El Camino del Diablo: The Devil's Road
150 Miles Across the Most Remote Desert in the U.S.
Photos and text by Scott Brady
The Tinajas Mountains rise from the valley floor in an abrupt, towering ridge, as if the hand of Atlas had been thrust through the earth’s surface a millennia ago. This parched section of Sonoran Desert is one of the driest places in the country, with annual rainfall in the Lechuguilla Valley often measuring less than an inch. The history of the region is just as intense, with the original crossing of this route starting in 1540 with Francisco Coronado and his famed expedition from central Mexico to find the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, lined with streets of gold. While streets of gold do not exist along the Road of the Devil, adventure can be found in abundance.
Our overland route began south of Yuma, Arizona, traveling east of the Gila Mountains to the Fortuna Mine. This optional trail is considerably more rugged than the Del Diablo trail, and offers the chance to engage lo-range and slow the pace down. I was driving the ARB prepared 2004 4Runner Limited, and towing the new Adventure Trailers Chaser model. Following several fins, the track weaves through canyons and rocky wash bottoms, slowly gaining elevation to the Fortuna Mine site, which is settled against the Vopoki Ridge overlooking the Fortuna wash. In the late 1800’s, this mine was quite active and supported a saloon, post office and stage stop for the thirsty travelers of the Devil's Highway. Water was pumped over 20 miles from the Colorado River to the town. The mine shaft and several building foundations remain, but little else.
Chris Marzonie leads the group up one of the higher ridgelines in his expedition prepared 1998 Tacoma.
Continuing south, we intersected the main Tinajas Altas Pass route and the speed increased with the improved surface. The faster speeds began to test the vehicles, causing the auto-leveling airbag suspension of the Discovery to fail. The group really came together and fashioned a stack of wood blocks fastened to the axle to support the body. The efficient teamwork had the Discovery back on the trail quickly, although we did need to split the group into two parties. The forward team to drive ahead and make camp and a small team to stay with the Disco, which needed to travel very slowly due to the lack of suspension in the one corner.
Brian and Amy piloted their 2001 Discovery, which is outfitted with a host if ARB goodies and 32" tires. They are making a shift to land-based expeditions after spending four years living on a sailboat.
Camp one was made at Father Kino’s well, a natural cistern in the granite flanks of the Tinajas Altas, which forms a series of nine pools. When full, the tanks can hold up to 20,000 gallons of water, and was a required stop for the early travelers. The lower pools could be found emptied, requiring parties to scale the steep granite to the higher tanks, often falling to their deaths. It is estimated that between 400 and several thousand people died near the tanks because of thirst. Gravesites litter the hillside and with the names of those passing often carved into the granite slopes.
Despite the location’s grizzly past, it makes for an excellent camp, with a large, flat area to accommodate a bigger party. History abounds near the tanks with large grindstones, graves and carvings. Considerable time can be spent exploring the Tinajas Altas area, including several technical rock climbing routes. After setting up camp, we enjoyed a great evening around the fire and a sky ablaze with stars.
Larry Brady pilots the 4Runner and Chaser Trailer through Christmas Pass, a narrow and rugged route between the Drift Hills and the Cabeza Prieta Mountains.
Waking to a fantastic sunrise, the group rolled east and into the expanse of the Lechuguilla Desert, where the trail becomes a deep sand wash as it makes its way to the pass between the Tordillo and Tule Mountains. The area presents a unique opportunity to see flora only common to Mexico, where these plants are at the limits of their northern range. As we approached the mountains, the trail becomes a restricted corridor through the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness, where all side trails are closed. The track comes to a split at Tule Tank, which is a windmill driven well, supplying water to the modern travelers across the desert. The northern route heads to Tacna and I8, going through Christmas Pass. Our group took a side trip to explore the pass, which provides a more rugged challenge.
After returning from Christmas Pass, the group forged further east and into the deep silt of the Pinta Sand Dunes, with the trail level eroded many feet below the surrounding desert. The trucks were soon clogged with silt, covering the windscreens, racks and any other surface. The vehicles handled as if driving through deep mud with significant understeer and heavier throttle required to maintain forward progress. Of course this just added to the adventure, and all in attendance enjoyed the challenge.
Pasquale Benedetto's Tacoma, set up for expedition travel.
After we crossed the Pinta Dunes, the trail traversed the northern reaches of the Pinacate Lava Flow which meant for slow progress over the rocks. However, the track rewards the traveler with impressive views of Monument Bluff and beyond to the Sierra Pinacate of Northern Mexico (which I have also had the pleasure of exploring). Once we exited the lava flow, the trail began to climb in elevation, before entering O’Neill Pass and a quick stop at O’Neill’s grave. The sun was setting, and the group rolled into camp two at Papago Well.
From Papago Well, the trail steadily improves until it becomes a wide, graded track through the Organ Pipe National Monument. The last stop for the route is at Bates Well, which has several ranch buildings and corrals preserved by the dry air and few visitors. It is amazing to consider the hardships these early pioneers and explorers endured, and how their sacrifices helped shape the west. Traveling these ancient routes help connect the modern explorer with those that came before us, and instills a desire to protect what remains for future generations.
As featured in Off-Road, September 2006
"Locally, it is known as El Camino Del Diablo',
and few names are more appropriate," Capt. D.D. Gaillard, 1896.
GPS (WGS84 Datum)
Fortuna Mine Trail Start: N32 37.612 W114 22.538
Tinajas Altas Tanks Camp: N32 18.810 W114 02.882
Tule Well: N32 13.580 W113 44.961
Christmas Pass: N32 16.567 W113 41.562
Pinacate Lave Flow: N32 07.560 W113 33.137
Papago Well Camp: N32 05.974 W113 17.124
Bates Well: N32 10.186 W112 57.073
Eastern Terminus (Hwy 85): N32 21.361 W112 49.626
Obtaining a Barry M. Goldwater and Cabeza Prieta permit:
Marine Corps Air Station
HRO Range Permit Office
Yuma, AZ 85369-9104