Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge

Dec 18984

By: Barbara Lilley


--An Arizona Adventure

(Barbara Lilley and Gordon MacLeod)

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona (west of Organ Pipe National Monument) encompasses about 1500 square miles of pristine desert environment, little changed since Father Kino pioneered the route of El Camino del Diablo (Yuma-Caborca Trail) over 400 years ago. Wildlife includes desert bighorn sheep, rare Sonoron pronghorn and javalina, (all of which we encountered on our 1984 Christmas holiday trip). The Lower Sonoran vegetation includes elephant trees and sinita cactus. Elevation ranges from low bajadas of 200' to rugged peaks over 3000'.

A permit is required for entry, and because 95% of the refuge is within the boundaries of Luke Air Force Base, a military "Hold Harmless" agreement must be signed as well. Although the Base, is normally open to the public (with permission) on weekends and holidays, entry is prohibited when military activities are scheduled, and opportunities for extended visits are rare. Inspired by an article written by Weldon Heald in the late 1950's to advocate the establishment of a National Park there, Gordon MacLeod arranged a trip to the area during the Christmas period of 1965 and, with only preliminary topos available, Gordon, Erick Schumacher and the late Graham Stevenson, in a jeep and a station wagon, made three ascents (two were firsts) in the Cabeza Prieta Mountains (there are 12 mountain ranges in the Refuge itself and several others on the Base). Since 1965, the military has improved some of the roads on the Base, and all topo maps now are available, but the roads in the Wildlife Refuge itself still remain scarcely more than trails and are best traveled by a minimum of two 4-wheel drive vehicles with reserve supplies of gasoline and water. Vehicular travel in the Wildlife Refuge is restricted to designated roads and several of the mountain ranges can only be reached by backpack, since the access roads have been blocked off.

In 1982 and 1983, brief visits to Luke Air Force Base and the eastern side of the Refuge were made by Gordon, Barbara Lilley, Roy Magnuson and others during the Christmas holidays, and climbs were made in the Gila, Growler and Tinajas Altas mountains. Then, in 1984, with 4-wheel drive vehicles (Surburban and Toyota truck) and permission for a 10-day stay, Gordon and Barbara, with Mebil and Mike McNicholas, left I-8 at Tacna (30 miles east of Yuma) on December 22 and headed south into Luke Air Force Base. Joined by Roy Magnuson, the first 2 days were spent climbing in the Copper Mountains (accessible without 4-WD) with ascents of Coyote Peak (2,808') and Pk. 2,888', the high point of the range--the latter an apparent first ascent. Roy then left for home and the real adventure began.

From a nicely graded east-west road (still shown as a jeep trail on topo maps), a track (so obscure the entrance was dismissed at first as a sand wash) heads south across the Tule Desert (where we saw one of the only seventy Sonoran pronghorns known to inhabit the U.S.) and into the Refuge to join El Camino del Diablo at Tule Well. In and out of deep gullies, plowing down sandy washes overhung by branches scratching at car paint, turning tight corners and bouncing over rocks was an impressive demonstration of what 4-wheel drive vehicles can do. Tule Wells was reached mid-morning of the 4th day. From here we headed west, and after enjoying one of the nicer days of the trip on a climb of Cabeza Prieta Peak (2,559')--where we saw an ewe and her lamb and where we found the register Gordon had left on the same date (Christmas Day) 19 years before--we continued westward and out of the Refuge to the Tinajas Altas Mountains, where we were required to lay over 3 days while the military range was active.

The weather is always an element of chance anywhere this time of year, but Southern Arizona should be one of the best places to be--except when the storms come from the south! Rain the following morning ended in time for a climb of the high point of the Tinajas Altas Mtns (2,764') and return to camp just at dark, but the entire 6th day was RAIN, heavy at times. Still, the timing was right, temperatures were mild, the Surburban served as a social center and campfires were enjoyed under a big tarp. Friday, Dec. 28 (Day 7), saw a gradual clearing trend and a local point, known as Raven Butte, (1,773') was ascended in the afternoon.

Saturday we retraced our route eastward to Tule Wells, where we encountered 2 other 4WD vehicles with 4 people--first seen in a week-- who had just come from where we were heading and told us horror stories of the mud ahead, of using tire chains (even with 4WDs), of one vehicle towing the other out of a swamp--in the Arizona desert? After climbing Tule Mountain (2,307'), we continued east and camped at the edge of a lava field. Next morning we were greeted by a single, spectacularly white, shore bird, poking around the black lava rocks alongside our vehicles. It was later identified as a "cattle egret a number of which we saw later dipping into the mud of the road tracks further east.

By this time the weather had improved considerably but, as we found out after crossing the lava field, the mud had not! Observing the fresh tracks, we avoided the deepest mud hole, but spent the next mile or so slithering around the creosote bushes trying to chose which set of mud filled tracks were the best! Just before the end of this "Arizona swamp" (it actually shows green on the topo maps), a SINGLE vehicle was encountered stuck in the mud; the owner was trying to winch himself out with the aid of a hand-powered "come-along" anchored to a creosote bush! He, however, was experienced, a wildlife and environmental resources consultant to Luke AFB, and knowledgeable of the area He had a portfolio of topo maps an inch thick! After the Suburban towed him out, he supplied useful information on the area and the route ahead.

Papago Wells was reached in time for lunch and a climb of Papago Peak (2,120'). From there, on recommendation, a much rougher but less swampy alternate route was taken where we saw 4 small pink javalina youngsters and possibly their parents. Camp on the 9th night was made where this route joined the main one. Monday was the nicest day of the trip, and in pleasant sunshine a 12 mile R/T climb was made of the high point of the Agua Dulce Mountains (2,850'). Then, after one last swamp, which was bypassed on a short detour to the south, we reached the border of Organ Pipe National Monument on a much improved road and camped there on the last night.

The adventure was not quite over, for while enjoying the last campfire under a star-filled sky., cries for help were heard. Two locals in cowboy outfits were escorted into camp who, after perhaps too many beers at an Ajo cowboy bar, had driven into the desert late the night before without permits, food, water or matches and their truck broke down. They had been walking in cowboy boots since 6 AM that morning and had another 40 miles to go! Water, food and cold beer were gratefully received; they bivouacked around our campfire and were given a ride to Ajo (where they had relatives and friends) the next morning. The remainder of the long drive back to Los Angeles on roads was uneventful. (Barbara & Gordon both have a 12 day holiday Christmas 1985. Anyone interested?)

Application for entry permits and other inquiries should be directed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at P.O. Box 1032, Yuma, AZ 85364 (602726-2619) or P.O. Box 418, Ajo, AZ 85321 (602-387-6483). For information on Luke AFB only (where 4-WD may not always be needed), write to Luke Air Force Range Operations and Scheduling Office, 832CSG/OTS, Luke AFB, AZ 85309 for their "Luke Air Force Range Visit Information Kit".

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