Discovering Adventure On The Devil's Highway

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April 04, 2012 9:47 PM
Pete Pfeifer

Author, Pete Pfeifer (photo by Michael Chansley Photography).

Adventure riding is near and dear to me. So, you can imagine how excited I was when I learned that a new area was now open to motorcycles. After all, what could be more adventurous than riding into the unknown?

The groundwork for this opportunity was laid in May 2011 when the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona reversed an unwritten policy and allowed street legal motorcycles access into the area on a permit basis. This decision was made thanks to the persistent encouragement of AMA member Keith Dishong, AMA Western States Representative Nick Haris and Brian Hawthorne of the BlueRibbon Coalition.

It was Nick who contacted me after the opening to ask if I had ever ridden in the area. Of course I hadn't, so it came as great news when Nick explained the refuge's recent decision and encouraged me to contact Cabeza Prieta Manager Sid Slone. Which I did.

Sid and Public Use Assistant Margot Bissell were very friendly and glad we were coming over for a visit. They explained the rules, regulations and permitting process.
It was all pretty straight forward: Vehicles must be licensed and insured; each rider needs his or her own permit; groups of five or more need a special-use permit; persons 17 and younger need to be accompanied by someone 18 years or older.

Because the area is patrolled by the Border Patrol and crosses into the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range, each vehicle needs a flag on a mast to make it more visible from a distance. The suggested speed limit is 25 miles an hour. You must call the Air Force range before you enter its territory and, by all means, you cannot pick up any unexploded ordinance.

My riding buddies and I filled out our permit requests, faxed them in, and within a couple of days, the permits arrived in the mail.

There are three routes into the refuge: the Camino Del Diablo, or "the Devil's Highway," being the best known. It starts in Ajo, Ariz. We rode there from Tucson, across the Tohono O'odham Nation on a two-lane secondary road through lush Sonoran desert. We arrived in Ajo, a picturesque town that has a plaza that looks very much like old Mexico with its white-washed stucco churches. (While admiring the scenery, remember to watch your speed or it's possible the local law enforcement may put you through a "permit process" of their own!)

Next up, what all the fuss was about: riding the Devil's Highway.

After riding out to what seemed like the edge of civilization, we took the Bates Well Road west into the unknown. As we rode through the western edge of Organ Pipe National Monument, the route began as lush desert but then the terrain started to become more open and sandy.

The tricks to riding in the sand are elbows out, head up, weight back on the rear wheel and plenty of throttle control for braking and accelerating. The route constantly changed from deep sand to sun-baked earth (and sun-baked earth with marbles) to plain old rocks. We even crossed some small lava fields at the northern tip of the Pinacate Desert.

When you ride the Devil's Highway, you'll see wells listed-Bates Well, Papago Well, Tule Well. These were all watering holes that travelers would have to find before continuing. Unfortunately, many lost the trail and succumbed to the harsh environment. Later travelers would use the gravesites to navigate by, and that's how the route earned its name.

The road in spots has a hump in the middle of it and some section had metal planking. On the edge of the road are creosote bushes, ready to reach out and swat your handlebars. Every plant outside of the creosote bushes has thorns, and lots of them, so go easy and control your speed. (A comb is a must-have cactus removal tool.)
At Bates Well, the National Parks Service is restoring the old ranch for visitors. There are several picnic tables at Papago Well, where you can relax with a meal. At Tule Well, there is a one-room building that you can go inside to escape the elements and sign the logbook.

Along the route is the Border Patrol outpost known as Camp Grip. If you happen to see a Border Patrol agent out and about, give them a wave or say "hi."

While the Cabeza Prieta is closed to travel from March 15 through July 15 to allow the wildlife time to breed before the difficult summer ahead, this is the perfect time to plan for a late summer or fall ride through the area. Just keep in mind that if you ride in this area in July or August, temperatures could be extreme and monsoon rains could bring about flash flooding.

Experiencing Cabeza Prieta was a real joy and adventure, and I owe my personal appreciation to the persistence and hard work of AMA members for opening this area and keeping it open for responsible motorized recreation. This is a textbook example of what we can accomplish when we work together-great riding, great hospitality and USAF F-18 flybys. You can't beat it.

About the Author: Pete Pfeifer has been an AMA member for 20 years, and a member of Arizona State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Advisory Group. He loves adventure riding and camping with his wife, Beth, and Scottish terrier.

--Reprinted from the May 2012 issue of American Motorcyclist with permission of the American Motorcyclist Association (


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