Cave Dwellings: Memories of the “Dark Head”..Arizona
Cave Dwellings

Buckhorn Creek, Lake O' The Pines, Jefferson, TX

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Memories of the “Dark Head”..Arizona

  McGuyver and I spent January and February of 2010 in Southwestern Arizona, near a lovely little town called Ajo .  Thanks to Al and Kelly of the Bayfield Bunch, we had a great stay at a lovely spot called Hickiwan Trails RV Park, about 12 miles South of Ajo.  Thanks again, you two, for pointing us toward what still remains one of our very favorite all time camping spots.

In this area of Arizona, you are basically in between the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and the  Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Range.   We took the opportunity to explore part of the Cabeza one day..I need to say here that exploring this place cannot be done in only one day, nor one week, nor one month…It is an area that is one third again larger than Rhode Island, with zero population, and the 3rd largest NWR in the lower 48, sharing 56 continuous miles of it’s border with Mexico.

A little history lesson here, so bear with me cause teaching is NOT one of my strong points, as you will discover…The words cabeza prieta mean “dark head” in Spanish.  This refers to the lava topped granite peak in the Western corner of the refuge.    A road called the El Camino del Diablo , (Devil’s Highway) ,crosses the refuge, going from Caborca, Mexico to California. The road was named Devil’s Hwy due to the fact that so many travelers lost their lives traveling this road on their way to search for gold in California.

It is the same road that Jesuit Padre Eusebio Fransisco Kino pioneered in 1699-1701.  Rich Copper deposits that were eventually discovered paved the way for the Copper mines of Ajo to open in 1916.Left is a photo of the “over burden” that remains from the now closed New Cornelia Open Pit Copper mine…note the colors..This mine was closed when we were there, but there were rumors that it might re-open, due to the price of Copper.

We drove by this every time we went the 12 miles from our campground into the town of Ajo.



Ok, enough history….Dennis and I wanted to see some of the NWR, so we got our permit (which is free and good for one year), and decided to head out to a place called Charlie Bell Pass.  Let me just say that you enter this road on the North edge of Ajo from a residential area…After about 4 miles, the road turns to gravel as you approach the entrance to the Cabeza, and it is a 12 mile drive to get to the trail head, then another 1 1/2 mile rugged walk to the bottom of the pass.  The 12 mile drive took us 2 hours, slowing to about 5- 10 mph,.  You have to call the NWR office when you enter the Cabeza so they know when you do enter..Did I mention that there is NO CELL PHONE SERVICE  if you run into trouble??..YIKES!

Here are some photos of the road  “wash” we maneuvered through on our way…The GMC developed a serious case of Arizona “pinstripping/road rash” on this adventure.

The cactus in the right photo above made me laugh..Looks like he has his hands on his hips like “What? More Gringos?”

…..We never saw a soul, unless you count the very rude Cactus I described above…We were truly on our own in the middle of nowhere.  You are allowed to dry camp there, but that idea really doesn’t appeal to us…and with the current illegal drug problem, you won’t find McGuyver and I camping there anytime soon.  We were told that a 2 wheel drive vehicle could make this drive..I SERIOUSLY DOUBT IT!!

  We got to the trailhead ( I was beginning to wonder if we ever would)…and after surveying the beauty of the pass, we headed down the trail to the bottom..We had heard that there were some Native American petroglyphs at the bottom and I was chomping at the bit to see them.

I stayed close behind my trusted scout, McTonto….Can you believe he actually turned around and said to me, “Don’t fall and break a leg..there is no way to call for help”…NO KIDDING!!  I can always count on Dennis to make me feel more relaxed about our many experiences…NOT!

After some fancy footwork, we reached the bottom, which is where the windmill was located…There isn’t much information on exactly who Charlie Bell was, except to say he was a rancher and the path down was at one time a cattle trail,  hence the windmill and well for the cattle’s water…The cattle and rancher are long since gone…more ghosts for me to imagine as we enter unknown territory.

By now, we both spotted the petroglyphs we had heard so much about…and I was doing my “channeling history” dance all around Dennis…(No, you will never see that  dance performed in public).



Obviously, I was so excited that I cut off McGuyver’s head in his photo…Just touching this rock was enough to make me giddy…and, as I said..we were the only peeps within miles…Kinda scary,  but as it should be…silent and magical.  If  only those rocks could talk…No one seems quite sure which tribe of Native Americans created these, but possibly the Hohokams, when they camped here near the watering hole hundreds of years ago.

Dennis decided we had better hike back up to the truck , but he almost had to pull me away from this piece of ancient history…I think what made me decide to finally head back up the trail was when Dennis said, ”Wouldn’t it be awful if we got to the top and our GMC was gone?”…WHAAAAAAT?????? Suddenly I was virtually running back up the trail, muttering silent prayers to the Desert Gods for our truck to puuuuullease still be there!…and it was!…Whew!..I could have throttled McTonto for giving me yet one more thing to worry about…Some men just don’t know when to  keep certain upsetting ideas to themselves!!










We were lucky enough to spot some rarely seen Desert Pronghorn Antelope on our way back down the long and bumpy road  path back 1 1/2 hours (12 miles) to civilization…

We will NEVER forget that wonderful and memorable trip into the Cabeza Prieta NWR, and I highly recommend this trip…but only attempt it in a 4 wheel drive unless you want to leave your driveshaft in the desert and camp under the stars in your car till the Rangers come get ya.




  1. Don't you just love history???? I am with you....I would have been in heaven just thinking of the history of those rocks and that place!! What a fabulous memory!! Glad you shared it with us!

  2. It has been 3 years since we have swung through the Why & Ajo area so might just slide through there this winter. We have many great memories from Hickiwan Trails & it holds a special place in my traveling heart. We haven't done that Prieta drive but now that we have the Jeep we just might do that this winter. Reading your post fired up my hitch itch again so I'm rarin to go. I would love to get out for our morning walks in the desert at Hickiwan Trails again. We especially loved boon docking in the Darby Wells Road area just west of Ajo as well. That area borders on the Barry Goldwater Range. Thanks for the mention guys:))

  3. I owned a house in Ajo for about ten years. My folks lived in it after they had to hang up the keys from full timing. Always enjoyed my visits there, and Pipe Organ National Monument. Never did get to do the Prieta Cabeza 'road' since I've never owned a four wheel drive vehicle. :)

  4. Ah, another place to add to the growing list of must go to's. How fortunate you guys are to have already started seeing these places, and experiencing history, although I don't know how it would compare to coal smoke and the smell of hot grease and the surge of pistons while your sitting in the cab of a live steam engine, grinning from ear to ear. Now that my friend is history.Be safe out there. Sam & Donna...

  5. us too!!..lets get this party started!!..great trip down memory lane!!

  6. Great blog, Donna. That was quite the road you drove your truck along to get to the trail. Nothing like a little adventure in the middle of the desert. Great photos and wonderful story.