El Camino del Diablo

Centuries ago, El Camino del Diablo was a network of footpaths that led to water, sacred places, villages, and hunting grounds. These footpaths spanned from Sonoyta, Sonora to Yuma, Arizona. Today, the Camino del Diablo is a ~210 kilometer road that spans a remote section of the Sonoran Desert from Ajo to Yuma. The road travels across Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge/Wilderness, and the Barry M Goldwater Range (West). The land encompassing the Camino del Diablo (The Devil’s Highway) became part of the US, after the Gadsden Purchase, in 1854. In recent history, prospectors, in search of gold and other treasures, prospered and perished along the Devil’s Highway. Today, it is a remote recreation destination for the adventurous tourist. It is also a perilous route, taken by many, in hope of making a new life in a new land. After hearing much about this route from friends, and internet sources, that talked up its remoteness, mystique, history, and danger, and being the desert rat that I am, I was eager to see what it was all about. And it did not disappoint.

We left Ajo in the late afternoon. The dirt road leaving the highway was in good shape, and we made forty-five kilometers well before sunset. After chatting with a border patrol agent about where best to camp, we set out away from the mountain features of the landscape to find a place to camp in the flat open desert. Before the flats, we came upon Growler Wash, and lured by its shade, we picked a spot to camp under a Palo Verde tree. Just before sunset, I saw a group of birds, then more birds, and more birds, big black birds, black vultures, flying over and along the wash. They kept coming and coming. I’d never seen so many vultures together like this before. There were hundreds, and hundreds, and more flying in …at least a thousand vultures descended upon Growler Wash. I love vultures, so I was thrilled. It felt so special I though I might cry with excitement over this experience. Why were they all here? Is this where they have always come? Is this a migration path? Do vultures migrate? Did a herd of cattle die beyond these trees? Maybe they just came to say hello to me, to watch over me in the night? They were flying around a bit, a few here, a few there, landing in and out of trees before settling in to roost for the night, right where we also decided was a perfect place to camp. It was magical. I watched them settle on a branch, flip out their wings, giving them a little wiggle and shake, and then tuck them in close to their bodies; then they tucked their neck down into their shoulders. I turned to Neon and said, “they won’t peck at us, thinking we’re dead, after we fall asleep, will they?” I was so tired, and felt so secure in their presence, I fell asleep within minutes of watching them all settle into their trees for the night. Upon waking, in the pre-dawn light, I could see that they were still perched in their trees. What a wild experience, I thought, one I never would have imagined, and yet here I was having a slumber party with a thousand vultures on the Devil’s Highway. We gathered up camp and rode off into the morning wondering what the day might bring.

We cruised into Papago Well, arriving well before noon. We filled our canteens and settled in under a shade tree for a long afternoon siesta. A few other tourists passed through while we were there; they asked about our bikes and our journey, and were impressed that we were out here so exposed in such a remote area. It was a hot afternoon, hotter than we were hoping it would be. It was 40°C in the shade. I sucked down two and a half liters of water during our three hour siesta in the shade. We set out again just before 3:00 pm. In the next two hours I drank another three liters of water. We camped in the Pinacate Lava Fields. The plants were sparse, but lush and green through here. A mosquito sang in a my ear, and a deer passed nearby. The surrounding mountains, pale desert floor, and black lava boulders glowed in the pink hues of the setting sun. We could hear trucks and other traffic on Mexico hwy-2 to the south. A few birds flew through camp as we settled in for the night. I only peed once, a small pee, before falling asleep and I wondered, “what happened to all that water I drank? Did I sweat it all out?”

We woke early. It was still dark out, and we got an early start hoping to beat the heat. Later in the morning we rested for a bit in the shade. A newish, shiny, black pickup approached from further down the road. It stopped twenty five meters shy of us. A guy got out and started ducking down, peering through the bushes. I couldn’t really see him, but I could make out that he was wearing khaki clothing, and skulking through the bushes. I turned to Neon and said “this is really creepy, what’s he doing?. Then the guy said something really weird, like “bigdity badity boe”. I was like “What? Can I help you?” He said something weird again, like “baggity bee.” I said “I don’t understand you, what’s baggity bee, what do you want?” He said something weird again and I turned to Neon (who is fluent in Spanish) “did you understand that? It doesn’t sound like Spanish to me. This guy is really creepy.” Neon replied, “I have no idea what he’s saying, maybe it’s some kind of Indian mix.” Then Neon said, loudly, “Who are you?” We still couldn’t really see the guy, but he answered in English (finally), “US Fish & Wildlife.” Then I said, “you can’t just sneak up on people through the bushes acting all creepy. He said he wasn’t being creepy. And I replied, “biggity bee, that’s weird, and you were sneaking up through the bushes. You can’t sneak up on people, acting all creepy, and expect people to not be creeped out.” Then he demanded to see our permits, and then demanded to see our ID’s, asked us where we entered, and if we were going to Yuma. And then he left and said “enjoy the rest of your trip.” It was such a creepy experience, one that as a woman, had I been alone, one more “biggity bee” and I might have started running, away from the creepy guy in the bushes. And a guy like that probably would have started shooting.

It took a while to shake off that weird experience, but we made it to Tule Well, watered up, cooled off, and had a nice siesta until three o’clock again. We rode for a ways, past Cabeza Prieta Peak, then chatted with a border patrol for a few minutes. He was impressed by our journey, asked about our bikes, laughed a bit about our experience with the US Fish & Wildlife guy, and said “eh, Fish and Wildlife doesn’t really like us either.” We passed another border patrol shortly thereafter. And then a third border patrol, who was very concerned if we had enough water. He gave us a number to call, when we get to Yuma, to let him know that we made it through the desert safely, and then insisted we take a 1 1/2 liter Smart Water with us, even though we told him that we left Tule Well with 9 liters of water each. Neon said “oh, it’s cold”, and then I said “if it’s cold then you have to share it with me.” We rode on, found a place to camp, nestled in with tall Saguaros, and watched the sun set. Later in the night I woke to a very, very, low flying plane that was suspiciously quiet, and like nothing I’d ever seen before. My first reaction was to duck for cover, and then I remembered that I was already lying flat on the ground. Two more planes flew over. All I could say was “whoah, it’s like I’m in a Star Wars movie or something.” Neon said “ghost planes”. For flying so low they were amazingly quiet, I replied. They were like sleek, black, stealth planes. I’ve never seen any like them. They had green lights on the underside of their wings, tail, and front. Probably so they didn’t hit each other, I thought. It seemed weird since we we’re still in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness. Then I remembered that even though this is Wilderness, it’s still private airspace here. When we woke the next morning, I said to Neon, “I really like the pace we’re riding through here at. We’ve seen so much …those weird planes, the vultures, all our interactions with other people. It’s really cool. It has been a good speed our whole bike journey so far.” Neon added, and yet we’re still moving fast enough that it doesn’t feel slow. And then he said, I really think this is what people think the Arizona Trail is like: border patrol, gaggles of vultures, “illegals”, and ufo’s passing in the night.”

We set out for the day, next stop, Tinajas Altas (High Tanks), pockets of water in large holes/basins in the smooth rock in the Tinajas Mountains. We left the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness and entered the Barry M Goldwater Range. The sand was a little tiring to ride through this morning, but we made it to High Tanks in time for second breakfast. I got three liters of water. The water was a little yellow-ish, but had a fresh, earthy flavor. Neon said it tasted like “sheep poop”. Whatever, I said, “it’s way better than that soapy, salty, tasting water from Tule Well.” We left High Tanks and rode across Tinajas Pass to the west side of the mountains heading toward Yuma. We stopped for a siesta under a Palo Verde in a wash. It was a nice soft sand, and Neon said it was like we were at the beach. I said “yeah, except without the water.” After our siesta, the sand got bad, the worst we’ve had so far. We pushed our bikes, and pushed some more. It was getting late and we finally gave up and rode on the north side of the road through the desert. We fell a little shy on of our usual kilometers for the day and camped near the entrance to Spook Canyon. We could see the lights of Yuma in the distance. I fell asleep watching the alpenglow fade on the Tinajas Mountains.

The wind blew through the night. It was hot and I dreamt about fizzy Italian wine, Lambrusco, and organic strawberries. We woke early, in the dark, excited to get to Yuma. The miles through the “not so bad” sand were tiring, but passed quickly. We made it to the outskirts of Yuma  to a Fry’s (grocery store), around 11am. I bought Lambrusco and organic strawberries. I ate the strawberries immediately, and then decanted the Lambrusco into my Klean Kanteen. It fizzed and spurted out of the Kanteen as we pedaled across Yuma to a hotel on the other side of town. Riding on pavement is like hyperdrive, the kilometers go by at the speed of light.

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Begining our journey on El Camino del Diablo…

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Growler Wash…

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Entering Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge…

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Perfecting my bikepacking burritos…

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There were steel grids on this section of the road to make driving through the sand easier. 

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O’Niell’s grave, a prospector who perished in ~1916 from exposure after his burros wandered away.

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Papago Well. Good tasting water. We had a long siesta here.

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Groups of tires, bundled together, are used by the border patrol to drag the road, sweeping it clean of prints. This way they can see any new foot prints that have passed through after they’ve dragged it.

…freshly dragged road  ⬇️

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View from the Pinta Sands / Pinacate Lava Fields of the Pinta Sierra Mountains.

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Sunset from the Pinacate Lava Fields…

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Looking south into Mexico at the shield volcano, Sierra Pinacate, the summit of the Pinacate Lava Fields.

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Road sign for the El Camino del Diablo in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge…

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Riding through the Pinacate Lava Fields in the early morning hours…

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Tule cabin & well… the cabin is made of adobe bricks but was rebuilt in 1989 to celebrate the Refuge’s 50th Birthday.

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Erosion along the devil’s highway…

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Cabeza Prieta (dark head) Peak…

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Early morning sun through the saguaros from our campsite, and from our ride,  west of the Cabeza Prieta Mountains…

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Heading west to the Tinajas Altas (high tank) Mountains…

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Getting water from High Tanks…

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The west side of the Tinajas Altas Mountains….

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Neon pushing his bike through the deep sand

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Alpenglow on the Tinajas Altas Mountains (view from our last camp on El Camino del Diablo)

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