It’s been called the Devil’s Highway and the Way of the Dead, but the El Camino del Diablo has been used for thousands of years by Native Americans, Conquistadors and explorers traveling from Mexico to the present California border at Yuma, Arizona. It’s estimated that several thousand travelers have perished from heat stroke and dehydration and its earned its reputation as the route passes through some of the most desolate terrain of the Sonoran desert. Today, the route parallels the US/Mexico border and is actively used by the US Border Patrol, human and drug smugglers as well as adventurers.
Beginning in Ajo, Arizona, the El Camino travels west between Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range before reaching Yuma, Arizona. A group of four truck campers made the journey from west to east after the 2021 Truck Camper Adventure Rally in Quartzsite. The “trampers” consisted of Tom and Marianne Banks driving a Chevy Silverado/Northstar 850TC, Walt Simpson driving a Ford F-250/Lance 825, John and Vikki Jackson driving a Toyota Tacoma/Haitus truck topper, and me with my wife, Linda, driving a Ram 2500/Bundutec Odyssey.
After loading up with fuel, water and food in Yuma and airing down our tires, we began the trip at I-8 in Wellton, Arizona, traveling southeast towards our first stop at Tinajas Tanks, a group of natural pools that collect rainwater and have been used by travelers for centuries. This section of road is well-marked, wide and well-maintained to support the Border Patrol and construction of the new Border Wall to the south. We stopped along the way to investigate some dummy tanks that must be used for military target practice and to take some group photos. Arriving at the Tinajas Tanks, we took a short hike to see the Tanks and stretch our legs.
Continuing east, the road was covered with deeper sand and became much narrower as we traveled through a series of washes. It was getting late, so we decided to camp at Tule Well, having driven about 50 miles during the day. Here, you’ll find a cabin, some picnic tables and a Boy Scout monument built for the refuge’s dedication in 1941. After establishing camp, we ate some dinner and gathered around a campfire where we solved all the world’s problems before turning in. In the morning, we explored the area, climbing up to the top of the monument which offered 360-degree views of the surrounding desert. There was a notable increase in Border Patrol activity, including a helicopter and it looked like a number of people were detained nearby.
After breaking camp, we passed through some beautiful gardens of chola and ocotillo before making the short, steep climb up and over the Pinacate Lava Flow, part of an extensive group of still active volcanic peaks that originate in Sonora, Mexico. Stopping for lunch, a military jet circled overhead a few times before giving us a wing wave and blasting eastward. The road varied in width which did lead to some pinstriping and there were a few areas of deep sand. At this point, we had left the Barry Goldwater Range and entered the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and made a stop at the famous Papago Well. This well is an historic way station along the El Camino and was featured in a 1957 Louis L’Amour novel “Last Stand at Papago Wells” as well as the movie “Apache Territory” released in 1958. We also started seeing more and more saguaro cactus along the road, some of which had to measure almost 50 feet high. These cacti don’t start growing arms off the main trunk for nearly seventy years so some had to be 150+ years old.
We were quickly losing daylight, so it was time to find a camp. Driving past several Border Patrol bases, we entered Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and found many of the boondocking places and all the side roads closed for preservation purposes or to prevent access to the border wall, visible in the distance. Continuing on, we finally found a place big enough for us to spread out and set up camp. We took short hikes, ate dinner and enjoyed a final campfire before watching the sun slowly make its exit in a fantastic palette of colors. During the night and early morning, there was lots of Border Patrol traffic heading towards their base nearby.
The final morning had us all headed towards Ajo and the end of the El Camino. We made a stop at Bates Well, a ranch that operated from 1935 until 1976 and is now part of the National Monument. Several in the group decided to climb to the top of the water tower for a better view. The road became wider and the surface smoother as we approached the enormous tailings piles of the abandoned Phelps Dodge copper mine. Copper has been mined in Ajo from the late 1800’s until 1985 when falling copper prices and a prolonged workers strike closed the mine permanently, putting 1,000 miners out of work. The El Camino ends just south of Ajo on Route 85 and we stopped to air up and say our goodbye’s.
The route can be traveled by high clearance 4WD vehicles, and a permit is required before traveling through the Goldwater bombing range. That permit can be obtained online and requires watching a short video describing the rules of travel and a good reminder not to pick up any unexploded ordinance. An additional permit is required to cross the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, but we were unable to obtain one as the Ajo field office was closed due to COVID-19. A special permit is required from the wildlife refuge for groups consisting of six or more vehicles. There are no services along the route and cell phone coverage is spotty so travelers should be prepared with plenty of fuel and water before starting out. The Border Patrol presence is significant, but they never asked to see our permits.
Despite it’s reputation and isolation, the El Camino should be on every adventurer’s list. The scenery is amazing and if timing and weather cooperate, the desert flower bloom would be a sight to see. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has miles of roads to explore as well as several very nice campgrounds. The town of Ajo is worth a stop with its beautiful town square and some interesting stores selling locally made arts and crafts.
Excellent article about the El Camino!
MacAfee, thanks for the ride and report. After reading your piece I feel like I finally got there.