Sprawling across the northern states of Mexico into the southern US, the Sonoran Desert has a beauty only matched by its inhospitality. Giant saguaro cacti grow sporadically between flowering creosote bushes; ancient volcanos darken the desert sands. Evenings seem to last forever as the sun dips slowly behind the rounded mountain peaks. Summer temperatures regularly reach well into the triple-digits, only to plummet as soon as night falls. Food is scarce here, water is nearly non-existent.
For #FarRideDiablo, we assembled a team and headed south to ride the notorious El Camino del Diablo—a thousand-year-old path through the Sonoran Desert along the US-Mexico border. For centuries, travelers along the Camino have struggled in search of “new” lands, gold and opportunities with an estimated 2,000 lives lost along the way. Today, it sits at the center of a hotly debated border security dispute. Our team of five spent three days in the desert, riding from Ajo to Wellton, Arizona and exploring the fascinating history and scenery of El Camino del Diablo— The Devil’s Highway.
Our journey began one day after the end of the longest US government shutdown—a 35-day shutdown over disputed funding for border security. This first leg took our team from our camp on the edge of Ajo, Arizona onto the start of El Camino Del Diablo—a 200km stretch of desert and one of the deadliest crossing points for migrants entering the US. Passing through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and into Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, we headed off the grid and into the desert. The surface quickly changed from hard, fast dirt to soft, slow sand as we passed border security patrol stations, an old homestead and at least one grave marker. We rode till the sun got low, refilled our bottles at a large well and made camp in an open stretch under a clear sky full of stars.
Day two meant more desert riding, more sun, more sunburn and no people. Out of the whole trip, this section was the most remote. It is also the closest the ride comes to the US-Mexico border with most of the day’s riding done within a mile or two of the international line. We carried on across the Sonoran Desert, passing centuries-old cacti and millennia-old dormant volcanos. The terrain changed as the mountains came closer and vegetation began to thin. Late in the day, we reached an old cabin where we took a break, refilled our water out of a slightly funky well and carried on. We camped early, having found an ideal spot, and spent the evening cooking over the fire surrounded by mountains and howling coyotes. The only human contact of the day came late at night as we were circled, spotlighted and then left alone by a border patrol helicopter.
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The final day of the trip started with deep sand that only got deeper, forcing us off the Camino and at least one of us into a cactus. Movement was slow as we tried to muscle our bikes through some of the deeper sections, only to slip and slide instead. The extra effort depleted our water and we had to be conscious of conserving enough to make it through the day. Leaving the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, we entered the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, meaning riding off track came with the extra excitement of potential explosions. Early in the afternoon, we detoured to explore the Tinajas Atlas tanks, a series of natural pools carved into the mountainside. We hoped to go for a swim, but quickly changed our minds once we saw the green, stagnant waters. For the remainder of the day, we put our heads down and pushed through slightly improving road conditions back towards civilization and the end of our trip. The sand lead to pavement which lead to pizza. We packed our bikes in the bed of our rental truck, said goodbye to the desert and drove back to Tucson. Despite being situated only a few hours from Tucson or Phoenix, the Camino is another world. For a two- or three-day route that offers natural beauty, a tragic, fascinating history and the chance to go way off the grid, El Camino del Diablo is ideal. Our full story on the route and ride will be out in Far Ride Volume 11 later this spring. Ride out.