Cabeza Prieta Pass, Arizona

This desert gem is an explorer’s heaven.
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This desert gem is an explorer’s heaven.

8

Challenges

Aridity, heat,
off-trail navigation,
drug and immigrant smugglers

Payoffs

Otherworldly desert beauty,
silence,
wildflowers,
stargazing

→ Vast but trailless, Cabeza Prieta attracts far more Jeepers (on the Camino del Diablo) than hikers (about a dozen annually). And that’s a shame, because from a truck you won’t notice elf owls nesting in holes bored into 20-foot saguaro cacti, or savor scarlet ocotillo blooms. And you can’t appreciate the profound silence—the desert’s real gem. “It’s just so quiet that you get lost in your thoughts,” says biologist Curt McCasland, who’s traversed the refuge four times on foot.

But such feats aren’t for the careless. “We have fatalities every year,” says Sid Sloane, the refuge manager. Most are migrants and drug smugglers who routinely sneak across these 1,000 square miles of ultra-remote Sonoran Desert bordering Mexico, but hikers occasionally succumb to the heat and aridity. Summer temperatures regularly reach 120°F, and the refuge contains no surface water besides potholes, or tinajas, which sustain bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

DO IT Hike this 26-mile overnight in late February, when roads have dried from January rains and saguaro, ocotillo, and sand verbena explode into bloom. Carry at least 6 liters of water per person per day (caches are unreliable because of the border traffic) and leave a few gallons in your vehicle. From Tule Well, drive a 4WD 3.3 miles west, park, and hike north following an easy, (closed) former Jeep track among granite spires on the west flank of the Cabeza Prieta Mountains. After 6.7 miles, turn right and follow the old track east to 1,500-foot Cabeza Prieta Pass, with mountain views and slightly cooler temps. Camp at 11 miles, in the sandy washes on the mountains’ east side. Next morning, dayhike north 2 miles into Surprise Canyon, where steep granite walls funnel storm water to a garden of saguaros, then retrace your steps to the Camino. Info bit.ly/CabezaPrieta