El Camino del Diablo trip summary and resources (2 Viewers)

cartercd

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I drove El Camino Del Diablo a few days ago and thought I’d share a description and resources for this historic trail:

Location: In the Sonoran Desert between Ajo and Yuma, crossing through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe National Monument, and Barry M. Goldwater Range

History: The route was first used by Native Americans over 1,000 years ago as a passage from the Sea of Cortez to the Colorado River near Yuma. In the 1600 and 1700s it became a route for Spanish conquistadors and priests going to California. In the 1800s it was used by Mexicans heading north to the California Gold Rush

Time of year: November to April. This is one of the hottest places in the U.S., if not the world, so avoid the risk of the summertime heat.

Mileage: Approximately 120, with some variability depending on the route taken through Tinajas Altas and Fortuna Mine. Not a single patch of pavement the whole way.

Driving time: 2-3 days depending on how much you want to sightsee. I left the Phoenix area at 6:00a.m. on a Monday and was home by dinner on Tuesday. It is 2 hours to Ajo from Phoenix or Tucson and the return trip from Yuma is about 3 hours to Phoenix or Tucson.

Vehicle requirements: If it is dry you could probably do this trip in a 2-wheel drive with at least 8 inches of ground clearance and sturdy tires. A lot of the border patrol trucks are 2WD F150s. There is a section called the Pinta Sands which was hard-packed and deeply rutted that necessitates the ground clearance. If it is wet, I could envision this section becoming impassible. There are also many washes that must be crossed that could pose a hazard during rains.

A fair portion of the route is graded gravel/sand that is used by Border Patrol and Air Force / Marine personnel. There is also border wall construction traffic that uses part of El Camino del Diablo for the access road. The sections through the Pinta Sands, Tinajas Altas pass, and Fortuna Mine are single track road, sometimes rocky, with minor pinstriping.

Permits: There is a single permit that allows access to the entire trail available at Home - Luke AFB iSportsman Service - iSportsman. I saw a group of 4 Jeeps all being given citations because they did not have a permit. The permit is free and available online in a matter of minutes. You are also supposed to check in on-line before entering and check out upon departure so range management knows your status. As part of the permitting process you must acknowledge the various ways you may die out here, most notably being bombed/shot by military aircraft, being shot by drug smugglers, hyperthermia, hypothermia, flash flooding, falling into a mine shaft, running afoul of Border Patrol, being bitten by poisonous reptiles, and being fried by military lasers. Any questions?

Fee areas: There is a $25 fee per vehicle to access the corner of the Organ Pipe National Monument along the route. There is a self-serve kiosk for this. This only appear to be in the westerly direction. Interagency passes are valid. Remember that as of Nov 10, 2020 Gold Star Families and U.S. military veterans will be granted free access to national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior. Organ Pipe is part of the National Park Service, so I just indicated on the permit stub that I was a veteran and inserted my $0.

Navigation Resources:

Note that there are different interpretations of exactly what constitutes this trail. There is a road on the Barry Goldwater Range named Camino del Diablo Este (East) that goes from the southern border to the town of Wellton on I-8. This is not the original trail. You want to stay on Camino del Diablo Oeste (West) that goes towards Yuma.

The Cabeze Prieta NWR office in Ajo has a variety of maps available. It was closed due to COVID when I was there, but they had paper maps at a kiosk outside. I would recommend having your navigation aids in advance and not rely on a last-minute stop at this office.

Cabeze Prieta NWR website has a map link on its “About the Refuge” page. About the Refuge - Cabeza Prieta - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Navigation through the refuge (and Organ Pipe) is easy as the road is wide, well-marked, and well-maintained (except the Pinta sands section). There are few side roads that are marked.

Barry M. Goldwater Range West: All major intersections, any most minor intersections, are marked by wooden posts with inscribed numbers. The corresponding Range Map has the intersection markers, which provide an invaluable navigation resource. I found a map on the Marine Corps Yuma website (Marines operate the west part of the range, Luke Air Force base operates the East side) but it was Version 2.0 from 2008. The Luke.isportsman.net site (where you get the permit) has a version 3.0 from 2020. See the Visitor Access Rules and Maps link on the top banner or go here: https://luke.isportsman.net/files/maps/BMGR-W_Area_Map_and_Rules_Sep_2020.pdf. Printing this on 8.5 x 11 will not do you justice. It is high enough resolution to print larger. You can print it at a FedEx or UPS store at map size, or if you open the PDF in Adobe Reader you can print “poster” size which spits out 6-15 pages you can tape together. “Honey…where did all the Scotch tape go for wrapping presents?” “Uhh, I don’t know”. This was my go-to map and the intersection markers will keep you from getting lost in the middle of the desert.

Backcountry Adventures Arizona. Many of you may have this book which gives detailed route descriptions of trails throughout Arizona. You will need to combine the trips El Camino del Diablo, Tinajas Altas Pass, and Fortuna Mine Trail to piece this route together. Note that my 2001 edition of this book did not have the correct intersection markings on the Barry Goldwater Range. For example, it says an intersection is marked by post A5 when it is now actually A10. I do not know if the later editions of this book were corrected.

AZOffroad.net: El Camino del Diablo — AZOFFROAD.NET This has a route description and downloadable GPS coordinates / waypoints. I took as slightly different route through Tinajas Altas Pass and Fortuna mine, but I followed this route 90% of the time. Use your Goldwater Range West map if in doubt.

Cabeza Prieta Natural History Association - A Visitor's Guide to El Camino del Diablo: A Visitor's Guide to El Camino del Diablo - Cabeza Prieta Natural History Association This 2016 publication has general route descriptions for El Camino Del Diablo as well as some other tracks. It has GPS coordinates and writeups for a lot of historical sites (graves, wells, mines, etc.) that provide a lot of context along your drive.

Having a GPS route is always a good plan. I use Gaia GPS and found the USFS Roads and Trails layer had all the major tracks shown.

Other: There are many roads heading south from El Camino Del Diablo that access the border wall and/or military sites. These are well-marked and off limits to civilians.

Overall impressions: This is a fun trip and easily doable in a weekend. In addition to passing through the beautiful Sonoran desert, there is a lot of history along this route that dates back 1,000 years. The resourcefulness of the people that traversed this hot, dry, and harsh land is enviable. It took its toll on many, however, as over 2,000 people are estimated to have died along this trail. As parts of the road are within 1 mile of the border, this trip also gives you a first-hand view of Border Patrol operations. You can readily see the Border Patrol outposts, truck and ATV patrols, surveillance towers, mobile camera/radar trucks, emergency beacons, etc. You also pass along the northern edge of the active bombing ranges used by U.S. and allied forces. Of particular interest was Yodaville, which is a “town” made of stacked shipping containers used for live fire exercises by both fixed wing and rotary aircraft. Bring your binoculars for a better view. The Fortuna Mine area is worth a side trip as well, with some of the structural foundations still intact a well as remnants of the mining camps.

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Joined
Jan 9, 2011
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Flagstaff, AZ
I've heard western portions of the Camino have been graded and widened into a big dirt highway to facilitate wall construction semis. Is that true? If so, how far west does that extend? To Papago Well?

Edit: I meant eastern...
 
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cartercd

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The construction traffic appears to be coming in from I-8 at Wellton on El Camino del Diablo Este (not part of my described route) and intersecting at Tinajas Altas Pass. The 20 miles from Tinajas Altas Pass to Tule Well / Christmas Pass is widened and graded. The construction traffic will head south on restricted access roads to reach the border wall.
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Joined
Jan 9, 2011
Messages
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Flagstaff, AZ
Saw this on the news


Hopefully the grading does not extend too far east. Last time I was out there a few years ago the road conditions got a lot worse (better, two track) east of Papago Well. For reasons described in the article it's one of my favorite places to go in the winter with camera and binoculars.
 
Joined
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Chandler
I ran the portion west of Tule Wells twice and east of that this past weekend. Most of it is very smooth and fast. Even the sandy playa area has been graded with the metal tracks removed. West of the Tijina Altas is still a mess. Lots of wash board. While it was never difficult it is a much different trail now. All of the access points to the border wall are off-limits now.
 

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