Winter Wanderings in AZ - Gila Canyon, Colorado River Valley, Kofa, Swansea, and Beyond


Welcome to 2021. Covid nixed plans for a longer, out of state trip, but we still had some time off and wanted to bust out for a multi-day camping trip over New Years. Laurie is always concerned about cold weather during winter trips, so the planning parameters were:
  • Stay in AZ
  • Try to stay in relatively warmer places (low elevation)
  • Try to avoid places we’ve recently been (El Camino del Diablo and Kofa)
  • Plan for a meet-up with our son, who would join us mid-trip for a few days
  • Enjoy the beauty, solitude, and history of the remote AZ desert
All in all, we did OK and had a great trip. A few photo highlights:

More petroglyphs than you could shake a stick at

Beautiful skies - Swansea sunrise!

A few tight spots
A few days before leaving, we communicated with friends who were spending time camping and exploring in the Gila River canyon area, north of Dateland, AZ. We shared contact info and exited the interstate 8 to (hopefully) meet them at a location where they were hiking to view petroglyphs. They were able to send precise GPS coordinates of their hiking location, and we plotted a route on our tablet. It was a bit like Stanley/Livingston meeting as we followed an increasingly deteriorating trail to find them.

The Howards, I presume

Nice that the GPS coordinates got us right to our friends - Obie is impressed!

The entire hillside was covered with boulders like this
We hiked and visited and viewed hundreds of petroglyphs. After an hour or 2, as we were saying our good-byes and started hiking back down to the vehicle, their daughter yelled that she found another huge bunch of petroglyphs. We considered trekking over, but then I half-jokingly replied, "Once you’ve seen a few hundred, you’ve seen them all.

You could spend a day or more there, but we needed to hit the trail to set camp in daylight. We decided to take our friends' advice to camp at nearby Sears Point, which has another concentration of petroglyphs. We studied paper and electronic maps and set out for Sears Point. Unfortunately - well maybe not because it was all part of the adventure - the trail we took turned into a dead-end where the trail supposedly went through the Gila river bed. We tried a few offshoots, but they all petered out. Daylight was waning, so we backtracked a couple miles to find a great site and set up camp for the first night. So far a great trip!

Dusk descends, camp is set - fire and full moon. This is why we do this!

Cold, beautiful sunrise, with a hot cup of coffee

After a somewhat leisurely morning, we packed camp with plans to head towards Yuma and the AZ Peace Trail. But we were still vexed by the dead-end trail to Sears Point. Backtracking toward I-8, we came across a trail that looked like it might bypass the dead-ends to allow access to Sears Point from the east. It was early in the trip, and the place came highly recommended, so we detoured and bushwhacked and eventually got to our destination. Wow! I’ve never seen so many petroglyphs in a concentrated area. It made me consider the tribe's commitment to support the arts.
Chief to tribe: OK today’s activities are hunting and arts. I need 20 people for today’s hunting party, but you 5, who are good at making pictures, go to the cliffs and draw stuff.

Just a few photos of Sears Point. Again there are thousands of petroglyphs​

To be continued...​
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Next part...
After a hour or so viewing all the petroglyphs, we proceeded to Yuma and then followed GPX route for the AZ Peace Trail along the Colorado River. It was a funky start, where we had to go through a gated park-model community to access the BLM land. The guy at the gate reluctantly let us through, with directions on how to get through the community to reach an exit gate at the rear to hit the trail. We overheard the other attendant comment: “They’ll never make it.”

Challenge accepted! The first part was a maze of narrow, sandy washes, but we’re already “pinstriped” to the max, and while the sand was deep, it was also coarse, so I didn't even have to air down. Then we got into a really cool area of fairly steep little hills. It would have been good to have a sand-dune flag.

Lots of these steep hills, where don't know what's on the other side until you crest the hill

Otherworldly landscape

Typical trail view
We originally planned to stay near the river, taking the Red Cloud Mine and Clip Wash trails, but the next day was our meet-up with our son in Salome, and we didn’t want to risk being late. So after getting to Martinez Lake, we got on tarmac and eventually hit highway 95 north until it was time to find a camp for the night. We remembered a nice place in Kofa, not too far off the highway but off a spur trail with 4WD sections to keep the boondockers away, and had a very nice camp for the night.

Full moon over Kofa, another great campsite!
The next day involved a bit of highway driving but mostly on beautiful, secondary roads. The meetup in Salome went fine. We found a little RV park that would let us park a vehicle for a few days for $5/day, and as a bonus, that included showers. Clean and ready for new adventures, and with an additional occupant in the LR3, we headed up and over Tank Pass trail and enjoyed a beautiful day.

A departed friend (Ed Fouts) used to say, There's nothing like a blue Arizona sky

The start of Tank Pass made us recall the timeless advice to "stick the main route and don't take no shortcuts" (paraphrasing a diary entry by a girl on the Donner Party). Our GPX route had us exiting the paved access road near town, but we noted that there were other trails heading toward our intended trail further up the road. So we made a quick decision to stay on the paved road to make better time, as the scenery on the outskirts wasn't exceptional. The "trails" on our map eventually made it to our intended route, but we had to do a little tree trimming and a lot of bushwhacking and I'm sure took more time.

Tank Pass trail was fun and had interesting sights. The first point of interest was Prison Rock. According to legend, either: a.) prisoners were forced to mine the hills and were chained overnight in the cave; or b.) this was an overnight stop when transporting prisoners from Fort Yuma to Prescott.

Cave where the prisoners were kept

Interior view

Some of the rocks still have shackles

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...Next part
We continued on dirt to Swansea ghost town, where we camped for the night. There are developed campsites and even nice outhouses. The outhouses were unexpected and kind of my rescue because I skimped on one of my key packing responsibilities: toilet paper. We got into Swansea at dusk, and were prepared to backtrack to remote locations in case it was crowded. We were pleased to find the place deserted - as appropriate for a ghost town.

It's a sprawling place, and we spent a good couple hours exploring in the morning.

Train scales, with station in the background

Workers housing (the roofs are not authentic, for preservation)

The smelter is the biggest remaining structure

Looking in the smelter

The Reverberatory furnace has the coolest lettering

Great to explore the place on our own
Then it was time to head on down the dusty trail. We retraced our steps a few miles to look at some big cairns in the middle of nowhere. We have no idea what they are - maybe grave markers or land marker?

What is this?

Two are fairly near - you can see another one in the distance



Today's trails took us across the Bill Williams River and then into the Rawhide Mountains wilderness, heading east toward Lake Alamo.

It's always nice to see a river in the desert (note the fully packed vehicle)

Of course, Obie wanted to get out and explore

A little tangent on packing. We take a lot of stuff! What makes it worse is that I think I have a minimalist mindset, but we're always stuffed to the gills.

Food and drink. This was a self-sustained 5 day trip for 3 people and 1 big dog, so that means a lot of water (11 gal bottled water plus a 5 gal container of tap water) and foodstuffs. There was a lot of beer too. I always like to pack a few extra for the random trail meetup, so I can offer a beer and not feel like I'm going to run short.

Warmth. Temps were normal, but that means night-time lows around freezing (we had ice on our water bottles one morning). The Megamat" sleeping pad is a game changer for warmth - insulated and comfy! But it comes by the "mega" name honestly. In addition to a double sleeping bag, we pack a couple extra big blankets. The one is used regularly if I want to linger by the fire and contemplate the meaning of life while Laurie reads in bed. And the other is in case temps get unseasonable. We didn't need the 2nd extra blanket ourselves, but we threw it at our son and he was happy for it. Then add a sleeping bag for the dog and a big duffel bag of coats and hats and gloves and my son's sleeping bag etc. It's amazing how much stuff you need to achieve a modicum of comfort.

Miscellaneous. Our son is an amateur astronomer, so that means there's a nice telescope buried in the back. And I always carry a decent set of tools and recovery gear and Max Trax and extra gas, etc etc.

Back to the trip. After getting out to stretch our legs and skip some stones at the river, we proceeded with the water crossing. Water flow was minimal, so it wasn't any concern.
Today's discussion question was why do you rarely see small saguaros? Then that brought up the spotter challenge of a shiny quarter to the person who spotted the smallest saguaro. We later learned that they grow very slowly their first 40 yrs or so.

We did find some small saguaros, but also saw a lot of other interesting things as well.

Suspension bridge for a gas pipeline in the middle of nowhere

We saw lots of wild burros today

Another beautiful day, with Lake Alamo in the distance

It's fairly rare to see a late model vehicle (Dodge Stratus) wrecked on the trail

Today's camp destination was McGuffie cabin, at the end of a couple mile spur trail. We arrived in good time to set up camp and hike around the area. The cabin is long abandoned, but in surprisingly good shape. It's always interesting to read the history of the people who lived our here.

Don't call the SPCA - the dog isn't really self-immolating

Note the saguaro spine wall

The cabin was owned by "Venus" McGuffie, married 4 times and mined in the area. A colorful character indeed!

The final day is always kind of sad but also kind of exciting and happy if everything has gone well. We hadn't topped off the tank for a couple days (passing by Quartzsite), so I started the day dumping the 4.5 gal from our extra container into the tank. I think we needed it. We had a couple possible routes to meander northeast to eventually hit highway 93 near Wikiup and then head home. It was kind of a spur of the moment decision to take the Maggie Slot Canyon trail. Wow! This was one of the highlights of the trip.

Trail winding through the slot canyon

Had to fold in the mirrors here

Similar to previous, there were some sandy sections in the wash but it was coarse stuff and no big concern. The ever narrowing walls did cause some concern. The trip reports mentioned tight squeeze for a jeep; is my LR3 much wider? Would we barely squeeze through a bend and then coming to an impassable section and have to navigate in reverse? But our LR3 was right at the limit for width and we made it through. There is also a nice side slot canyon, and we hiked that.

Obie was suitably impressed - this would be a good place to catch a rabbit!

After the slot canyon detour, we got back on the AZ Peace Trail, which was well graded at this point. We noted the solitude today. Even a little traffic can cause consternation on these trails, but we saw only one vehicle (oncoming) this day. I've read articles that suggest "overlanding," or remote camping, is becoming increasingly popular - especially during Covid times. But the entire trip was defined by solitude - which is just the way we like it!

Till next trip - peace out!
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Nice report about an area I've often wondered abou,t but never been.
Yeah, us too. It was nice to start with a "what else can we do?" approach and end up finding so much interesting, beautiful stuff.

Ace Brown

Adventurer, Overland Certified OC0019
The Retired Ol’ Farts crew will be down in KOFA starting February 9. You ought to join us and show us around some of those neat spots you found on this trip.

I enjoyed your trip report.

Alan (aka Ace)

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
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Excellent report! Lots of AZ country that I haven't seen yet either. And thanks for the mention of Ed Fouts - legendary AZ 4 wheeler!

Todd Z.
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Well-known member
RE: your question on the cairns - often they mark the boundaries of mining claims. While the land may be BLM on top, the claim may be mineral rights only and subterranean. How one would make use of that claim I don't know - likely through a permit granted on the surface by BLM or the state.
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What a great view, it looks you have so much fun with this off-road adventure.
Hey, thanks. If that came through, I must have done a decent job with the trip report - we had a blast!

Excellent report! Lots of AZ country that I haven't seen yet either. And thanks for the mention of Ed Fouts - legendary AZ 4 wheeler!
Sorry to say, I never wheeled with Ed. He went to our church, and he certainly whetted my appetite for off-road exploring with many great stories, but we weren't into offroad exploring at the time. A couple recollections:
  • His daughter mentioned that line about the unique beauty of AZ blue skies during his memorial. The story was that Ed pulled her out of school on a beautiful day to go exploring in his jeep, and she remembered him making that comment on "skip day." What a legacy, and I still think of it and him while we're out exploring.
  • The little old ladies at church all kind of twittered when Ed drove up in his old jeep (sometimes with a toilet seat attached to the rear gate) - kind of like when Fonzie showed up in Happy Days.
I was certainly fortunate to make his acquaintance!

RE: your question on the cairns - often they mark the boundaries of mining claims. While the land may be BLM on top, the claim may be mineral rights only and subterranean.
That makes sense. I peered through the gaps in the rocks half expecting to see human remains. They are pretty impressive structures.

Nice to read about the rest of your trip. It was good to meet you out in the middle of nowhere.
It was great to meet up with you guys! And those petroglyphs were incredible. Thanks for the travel tips!

Long Rifle

It was a great honor to make a half dozen excursions with Ed during his later years . He was a unique one of a kind person with a great heart and many stories to share.
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