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El Camino del Diablo Overland Trip

I had never heard of the term "overland" until my boss invited me on a work extra curricular activity a few weeks ago. We spent 3 days driving 120 miles across the Sonoran Desert on the Historic El Camino del Diablo from Ajo, AZ to just south of Yuma, AZ. 

I found a fun definition for "overlanding" calling it "a trip where the journey is the focus more than the destination." Essentially overloading involves driving bumpy dirt roads for miles and miles, far away from civilization, most likely out of cell range, car camping and taking in the sights along the way.

The El Camino del Diablo was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The road follows the foot paths and trails used by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, miners, and other settlers who have dwelled in this area. The original road dipped down in to what is now Mexico. The portion we drove was all north of the US/Mexico border and there were plenty of Border Patrol vehicles and personnel reminding you of how close we were to the border. 

Four-wheel drive and a high clearance vehicle are extremely important. Getting a tow in the Sonoran Desert is quite difficult (not to mention expensive) so you should know what you are getting into before starting on El Camino del Diablo. That also includes knowing where to camp and how to properly dispose of your waste in the desert. 

I went with five other coworkers, half of which have done this trip several times so they knew what to expect. A permit is required to enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which was established to protect the bighorn sheep population of the Sonoran Desert. You used to have to get the permit from the CPNWR office in Ajo but when we arrived we found out it all can be done online. We went to the library in Ajo to watch the safety video and print our permits and then we were on our way!

The first day took us through part of the Organ Pipe National Monument, the Agua Dulce Mountains, across the Tule Desert and the Pinacle Lava Flow to Tule Well where we camped the first night. We made a pit stop at Bate's Well to see the old homestead and dilapidated cattle ranch.

Some in our group climbed to the top of a caldera (volcanic crater) while the rest of us relaxed in the shade of the trucks. The endless desert was beautiful but I couldn't imagine trying to live out here, much less try to cross it with no sense of navigation and without any food, water, or shelter. Numerous people cross the US/Mexico border in this area and only a fraction of the people who have died in this desert have been found. That thought was in the forefront of my mind while we were driving. 

We camped at Tule Well, one of the designated campsites along The Devil's Road. There is a Boy Scout Memorial there for a Troop Leader who loved this area. We enjoyed a campfire on the cool night. This was my first night camping in a tent since my 24 days in the Sierras and climbing in that first night felt like coming home. In total we drove for almost 11 hours the first day, leaving Tucson at 6am and getting to camp close to 5pm. It was a long day of driving but the bumpiest sections were behind us.

The second day took us through the rest of the Cabeza Prieta to the Tinajas Altas Mountains. Tinajas Altas means "high tanks" and features scooped out rock formations that hold water all year. One area has a series of 9 high tanks. Animals and travelers knew to stop here for one of the only water sources in this area. We even found grinding stones and hieroglyphics in the area. 

We camped at the base of the Tinajas Altas by a unique rock formation. We enjoyed another beautiful, cool evening while waiting for the stars and Milky Way to come out. As you can imagine being this far away from any kind of development, the night sky was dark and perfect for star gazing. A few of my coworkers brought along their fancy cameras and we did some light painting and long exposure shots. Check out the Milky Way!

Our third and final day took us through the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range (permit required) where the nearby airforce base practices air-to-ground bombing and drills. This active bombing range has strict designated areas where you can drive and going outside these areas can mean you are wandering in dangerous desert land with unexploded ordinances (aka bombs). It can sound scary or intimidating but just stay on the road and you're fine. We did hear some jets doing night drills the night we camped at Tule Well. They set off some flares that could have been quite terrifying if you didn't know what was going on.

Of course, it wouldn't be an adventure with coworkers without a little misadventure. Unfortunately we got a truck stuck in some soft sand and had to dig it out. We eventually needed a tension tow to get it out, thankfully we had all the right tools and were on our way thanks to some teamwork!

After 2.5 days and 120 miles, we finally left the dirt roads behind and found paved roads again. We had one more stop though: Dateland! If you stop you must get a date shake. There's plenty of date palm related desserts and food at this random highway rest stop. After we finished our shakes we were back on the road headed for Tucson. It was a great weekend exploring another part of Arizona I'd never been to before. If you get a chance to go, do your homework, make sure you're prepared and have the right permits, and go for a drive!


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