ADVENTURE BY BIKE®
We stood in the information center of Ajo’s Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center, mid-afternoon on a Wednesday. It was mid-February in southern Arizona and the temperatures were perfect for bike touring in shorts and jerseys.
“We’d like to get a permit for the Camino del Diablo,” we told the woman behind the counter. “We’re going on bikes, and we’ll be out there for three nights.”
“Motor bikes?” she asked us quizzically.
“No, mountain bikes.”
She paused. “Like, pedal bikes?”
She hesitantly pushed the permit forms across the counter, asking if we were sure we wanted to do this, explaining that there was no water along the route and that it was dangerous out there. We nodded. We signed off on the ground rules of passing through the wildlife preserve and military space that surrounded it, telling her we were prepared to carry several days of food and water on our bikes.
After we filled out the paper work, she handed us our permits, “Do your mothers know you’re doing this?”
I assured her mine did, as I’d sent my parents an email before leaving: We’re going bikepacking on the Camino Del Diablo. We’ll be back in 4-5 days. I’ll call when I get home.
What I didn’t tell them was that the 130-mile road, which we were planning to lollipop loop, spent the majority of the time within a few miles of the Arizona-Mexico border and was a well-known smuggling route for drugs and human traffic. It also goes through some beautiful desert on sandy roads. Scott had ridden the route once before, a decade ago with sag support, and was game to try it unsupported. I was ready for an adventure, and we both wanted to take our fatbikes out for a unique trip.
The Camino del Diablo route, translated as Road of the Devil, has been in use for over a thousand years, first by Native Americans, then Spanish explorers, and then as a route for people coming from Mexico and headed to California during the gold rush in the 1800’s. It’s currently an infamously remote section of desert commonly used for illegal activities.
Our plan was to ride from the small town of Ajo down to Organ Pipe National Monument, to the eastern terminus of the Camino. From there, we’d ride our fatbikes on the sandy, desolate road 120 miles west and then north to the town of Wellton to resupply, take a 12-mile jump on pavement back east to the town of Tacna, head south and climb over Christmas Pass to regain the Camino for a 70-mile stretch back to Ajo.
We loaded up our fatbikes with 200-plus ounces of water, two days worth of food, and headed south out of town. The issue of illegal immigration is a huge concern in southern Arizona and we knew that we were taking on a route that we’d been advised against by more than one person.
The dirt road that climbed away from town was deserted, and we passed the first of many signs warning of illegal activities in the area. These signs are found all over southern Arizona and I did my best to ignore them, reasoning that smugglers were like wild animals – that they’d want about as much to do with us as we did with them.
We made our way through Organ Pipe National Monument on rough dirt roads, wishing that we’d had some sort of suspension. Four-inch wide tires help with washboards, but with over 13 pounds of water, large quantities of food, and bikepacking gear, we found ourselves being bounced around. We continued to let air out of our tires until we were running close to snow pressures to smooth out the ride.
We passed Bates Well, one of the last ranching outposts in the area that ended with the death of the final Bates family member, climbed over Growler Pass, and headed into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The road turned to sand as the sun set in front of us, and the half-moon rose behind us, allowing us to ride the perfectly smooth, sandy road without the aid of headlamps.
We turned our lights on when we saw headlamps in the distance. We’d passed a border patrol station earlier that seemed mostly abandoned. Two of these stations had been built on the road in response to the Wellton 14 incident in 2001 where 14 of 26 in a group of illegal border crossers died when the group was abandoned by their coyote, or guide. The border patrol agents have two jobs: preventing illegal crossings, and trying to keep people from dying out there.
A border patrol agent pulled up in his truck, clearly confused by the sudden appearance of our lights in the darkness. He seemed friendly enough and we told him we were trying to make it to the Papago Well, an ‘established’ campground on the road a few miles away. He nodded and told us to be careful.
The well became visible with a bright blue light flashing on top of a pole. We knew that border patrol had water available on the route as humanitarian assistance, and as at attempt to bail people out of bad situations, and that it was marked with blue flags, and apparently now with blue flashing lights. After failing to find a spigot on the well, we continued on in the dark, leaving the blue light flashing behind us. We settled on camping a mile later on the side of the road.
As dinner was cooking, the same border patrol agent came back by. He’d been dragging the road with a set of seven tires trailing from behind his truck, evening out the sand so that any footprints that crossed the road could be easily seen.
He stopped to talk and we learned that he’d worked at a bike shop in Tucson before joining the border patrol and that we knew some of the same people. We asked him if we were camped in a good spot and he said we’d most likely be fine, but that there was a smuggling route five miles down the road.
We slept uneasily in the silence that night.
Morning came uneventfully and we loaded up the bikes and pointed west. We passed the second border patrol station and a few more panic buttons setups to allow border-crossers to call for help (and be taken back to Mexico after being given water) as we made our way across the sandy playa. We climbed over the Pinacate lava flow, the tail end of a volcanic range stretching up from Mexico, over the Tule mountains and dropped back into the sand. Aside from one border patrol agent, we saw no one.
The route used to be littered with grave sights as hundreds of people have perished trying to make the trek across the desert without enough water. During the days of the gold rush, it was a viable way to avoid confrontations with Native Americans, but with temperatures rising into the 120’s during the summer, many perished. We talked about that however ‘epic’ our adventure was to be, it wouldn’t hold a candle to the experiences that others have had in the area.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Most of the sand had been dragged by the border patrol with their tire setup and was perfectly smooth, ideal for making tracks with fat tires. What would have been a drag on normal mountain bike tires was easy going with the fatties.
We made it to the Tinajas Altas Mountains late afternoon. The mountains hold a series of permanent water pools in the granite rising up from the desert. Legend has it that the base of the rocks used to be littered with skeletons of people who’d made it to the base of the rocks but didn’t have the strength to climb up to the water.
With plenty of food and water, we took a nap in the shade of the granite, dipping our feet into the first pool.
We pointed north from there, towards the town of Wellton. Not running low on food or water, we still made the executive decision to push into town and see what sort of food we could find. While I love cooking and sleeping out, part of the reason I bikepack is to eat new food in new places. We found a small Mexican joint and devoured burritos before checking into a hotel next to the local golf course for the night.
We made a beeline for Tacna in the morning after getting breakfast burritos from the same Mexican place. If there’s one thing that southern Arizona does better than any other place it the States, it’s authentic Mexican food. The foodie in me was more than satisfied.
We turned back south shortly after, riding hero-sand in the increasing heat of the day. Sand riding is much like snow riding in the sense that when it’s slightly downhill, it doesn’t matter how deep the sand is (to a point), you can cruise, but if it’s slightly uphill, it’s going to be a slog.
With a thousand feet to gain and a deteriorating road, we were in for a slog. Since this road, climbing up to Christmas Pass, ran perpendicular to the border instead of parallel, like the Camino del Diablo, the border patrol had no reason to drag it to look for tracks. Thus, we wallowed, but were able to pedal. For the first time, we were faced with terrain that would have led to several miles of walking on normal bikes but was just a touch above annoying on the fatties.
At Christmas Pass, the road turned rocky again and we found ourselves paying more attention to the technical aspect of riding. The plateau above the pass held some of the most stunning scenery of the ride as we made our way back through the Tule Mountains and back to the Tule Well. As we closed the loop portion of our ride, we pondered the remaining 70 miles. As it would turn out, we’d end up camping in a similar spot to our first night.
We had started down from the well and towards the sandy playa when Scott stopped in his tracks ahead of me. I pulled up to look at what caused the stop. A brand-new, perfectly folded Mexican blanket lay in the middle of the road. Most certainly not there 24 hours prior, we wondered how it had gotten there. No tracks on either side left any clue.
We left it before we could let our imaginations run wild. We knew, rationally, that it was a 70-mile stretch of road and that the chances of running into anyone were slim to none. But, we were spooked and started looking in the washes on either side of the road, finding footprints that either weren’t there during our first pass, or we’d been too oblivious to notice.
Luckily, the sunset took our minds off the eeriness, at least temporarily.
We set up camp after crossing back over the lava flow and in a sandy area where any foot traffic could easily be identified. From what we understood, most of the trafficking happened in the Tule and Growler mountains, away from the storytelling sand. We could hear and see the Mexican highway across the border from our vantage point, just a few miles away.
It wasn’t long until the nightly border patrol agent came across our tracks and stopped to investigate. We’d been half asleep when we heard him pull up and get out of his car.
We initiated contact, “Hi there!”
Confusion. “What are you doing here?”
“Camping. Riding bikes.”
“You have permits?”
“Ok,” he paused. “We just don’t see things like this very often.”
He told us to be careful and that the border patrol station was just a few miles down the road if we needed anything. We thanked him as he drove off and we went back to pretending to sleep. It was unnerving, but rationally, safer than many other places that people consider ‘safe’.
The same agent came back to check on us in the morning as I was roasting leftover waffles from the hotel continental breakfast over our small stove.
“How’d y’all sleep?”
“Good,” we lied.
“Well, aside from the border patrol agent waking you up in the middle of the night,” he joked.
He asked us about our trip, shook his head when we told him what we’d done, and drove off towards the station. We followed suit, ready to finish the last 55 miles of the trip.
With daylight and the promise of food at the end, the roads seemed far less intimidating and held a certain sense of familiarity. We got to see the sections of the road that we’d ridden through in the dark during the first night and stopped at Bates Well for our final snack: Chips and a Dr. Pepper that I’d hauled from Wellton. From there, it was back into Organ Pipe National Monument where we passed several tour jeeps, got our pictures taken, and made our way back into civilization, passing campers and RVs on our way back to Ajo.
Back at the car, a town law enforcement officer who’d gotten wind of our escapades pulled up, wanting to know how the trip went.
“It was great!” we told him, telling him of how the fat tires were perfect for the sand, of the mysterious blanket, and our encounters with the border patrol. A mountain biker himself, he was intrigued.
Back in the land of relative perceived safety, we got to reflect on what a unique trip it really had been. Aside from our stint in civilization in Wellton, we’d seen exactly two people, both border patrol agents who were more than happy to chat with us.
It was a beautiful area, which we’re fairly sure hasn’t been visited by bike since Scott’s first trip there. We both agreed that more people needed to ride the route. We loaded up the van, left a note for the woman who’d given us our permits (it was Saturday and the permit office was closed), telling her that we’d made it back safely and had a wonderful trip, and headed to the nearest, and only, Mexican food joint in town. We celebrated with burritos and Tres Leches cake, a fitting end of a Mexican-themed Arizona bikepack.
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When Eszter Horani was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com