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1999 Trip report - El Camino De Diablo

El Camino del Diablo

by Neal Johns
Photos by Allan Wicker

The El Camino del Diablo (Devil's Highway) is the name the Mexicans gave to the stretch of desert trail from (now) Organ Pipe National Monument to Yuma, Arizona in the 1700 and 1800s when it was a major route of travel from northern Mexico to the missions in (now) California.

My current wife, Marian, and I decided to lead a modern 4WD trip over the route between Christmas and New Years. Little did we know that it would be so popular that it would be another cat-herding expedition. 

Showing up were the Jaussauds, Kalbachs, Hughes, Davis, Perkos, Olivers, Bob Younger, Bill Ott, Allan Wicker w/Ding Elnar, Vicki Hill w/Don Summers, Dave McFarland, Dick Taylor, Heather Wheeler, Ann Marie Nelson, Warren Alksnis, Vic Antonovich, and Joan McGovern-White. Joan left early to do schoolwork, and the Olivers because of an allergy problem. Some of the people arrived late, and hero Dave McFarland led them into camp. Thanks, Dave.

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At Bagdad, which is a company mining town (copper), we camped a few miles out of town in a boulder field similar to Joshua Tree. The next morning we explored the area on rough 4WD roads and remarked on the beautiful rock formations and the little flowing creek (Boulder Creek) we crossed. Old mining efforts have left some interesting hardware around, and the crests of hills gave us a good overview of the past. The working copper mine tour was not available during our stay.

It had not rained in over three months so the resultant dust and spread-out of the vehicles made CB communication with the rear of the train impossible. We solved this problem by having middleman Dick Taylor relay information back and forth. This was not a good place to lose someone even if we jokingly say in our rules that ten-percent loss is acceptable.

Leaving the Bagdad area, we headed for nearby Burro Creek  which flows the year round. The first stop was where the creek had cut through bedrock and left large pools that usually contain fish although none were seen this time. The Hughes knew the location of the O'Neill ranch, also on Burro Creek, where the subject of the book "That Cowboy From Burro Creek" grew up and ranched, so we headed there. The old abandoned adobe had seen better days, but the beautiful pools of water (with fish and little waterfalls!) were still in the nearby creek.

That night we camped outside of Wickenburg a few miles, and headed for Ajo the next morning. In Ajo, we picked up the necessary permits to cross the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve and the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, explored the nearby Organ Pipe National Monument, and camped early.

Today is the day! We left Ajo at 8:30 AM and started on the dirt road that connects with the El Camino. I was using a GPS connected to a laptop with a mapping program in it (my new toy) to navigate with, but still had to flip a coin at one narrow wye because the map didn't show it. Luckily it was the right road so the troops will never know how close their Fearful Leader came to disaster.

After thirty some miles, we finally started on the El Camino which parallels the Mexico-US border a few miles north. The Pinacate volcanic crater area in northern Mexico extends over the border so sharp rocks tried to get inside our tires instead of outside where they belong. The trail also crosses the Pinto Sands for miles which makes for heavy going, especially in the summertime when the sun cooks all the moisture out of the sand, and you sink down halfway to China. Several gravesites were spotted alongside the trail marked by rock crosses.

We camped at Tule Well where a nice cabin and a Boy Scout monument have been erected. As usual, with a few clouds to light up in the sky, the red sunrise and sunset in the clear desert air were spectacular, so we sat around the barbecue (no ground fires allowed) for hours that evening picking on the leader. Ding and her shrink came up with a great new campfire game. Draw (blind) a pin-on button with a personality description on it and then give it to the most deserving person. One pinned on me said, "Buttons aren't enough!"

Water is at a premium here so your intrepid leader stated that he would unerringly lead the troops to a famous natural water hole, a tinaja, where a bedrock tank holds water for many months. Tule Tank, the gringo name of this tinaja, had watered the Fathers, their Indian congregation and their animals as they traveled the trail. Using my GPS, my topo map, my laptop and its mapping program I unerringly led about 20 people on footfar, far up the wrong canyon. The only reason I am here to tell this tale is because immediately afterwards I led them up the adjacent canyon to Tule Tank. There were happy bees in the bottom's damp sand but no water.

Better luck was had at Tinajas Altas (High Tanks) a few miles down the trail. This is a series of catch basins formed progressively higher in a very steep bedrock gully. There are many ancient graves here because of no water or the inability of weakened men to clamber up the steep rock to get to the upper tanks. Dozens of nearby Indian mortar holes for grinding mesquite beans are near the tanks as are several examples of rock art.

A fairly good road leads north to Wellton near Yuma so I sent the troops off on their own to make their way home after a good trip. But wait! That was not the end of the story. Marian took a nap so it was mid afternoon when we left. Feeling brave after talking to a Jeeper who had come through the mountains from Yuma rather than Wellton, we decided to try that route instead of the quick easy one. It started off pretty well but turned bumpy and faint. Soon it was dark, and we missed a few turns. Once again I told Marian to trust me and all my equipment. This time it worked! It told us when we made a wrong or missed turn, and soon we were eating dinner in a restaurant somewhere (not quite sure exactly where, but that is another story).

Dont miss the photo gallery, below: