’t take off until after 1900 when the railroad was built in nearby Parker. After two miners, Newton Evans and T.J. Carrigan, built a furnace, water pipeline, and hoists for the mine shafts on site, people quickly began to recognize the potential of the area. In 1908 the Clara Gold & Copper Mining company set up headquarters in the town, which was originally called Signal. The town quickly swelled to 400 residents. Originally, ore was hauled via rail to the Gulf of California, and then via boat to South Wales, in the United Kingdom. After a smelter was built on site in 1909, the new town beared the name of the former milling town in Wales – Swansea. The town had nearly everything -- a post office, electric company, lumber company, theaters, and even an auto dealer at one point. However, after more money was spent promoting the town than was actually being pulled out of the ground, the decline of Swansea was imminent. The town was open on and off through World War one, however in 1937, the town was shut down for good but not before pulling out a whopping 27 million pounds of copper out of the ground.
Since its decline, the BLM has taken efforts to preserve the townsite today. Buildings have been protected and stabilized and informational signs dot the landscape today. Large metal grates cover the once deep vertical shafts. After walking around the town for a while to see some of the old buildings, we proceeded down the tailing pile to our camp for the night. We would be staying at one of five of the primitive campgrounds the BLM has established in Swansea. Each campground had a small ramada and table, a fire ring, and nice flat area. The campsite we stayed in was named after T.J. Carrigan one of the original founders of the town, and sat just north of the company house ruins.
We made it to camp just before sunset. We quickly got our kitchen set up and tent deployed before beginning on the night’s dinner. Tonight, we would be having chicken fajitas and rice. Dinner cooked up quick. We sat down to enjoy it as darkness quickly enveloped our camp and the surrounding abandoned townsite. A layer of clouds began to roll in, and the moonlight lit up the area. Even though today had been a busy day, we sat around the campfire late into the night before finally crawling up in the roof top tent around 11:30.