Cabeza Prieta Area, El Camino del Diablo


By: Gail Hanna


This report is a composite of two trips which we made to this remote and fascinating desert in SW Arizona along the Mexican border. The Cabeza Pneta National Wildlife Refuge is a 860,000 acre reserve which extends westward from the Organ Pipe Cactus N.M. and is surrounded to the N and W by the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range(formerly Luke AFB). Although the airspace is used periodically for training maneuvers and you may find some military relics on the ground, you can normally expect a pleasant and safe wilderness experience. The Reserve was established to protect the rare Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope and also serves to protect a major portion of El Camino del Diablo, the primitive route by which many early settlers attempted to cross an inhospitable desert, often with disastrous results.

An article in the Desert Sage of March 1990 by Ron Jones first piqued our interest. We found an excellent reference in John Annenno's book Adventuring in Arizona (Sierra Club Books); it not only has a complete account of the history of the Camino and a mileage log but a handy list of high points of all 193 mountain ranges in Arizona (several are in or adjacent to the range). Arizona Highways (Feb. 1993) also has a fine article on El Camino. For general planning you should get the 1:250,000 scale Ajo and El Centro topos which show the route and are quite helpful in this fiat terrain. You'll also need the 7 1/2 mm. topos of the peaks you'll be visiting; the book by Annenno is helpful.

For our first visit we met in Ajo on Thanksgiving day; our group of six included Rheta Schoeneman, Vit Martynowicz, Shelley Rogers and Tom Pileggi. After gassing up our 4WD's (essential!) and ensuring that we had plenty of water, we headed west to Bates Well in Organ Pipe where the route officially begins. We had previously written the Refuge office at 1611 N. Second Ave., Ajo, AZ. 85321 tel:(602) 387-6483 as permission is needed for entrance. We specified the dates and vehicle descriptions and they sent us a "hold harmless" agreement which all of us had signed. We returned this and received a placard for each vehicle dash. We found out later that our presence had also been reported to the Border Patrol.

The Camino is a pleasant and easy to follow primitive road with only a few bad spots such as sandy washes or the extension of the Pinacate Lava flow. Adjoining routes are marked as "Management Roads" and are closed to motor vehicles although open to other modes of travel. We reached one landmark, Papago Well, which had a small windmill and water. We pushed on to the only other water source in miles, Tule Well, where we encountered a few other people (with horses), tables, a shower (!), a small building in good repair and a monument on a nearby hill. This well is a landmark and centrally located to explore the Refuge. Continuing west, we made a cursory attempt on Cabeza Pneta Peak, changed our minds, and drove W through the Lechuguilla Desert which had only one difficult spot in a wash. As we approached the Tinajas Altas Mtns. we crossed the Refuge boundary and worked our way S along the base of the mountains where we selected one of the very scenic camping spots (where 4WD road almost touches the mtns.; see adjacent map). This was our home for two nights and features fine Sonoran scenery, including cactus. This was our starting point to climb Tinajas Altas Peak during both visits. The route is steep and rugged although short. Our itinerary next took us N to the Tanks (shown on the topo) where we saw the water cachement which was lifesaving to the early pioneers, also a large number of Indian morteros at the base of the cliffs. Most of the group opted to cross Tinajas Altas Pass (an easy drive) and then head north on a poorly defined route through the Air Force Range. There were few terrain features and, after several hours of devious wandering, we finally reached the freeway E of Yuma.

For our second trip in '93 our group consisted of Richard, Shelley, Gail as well as Ken Olson and Tom Moumblow. We decided not to make the complete E to W El Camino driving traverse, rather to drive a portion of the route from W to E and do more hiking. We had the necessary permits, water, radios, gas, more maps and even rain gear (yes, we got rained on!). We entered the Air Force Range at exit 30 at Wellton and drove S and to the E of Sheep Mtn. in the Gila Range which we may climb later. Heading south on a good dirt road we past an El Camino sign and approached the Tinajas Altas Range and our old campsite which is a fairly short 4WD detour from the main route and in a niche at the base of the mountains. Gail took an easy hike to the border and located one of the boundary markers while the others climbed Tinajas Altas (again) and replaced the glass jar with a new register can. That evening we had a pleasant visit with a patrolling Border Patrol Ranger.

Next day we headed E on El Camino and parked near BM 1212 about 6 miles W of Tule Well which is a good starting point to climb Cabeza Pneta Peak. The peak is prominent and we noted landmarks to ensure our return. The hike took about 5 hours roundtrip and affords a fine view. Like Tinajas Altas, it's climbed infrequently. We replaced the register jar. We continued E to Tule Well, then exited from El Camino and headed N on a well-defined road which has only one really bad spot near Christmas Pass. Going N we parked at a management road sign which read "Heart Tank". We had a clear view of the Sierra Pinta Range to the SE, some 7 miles distant. After some discussion we headed out on the almost flat road, wishing we had mountain bikes which would have been ideal for this approach. We had lunch at the impressive tank, then Richard used his uncanny route-finding skills to lead us to the summit. Much of the climb is on solid rock but Ken did encounter bad footing on the descent which sent him wildly flying down the mountain for 75 feet or so. Fortunately he escaped with lots of scratches. We got to the base of the mountain at dusk and then had the very long hike back across flat terrain the old road was valuable with no landmarks. We passed the time discussing how other ranges in this area could be accessed via management roads.

Next day we exited the Refuge and Range at exit 42 on 1-8 at Tacna after taking a frontage road W for several miles. Cabeza Prieta and adjacent areas is a fascinating place to visit with lots of camping and climbing possibilities and solitude for the seasoned desert traveler who is well prepared and seeks a new adventure.

Tinajas Altas Climb: From the campsite at the base of the mountain drop into the large wash and follow it staying to the right side. After 0.3 mi. where the canyon divides, follow the canyon to the right climbing up to a saddle at 1980 ft.(ducks here). Then drop down slightly and stay on the right side of a canyon that drops off to your left. Climb to the next saddle with a knob at 2200 ft. on your right. From here the summit can be seen to the west. Head toward the summit over small ridges. Head to the right side of the summit mass then up steep 2nd class ledges to the ridge and then bear left to the top. A really enjoyable climb! Data: 4 ml. RT, elevation gain is 1600 ft. Time: 3 1/2 to 4 hours RT. Cabeza Prieta Climb: We started near BM 1212 on the El Camino, approx. 6 mi. W of Tule Well. From here the peak is the dark pyramid to the NE. Head out across the flat desert toward the peak crossing the Management Road at about 2 ml. Climb up the SE ridge to a point at about 1720 ft. Then follow the ridge and contour right under the summit on loose gravel. Gain the ridge finally on good rock to the N of the summit. It is an easy scramble from here. Data: 8 ml. RT, elevation gain is 1300 ft. Time: 5 hours RT.

Sierra Pinta Climb: Start at the "Heart Tank" sign on the road about 8 mi. N of Tule Well. From here it is a long 7 ml. hike across flat desert on the road to the base of the mountain. The road will fade out in a canyon. Proceed up the canyon and you will see Heart Tank on a bench in the rock. Just before the tank take the canyon to your right. Follow this up to the ridge maybe 0.2 mi. N of the summit. Follow the ridge and near the top there is some steep class 2 scrambling. Data: 16 ml. RT, elevation gain is 2000 ft. Time: 11 hours RT.

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