Cabeza Prieta (Arizona)

Nov-96 (Private trip)

By: Mark Adrian


Last week, I and a small group of (desert rat) friends spent a few days peak bagging in the western section of the Barry M. Coldwater Air Force Range and the western portion of Cabeza Prieta (Spanish for Black Head and the refuge's landmark peak) National Wildlife Refuge. Located in the southwestern corner of Arizona, this has to be one of the most rugged areas of Sonoran desert in the United States. Only a couple of 4WD dirt roads penetrate into this vast landscape, the most notable being the infamous El Camino del Diablo (The Devil's Highway) which is an old pioneers' route that nearly parallels the U.S./Mexican border along the Arizona State line. To camp/hike/climb in these areas, you must obtain permits from both the B.M. Goldwater Air Force Range (administered by the Yuma Marine base) and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge jurisdictions. This involves some paperwork, but is not much worse than dealing with permits for the Sierra Nevada, except for the hold harmless forms. Caravans can use one form for all a party's vehicles, but each person is required to sign a hold harmless form which is valid for a year. If you're ONLY traveling to CPNWR and NOT stopping/camping/hiking in the BMGAFR, you ONLY need to apply to CPNWR for their permit. Since our party was venturing in both jurisdictions, we needed applicable permits for each. Since I had an extended visit in CPNWR I had to apply separately for that period of time. Fortunately, all the "reserved" permits are free for the asking (unlike the Sierra Nevada).

Both (BMGAFR and CPNWR) of these "distrits" were/are at one time used for bomb drops. So occasionally you will find remnants of various sorts and hence the need for a hold harmless form in the event vou trigger unexploded ordnance. Nevertheless, these "ancient" artifacts are few and far between. You need to take an ample supply of food, water, fuel and other essential gear. After you leave Interstate eight from either Wellton or Tacna, AZ, there are no services or watering holes. Wellton and Tacna are sizable communities with gas stations and mini-marts. Yuma, AZ is the nearest full-service city about 25 miles west of Wellton. You also need 4WD. Don't even think about venturing down there with 2WD, you will get stuck in either deep sand and/or one of several rutted sections. Caravans are encouraged, preferably with 2-meter HAM radio in each vehicle. We also found 7.5' maps and GPS to be indispensable to assist us with finding trailheads and dirt road spurs in the area. There are numerous benchmarks along the Camino that are also on the 7.5' maps, so pinpointing yourself along the Camino is relatively easy IF you have the 7.5' maps. You can camp wherever you want in the BMGAFR, but no more than 50' from established roads. Similarly, along the Camino as it passes through CPNWR, you can only leave the roadbed for 50', beyond which is designated wilderness (via the 1990 AZ Wilderness Act) despite the numerous "management roads" that pierce through the mountain ranges.

For those demanding extreme wilderness, Cabeza Prieta's is the largest wilderness refuge in the lower 48 states. You would be well-advised to do your map research prior to departure. Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge encompasses 1,300 square miles in itself (see October 1996 National Geographic pp 11) and the BMGAFR another 2,900 square miles. The refuge is bordered from west to northeast by the BMGAFR, to the east and southeast are Ajo and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and sweeping from the southeast to northwest is Sonora, Mexico. Since these are sparsely populated areas and there are no commercial over-flights, this area is seriously isolated. USGS maps will benefit your trip's enjoyment and your safety.

The mountain ranges here rise up abruptly from the alluvial plains like "ice bergs" in the sand, the highest summits not much more than 3,000'. What these ranges lack in altitude they more than make up for with raw Sonoran ruggedness. One thing that is consistent in these peaks is that they all have various amounts of severely decomposing granite which sometimes makes your footing unstable at best. All summits we climbed offer expansive views across the Sonoran desert and in to the northern Mexican mainland. Our party climbed several range highpoints, specifically those of the Gila, Copper, Butler, Tinajas Altas, Sierra de la Lechuguilla and Tule Mountains. Each of these climbs involved cross-country travel over rugged desert terrain. None of our routes were necessarily "simple" nor were the climbs technical. However, we dubbed our route up Sheep Mtn (highpoint of the Gilas) the "November Arete" (moderate third) and there was an optional short section of third in the Lechuguillas, otherwise it was mostly class two. The views often included recognizable landmarks (DPS) Cerro Pinacate westward across the Gulf of California to El Picacho del Diablo in Baja. So close to Mexico is the highpoint of the Sierra de la Lechuguilla, we could easily spot one of the border monuments (#189), oddly, placed on a rugged peaklette just south of the highpoint's summit. After four days and six range highpoints, the remainder of the group departed for home and I was left on my own at the remote outpost of Tule Well. Adios amigos !

From Tule Well I drove west on the Camino to the trailhead for Cabeza Prieta Mountains highpoint. En route, two BIG javelinas bolted across the road and got my attention. The rest of the day was relatively quiet and I had the afternoon alone to savor a few beers, take a shower and plan my epic for Cabeza Prieta Mtns highpoint. With maps and way-points established, my plan was to climb the highpoint (nine miles distant) and then hike back south five miles to climb and bivy on the summit of Cabeza Prieta Peak. So, it was early to bed and up at dawn the next day. Departing around 6:30 AM, with 30 pound daypack, I walked through some exquisite Sonoran desert, especially the elegant variety and combinations of saguaro, ocotillo, cholla and catclaw. The setting was almost surreal. Despite the intense beauty, I wasted no time hiking (on and off management roads) to Cabeza Prieta Pass where I left a gallon of water, bivy clothes and a ground cloth. Continuing north, I arnved at the highpoint about 11:30 AM where I found a 1965 Gordon MacLeod register. I was pretty tired and it was hot and I still had another five miles to go to Cabeza Prieta Peak. So about 12:30 PM, I slithered off the highpoint, startlmg a rattler, scrambled back down a loose chute, around a waterfall and then to the "flats" back south to Cabeza Prieta Pass. Leaving the pass about 2:30 PM with all my gear, I headed south for Cabeza Prieta Peak, where I arrived about 4:30 PM, near sunset, atop the small summit. There was barely enough room for my ground cloth and the rocky summit was miserable to sleep on. I used the benchmark as a "pillow". My day was almost over as the lengthening shadow of Cabeza Prieta Peak sprawled out below me, eastward over the range's alluvial fan. However, the best part of the day still lay ahead. The sunset was an awesome spectacle of dazzlmg colors. From the gentle hues of oranges and pinks weaving through slivers of altostratus and cirrostratus clouds, to the sun's coup de grace in a firey burst of scarlet all reflecting off the granite of Cabeza's mountain ranges --alpine glow, desert style. I could see from Cerro Pinacate across Sonora, Mexico and the Gulf to the silhouette of El Picacho del Diablo in Baja. Finally, the infinite shadows melded with the dusk and the night was upon me.

Several flares went up from the eastern BMGAFR during the early evening. Later, under a moonless sky, except for one or two far-off specks of light in Mexico, it was completely dark from the 2,559' summit. Being alone, I had a strong feeling of absolute, complete, pure isolation and severance from civilization -- I was "out there". It was a windy night, but I stayed mostly warm. Occasionally, a satellite or shooting star interrupted the nebulous Milky Way. Being poor at constellation identification, I could only make up names and patterns as they appeared to connect. It was a beautifully simple place to be.

Up at 5:30 AM, marveling at the ray-strewn sunrise across the Sonoran vastness and watching the landscape take form, I was hiking by 6 AM. Slowed only by a cholla cactus m my hand (yes, that does hurt) and aided by GPS, I was back at my faithful Toyota 4WD truck by 8:30 AM where I discovered several hoof prints around my vehicle, apparently from a horse? No signs of forced entry, or other vandalism, but one wonders. Still somewhat tired from a poor-night's sleep, I relished a cold beer in the serene silence, thankful to be back safely and cherishing the experience the mountains had bestowed.

I exited via Wellton and headed off to yet another range highpoint nearby Yuma, AZ before finally turning west towards San Diego and home.

For more information :

Goldwater Range
Western Section Fleet Services
Office Bldg 153
Yuma, AZ 5369-5020
Ph:(602)341-3402 *

Cabeza Prieta NWR
1611 North Second Avenue
Ajo, AZ 85321

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