Overlanding El Camino del Diablo – Yuma to Ajo, Arizona

overlanding in a jeep on el camino del diablo in arizona

Ron and Tyler met up in November to tackle the El Camino del Diablo, a roughly 130-mile offroad route running from Yuma to Ajo, Arizona. You’ll drive on hardpack, lava rock, and lots of soft sand through Cholla cactus forests and fields of Saguaro. This story was written by both of us, and we detail our vehicles further down.

RON: I love the desert. For me, it’s mysterious, sacred, and chocked full of history and folklore. It carries so much unique beauty in its vast and varied landscapes. I try to get out and enjoy it as often as I can.

So, when Tyler called me to join him “somewhere out West” I jumped at the chance. We recently purchased a slightly used 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, and my wife and I were itching to get it dirty.

TYLER: I live in North Carolina and planned a 16-day road trip with my son. Yuma was the turnaround point and made the perfect rendezvous. I wanted something challenging, just barely doable in my RWD Ford Transit, that would provide both adventure and amazing terrain, plus the opportunity to camp 1-2 nights off grid.

Disclaimer: All information presented here is based on our personal experience unless otherwise noted and is provided purely for entertainment. We are not responsible for actions you may take based on this story.

Our Route

el camino del diablo overland offroad route in arizona
The dotted blue line was our actual route, the solid black lines were some of the planned routes and options. (click any image to enlarge)

We drove west to east, starting in Yuma. Depending on where you look, you’ll find several starting points, but after the first 7-10 miles, they converge and you’re on the main Path of the Devil. It drops close to the border, and you’ll likely pass several US Border Patrol trucks and officers (stop and say hi, they’re a great source of intel for road conditions and can advise on anything else worth knowing).

The pink area on the map is the Barry Goldwater Marine Corps Range and you need to get a permit to drive on it. The green section is the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and purple is the Organ Pipe Cactus Wilderness. The brown area coming into Ajo is BLM land. We advise planning your overnight camp in any except the BGMCR.

The red waypoint is Christmas Pass, a 7-mile (each way) side quest that reportedly finishes with a steep pitch that favors proper 4WD vehicles. We don’t know because Tyler’s van didn’t make it across the first wash, but it sounds cool. More on this area below.

options for el camino del diablo overland offroad route in arizona

We started by driving straight south on Foothills Rd (aka Ave 13E, left image, marked by yellow pointer), which was a bit west of Tyler’s planned kickoff (the GPX link above) that goes near Fortuna Mine.

Further east, a popular variation on the route is to drop down on Puezo Novo Rd. (right image, marked w/ pointer) and drive the Organ Pipe Loop West (black loop on bottom left). Check the Organ Pipe Nat’l Monument website for possible road closures along the border before starting the southern section, and Puezo Novo Rd. may be closed in winter.

Once you get to the OPNM visitor’s center, you can cross the road to the east and do the Ajo Mountain Dr. loop for views of the Ajo Window Arch (with hiking trails to climb to it on foot). OPNM has an excellent campground if you’re looking for a shower and proper toilet. Ajo Mtn. Dr. is a short ~21-mile one-way loop that’s perfect for a gravel bike ride, too.

How we planned our trip

RON: I use Gaia GPS for my navigation, and Trails Offroad to recon routes. Gaia is good for creating/recording routes while exploring. I can use the Jeep’s infotainment center, through Android Auto to display the map, but use an iPad instead. Trails Offroad is great for a visual overview with first-hand reviews of the trails, with trail videos, waypoints that mark places of interest, vital direction details, and camp spots, as well as other essential details of the routes.

Plus, on Trails Offroad, if you find a trail you like and want to explore it, and use Gaia GPS, you can upload the route and waypoints directly to your map on your Gaia GPS account. Done, and ready to go.

TYLER: I prefer onX Offroad, it makes it pretty easy to create and share routes, but also shows land ownership info. That’s really handy for knowing if you’re on private or public lands.

Between the three apps, we were both able to create routes, share them with each other, and learn about the area. It’s a collaborative effort, always good to check multiple places for intel as not every app or site mentioned the required permit.

Driving El Camino del Diablo

sopes yogi has the best mexican food in yuma

We highly recommend a proper meal at Sopes Yogi first, because why would you not? You only need one sope; don’t be a hero. Remember, you’re heading into the desert for two days to poop in a bucket, so…

overlanding on camino del diablo offroad route in arizona

When you get to the end of the pavement on Foothills Blvd, stop to air down your tires before continuing south on Foothills Road/Ave 13E for an easy start until you see this sign:

signs on camino del diablo offroad route in arizona
Click any image to enlarge.

From here, head west. If you opt for the GPX file linked earlier, you’ll start on a curvier dirt road that looks like it’s far more interesting and you won’t see this sign, but this ended up being a good warmup and tire pressure check.

The Road of the Dead, as it’s also known, starts off easy enough. A little soft sand here and there, a few bumps, but pretty mild. Just enjoy the view.

dash lights on a van

This was also a good time to turn off Traction Control. As great as it is on the road, it doesn’t work right offroad, often cutting power to the wheels in the soft sand. This ends up killing your momentum and increasing the likelihood of getting stuck. Much better to learn how to keep your speed up and feather the throttle back and forth across the limit of spinning and driving.

overlanding on camino del diablo offroad route in arizona

The further out you go, the more interesting the terrain and the scenery get. There are frequent wash crossings, which are usually softer than the surrounding ground, which makes it tricky.

You need enough speed so you don’t get stuck, but not so much that you’re smacking your bumpers and bouncing the entire vehicle…especially in a heavier vehicle like Tyler’s van (~9,200lbs loaded for this trip).

overlanding on camino del diablo offroad route in arizona

TYLER: The fun thing about this route is that there are long stretches where you can let ‘er rip at 50+ mph (faster in a side-by-side for sure). But it’s dusty, so you’ll want to give the lead car plenty of space…my lights were crusted with dust from following Ron for two days, and I often had to back way off just to be able to see where I was going.

There are definitely enough technical sections to keep it interesting, too. There’s no rock crawling (except for maybe on Christmas Pass), but there is plenty of undulating terrain through the washes.

RON: I loved just about everything about this route. The scenery was breathtaking. Some of the sand was really, deep and silty, making it tough at times for a two-wheel drive vehicle to navigate… especially one the size and weight of Tyler’s van. I do wish there were a few more obstacles on the trip, but that really wasn’t what this trip was a bout. For the most part, it was a relaxing drive through some very pretty desert.

jeep driving in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cylindropuntia_bigelovii

TYLER: We used radios to keep in touch, which allowed Ron to advise on big dips or soft sections since his dust often obscured our view. We also kept him in front in case we got stuck, he could pull us out, which turned out to be a good strategy.

High clearance is necessary, and this off-camber dip is a good example of why. Several sections had deep wheel ruts with high centers or uneven sides that required driving to one edge or another to get through them.

us border patrol truck on el camino del diablo

RON: We had seen warnings about soft sand, and more than one border patrol officer warned us that it was pretty deep. And it was, but nothing good momentum, careful driving, and good wheel placement couldn’t handle… I was surprised Tyler made it, but he did. It got crazy deep in a section right after talking to the Border Patrol Officer.

TYLER: I was a little surprised, too, but since we only really received half-hearted warnings, and since I knew Ron could rescue us, I thought I could do it. The early sections weren’t too bad, about what you see above, but we definitely got into a few sections that were quite a bit deeper and softer.

I wouldn’t have attempted it without a second, more capable vehicle in our caravan. I didn’t get stuck here, but we did get stuck later on the trip. And definitely check the apps we used for recent intel and conditions…there had been heavy rains earlier in the year that made this route impassable.

The route never really gets deep into those mountains, we just skirted them.

Eventually, we got near the mountains…

teddy bear cholla cactus in a field

…and the cactus. These Teddy Bear Chollas are cute but mean, definitely don’t touch them. Their spines have rearward-facing barbs that make them very hard and painful to remove.

That’s part of their reproductive strategy, having chunks of themselves carried along and dispersed, and then those become new cacti. So, most of what you see here are probably clones. They flower in May & June if you’re looking for a more colorful time to visit.

Attempting Christmas Pass

The turn-off for Christmas Pass is almost the halfway point, which allows plenty of time to explore it…if you can make it through the first wash. The road to this wash was short, but steep and technical and a great preview of what the trail is probably like.

TYLER: The pebbly sand was really deep, and the approach on the opposite side was steep and abrupt, so I couldn’t carry too much speed. As soon as the front tires started rolling up it, the rear tires sunk in and that was the end of it. We tried rocking a bit, but it was only going to get worse. The wash was really loose and it just gave way under the tires.

Given that we had only made it about 1000 feet into the pass, and fortunately, there was enough room for Ron to get back around me. We considered using my winch to pull ourselves forward, but given what we’d already seen, we figured it was best to take advantage of the open space and admit defeat. This was the first time on the trip where 4WD was probably required.

ford transit getting towed out of deep sand

RON: The first recovery of the trip, and for this particular Jeep of ours, went easy enough. We used Tyler’s Rhino USA Recovery Straps and shackles to pull him out. The Jeep had zero issues pulling the van out using 4-Low, but jeez, that van is heavy! Given the lack of space, he had to back out a ways before turning around to avoid trampling the flora.

christmas pass on el camino del diablo overland route

The start of the pass is marked by a sign with a grill, a windmill-driven well, and a small building. Parts of this route had been graded during the construction of the border wall to allow supply trucks to get in, and this area could have worked as a staging area.

ron and tyler

There are a couple of campsites cleared, too, with picnic tables and plenty of brush and trees to break the wind and provide a bit of privacy, so we stopped here for the day…

night photo of stars behind a camper van

…and the night. The weather is perfect in November, pleasant during the day, and chilly at night. But it gets dark early and fast, so it’s a good idea to have an area light, lanterns, and/or headlamps.

Day two on El Camino del Diablo

vandoit driving offroad
The Jeep and a Saguero cactus

Start early enough and you could drive El Camino del Diablo in one day, but taking two is better. It gave us time to stop and check out the cacti (some had flowers!), nature, and other sites. We saw giant hares and leaf-cutter ants, and evidence of other animals, too.

volcanic craters on el camino del diablo and organ pipe national monument in arizona

Just east of Christmas Pass is the Pinacate Lava Flow, which has a short technical section with a few loose, chunky climbs up some very rough lava rock. Take it easy, go slow, and mind your tires.

Toward the end of it, you’ll drive right by one of the cinder cones…

overlanding in a jeep on el camino del diablo and organ pipe national monument in arizona
overlanding in a jeep on el camino del diablo and organ pipe national monument in arizona

…which makes a great spot to stretch your legs and have lunch.

volcanic craters on el camino del diablo and organ pipe national monument in arizona

Climb up one and you can see the border wall separating the US and Mexico. On our route map, you can see a little spur going down to the border…this is that spot. It’s a bit rough, but you can drive right up to it:

the us mexico border wall in arizona
Click to enlarge and you’ll see the human scale of this thing.

The wall is monstrous, and it goes as far as the eye can see in either direction from this point.

overlanding in a jeep on el camino del diablo and organ pipe national monument in arizona

Further east are several shrub and tree sections, but it’s mostly open desert driving with very little technical terrain.

overlanding in a jeep on el camino del diablo and organ pipe national monument in arizona

You’ll pass through the northwest corner of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which takes you right by…

bates well ranch in ajo arizona

…the Bates Well Ranch. This former cattle ranch was one of many in the Sonoran Desert and was occupied until 1976. It’s a great intact example of an early Twentieth Century ranch, with an open bunkhouse that you can explore. Leave no trace, but definitely walk through the property and check out the old cattle gates, well, and more.

Scattered through the route are emergency help beacons and water jugs for migrants. There were also a few windmills over wells that looked like they might still pump water, but your best bet is to bring plenty of fluids with you.

El Camino del Diablo ends in Ajo, Arizona, a former mining town that’s become a small artist community. You can’t miss the mine as you near Highway 85, it’s massive. There are lookout points on the north side, and you can stay offroad to drive around it on the west if you prefer.

Once in downtown Ajo, It’s worth strolling through and checking out the visitor’s center to see the main square and old train station. There’s great graffiti nearby, a decent pizza at Ajo Pie, and the Sonoran Desert Inn is a really cute schoolhouse-turned-hotel with a beautiful courtyard.

Finishing at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

TYLER: Ajo was Ron’s departure point, so Harrison and I grabbed some pizza and rolled down to the Twin Peaks Campground at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It’s a stadium-like layout of paved loops, so ask for the last loop (higher site numbers) if they’re available. You’ll be rewarded with this view in the morning!

gravel cycling in organ pipe cactus national monument

The next morning, ride (or drive) the Ajo Mountain Dr. loop to the east of the campground (starts across the street from the visitor center). It’s only about 21 miles, so easily under two hours on the bike.

gravel next to an organ pipe cactus at the national park

But there are hiking trails that lead to Double Arch, which looks like a fun hike the takes you all the way up to these arches. Regardless of how you get around it, be sure to check out the signature Organ Pipe Cacti, this is the only place in the world where they grow in abundance!

Vehicles & Gear

TYLER: I drive a 2019 Ford Transit upfit by Vandoit w/ full Line-X coating. It has BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A KO2 LT245/75 R16 tires, and I aired down to 50-55psi. It has a 2″ Transit Offroad spacer lift, but is only RWD. Other key mods are Backwoods Adventure Mods bumpers and rear storage boxes, Pathfinder lights, Warn winch, Thule Tepui Basin Wedge hardshell rooftop tent, Thule awning, Dometic CFX 75DZ fridge cooler, and LifeSaver water filter jerry can.

RON: I drive a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. We have not done any mods to the Jeep, as it comes amazingly equipped and very capable right from the factory. It rolls on BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A KO2 LT275/70 R17 (33″) tires on stock rims. Rubicons don’t have a lift, but their suspension sits about 1.5″ higher than a stock jeep. On the outside, I am using a single-side TrailRax Pack Rax to hold the RotoPax 4 gal. gas tank for my extra fuel, and my shovel. The awning and tent are the Yakima SkyRise HD Medium rooftop tent and the Yakima Major Shady 270 awning.

Takeaways

tyler harrison maria and ron ready to overland
L to R: Tyler, Harrison, Maria & Ron. Bottom Row: Sam

TYLER: We ended up getting stuck in the soft sand three more times on the main route. There were some really deep sections, and the ones with tight turns are what got us. We had to cut the wheel to make the turn, which basically turned the front tires into shovels that killed our momentum.

Airing down the tires helped a lot, both for comfort and traction, but also floatation. We got away with a lot; even one Border Patrol agent was surprised we’d gotten as far as we had, and that was before the really soft stuff!

The route wasn’t overly technical, but it had enough to keep it interesting and entertaining. Plus, it was a good one for teaching Harrison how to drive offroad and through sand. We got by using only our tow straps, but if you’re going solo, I’d say definitely have high clearance, 4WD, traction boards, and a shovel, too. There’s not much out there to hook a winch to.

Long, sandy, desolate desert road

RON: I love the desert, a lot. I’d never been in the Sonoran desert before, and it was beautiful. I really enjoyed the trip and this trail. Tyler’s right it wasn’t at all technical, but the sand, in some sections, was the deepest I’ve ever driven in. I would say that it is deceptively easy, and could bite you in the butt if you don’t plan well.

Make sure you have very good “offline” mapping as well. My waypoints weren’t loading so we missed some special landmarks that I wanted to see, so I may come back out and do it again. (TYLER: Good point, make sure to download your routes & maps for offline use!)

This trail and the area surrounding it are extremely remote, and caution should be taken when planning. DO NOT do this (or any) trail alone. The weather and conditions in the desert can change quickly, and sneak up on you. Make sure your vehicles and the vehicles in your group as well as the recovery gear are maintained and in good operating condition.

Planning for a trip like this should be taken very seriously. I have a mantra that plays in my head when packing food and water for a few days of adventure in the desert, “Pack more than you think you need, and then pack more“. Have fun, tread lightly, and be careful.

Resources

Here are more links for intel on the area, the route, and its history:

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