Feature > Backcountry Adventures
El Camino del Diablo Trail
The Devil’s Highway
story by Angela Titus
photos by Bushducks
Chainfruit chollas and saguaro cacti cover the landscape.
El Camino del Diablo, translated the Road of the Devil, is one of the longest and most remote 4-wheel adventures in Arizona. Escape all the holiday stress on this trail’s fun off-road obstacles, centuries of history, and spectacular desert scenery. Popularly called The Devil’s Highway, this trail requires a minimum of two days to travel, more if you plan to explore other good trails nearby.
First used by Indians and as early as the 1500s by Spanish missionaries, this route got its well-deserved reputation as the most deadly of immigrant roads during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Gold-seekers crossing the Sonoran Deserts lost their way when shifting sand obliterated the trail. Travelers died of thirst and heat exposure. The exact numbers of deaths along this trail are unknown. Anywhere from 400 to 2,000 might be buried in unmarked graves along the road, it is commonly believed. Approximately 50 known graves exist near the road, but only a handful have markers.
More recently the trail became known as “The Smugglers Trail” when liquor smugglers used this route during the prohibition days. In 1853-54, surveyors formalizing the Mexico and American border populated the area. Gold rushers flooded the route again in the1860s. Traffic diminished when the railroad reached Yuma in 1870.
The trail today begins in the town of Wellton, off Interstate 8, 25 miles east of Yuma. Top off your gas tank before leaving town. Three distinct sections of the road travel through the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the Organ Pipe National Monument. The journey ends in Ajo, once a bustling copper mining town.
Cautionary sign with the jagged Tinajas Atlas Mountains in the background.
Leaving Wellton, the trail is an easygoing, wide, graded road through most of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Currently this two million acre range is public land leased to the military. In 1941, the Air Force trained World War II fighter pilots in air-to-air and air-to-ground exercises. Training of Air Force pilots and Marines continues on the range today.
Once a source of water, the Bates Well windmill now turns solemnly in the breeze.
After 31 miles, the route enters Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Here are some of the most difficult, scenic, and interesting sections of the route. Sharp eyes will spot a huge array of wildlife here as well. This section is a narrow track winding through the Cabeza Prieta Mountains. Brushy sections make scratches likely. Lower tire pressure is necessary through deep sand and you will chew through fuel in these spots. A few rocky sections also make going rough. Photo-ops are endless through the trail within the refuge. The light-colored granite mountains, winding trail, saguaros and ocotillos with their brilliant flags of flowers color the landscape.
The five-mile crossing of the Pinacate Lava Flow is the roughest section of the trail. This black cinder-covered landscape is not difficult to negotiate. It is extremely bumpy and slow going. Pinta Sands are the soft sand dunes that surround the lava flow. Las Playas (the beaches), to the east of Pinta Sands, is an area of deep, fine sand. In wet weather this area is impassable. This part is also the brushiest of the whole trail. Light scratches are inevitable for all vehicles.
Ocotillo and saguaro cactuses surround the trail and the Tinajas Atlas Mountains rise up from the desert floor in the distance.
The final section of the trail crosses the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. There is an old homestead at Bates Well. The old buildings, cabins, and corrals are fun to explore. Past this point, the road is roughly graded and suitable for 2WD vehicles. The National Monument protects the Organ Pipe Cactus, the second largest cactus in the United States.
One of several structures at the Bates Well Ranch. The homestead has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994.
Traveling the Devil’s Highway, or El Camino del Diablo Trail, requires advanced preparation. This unforgettable trip is easy to plan and navigate on the trail using the useful Backcountry Adventures: Arizona guidebook. Permits are required to drive sections of this road. The guide’s trail description provides the contact agencies and permit information to get you quickly on your way. It also addresses other special considerations resulting from the remoteness of this trail. For instance, traveling in a group is an advantage. Vehicles can share water, food, gas, and other supplies. Groups are also less likely approached by illegal border crossers.
An old military vehicle stands guard beside The Devil’s Highway.
This information and much more is available in the whole Backcountry Adventures series of guidebooks. Great gift ideas, these books help 4-wheelers locate and navigate the best 4-wheeling destinations in the western states. Trail directions with GPS coordinates, maps, and color photos ensure you’ll never get lost. Need-to-know historic accounts of ghost towns, mines, and other amazing sites help ensure unforgettable rides. Find these trail guides at www.4wheelparts.com, 4Wheel Parts retail stores, and local bookstores and map stores. For more information, call 866-SUV-TRIP.