Cabeza Prieta Wilderness has the distinction of being Arizona's largest Wilderness Area, encompassing nearly 93 percent of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Cabeza Prieta Wilderness spans across isolated and rugged, Sonoran desert landscapes including both the Arizona Uplands and Lower Colorado components which range from 700 to 2,800 feet. Rugged mountains and broad desert valleys, dotted with sand dunes and lava flows, dominate the region.
This is a land of solitude, shattered only by the occasional summer monsoon or military overflight. To ensure you are aware of the dangers of unexploded military ordnance, a permit and your signature on a Holdharmless Agreement is required to enter the Wilderness.
Due to illegal border crossings by both people looking for work and drug smugglers, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol actively patrol the wilderness area.
Management efforts in the area emphasize the preservation of Sonoran Desert ecosystem and an at risk desert bighorn sheep population. More recently, emphasis has been placed on the endangered Sonoran pronghorn. Their numbers in the U.S. crashed to approximately 20 individuals in 2002 but since have increased to well over 200 animals thanks to an active captive breeding program. During your visit, walk carefully among the cryptogamic soils and watch for desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, mule deer, rabbits, kangaroo rats, pocket gophers, and cactus wrens living among the chollas, creosote bushes, mesquite, ocotillo, and even the occasional elephant tree. Hot and dry, conditions at the refuge are ideal for the Saguaro forest and the many reptiles such as side-blotched lizards, desert horned lizards, Great Basin whiptails, and six species of rattlesnakes. Among these are the sidewinders, Mojave, and western diamondback rattlers.
Bordered by Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the south and east, and the Barry M. Goldwater Range to the west and north, the Wilderness Area offers brilliant night skies, unmatched desert scenery, and a deafening desert silence. Rare experiences include a walk on a prehistoric trail, a glimpse of an endangered Sonoran pronghorn sprinting across playa lakes, and the opportunity to see wildlife and desert fauna indicative of Southwest Arizona.
Across the southern half of the refuge runs an active 4-wheel-drive trail (a non-wilderness corridor), and the remains of El Camino del Diablo (The Devil's Highway), a trail first blazed in 1540. This infamous trail once connected Sonora, Mexico to California and now provides access to the Wilderness.
At the Refuge visitor center, you can sign the required military hold harmless agreement. The greatest obstacles to your safety include possible encounters with old mine shafts, unexploded military ordnance, illegal border activity, and a rugged, unforgiving landscape where summer temperatures routinely range above 105 degrees F during the day and remain above 90 degrees F at night between May and October. Water is scarce everywhere out here (as little as 3 inches of annual precipitation on the west side), even for the wildlife. Hikers will find no maintained trails. You must bring your own water, at least 1 to 1 ½ gallons per person per day on cool days of 100 degrees or lower. In addition, Cabeza Prieta shares 56 miles of border with Mexico. Illegal smuggling activities are common and visitors should take all necessary safety precautions. Illegal activities can occur anywhere within the refuge.
The best time to visit is during the winter months, especially following a wet year, by desert standards, when the desert wildflowers are in bloom. In the winter, carry extra clothing for cold nights. Dress in layers and be prepared for temperatures which may drop down into the 30 degree range. Lightweight rain gear and sturdy hiking shoes may add comfort to your trip during sudden thunderstorms or cross country hikes through cactus and cholla bajadas.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness.
Encompassing nearly 93% of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness Area is located north of Sonora, Mexico and west of the small town of Ajo in southwest Arizona. The Cabeza Prieta Wilderness adjoins Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the east, Mexico to the south, and the Barry M. Goldwater Range to the north and west.
On the west side of the refuge, visitors with refuge permits may access the wilderness area from Interstate 8 by traveling south from Exit 30 (west of Wellton) or Exit 42 (east of Tacna, Arizona).
On the east side of the refuge, visitors with refuge permits can access the east side of the refuge by traveling west on Rasmussen Road in Ajo for approximately 5 miles to Charlie Bell Road. For travel along the historic Camino del Diablo, visitors may travel south from Darby Well Road (located south of Ajo) to Bates Well Road, through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument onto the refuge.
Note: While on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the refuge permit is only valid for traveling through the Monument along Bates Well Road, not for recreational activities on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. A self-issue permit may be obtained at the Organ Pipe National Monument northern boundary for recreation on the National Park Service lands.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 - Public law 106-65 (10/5/1999) To authorize appropriations for fiscal year 2000 for military activities of the Department of Defense, for military construction, and for defense activities of the Depart-ment of Energy, to prescribe personnel strengths for such fiscal year for the Armed Forces, and for other purposes
The Cabeza Prieta Wilderness offers opportunities for primitive camping, desert hiking, backpacking, photography, hunting, birdwatching, special events, and environmental education.
Special tours to view the wilderness area from the Childs Mountain Watchable Wildlife Site are also available on a monthly basis from January through April. For more information on these activities, contact the refuge office and visitor center.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Summers in Cabeza Prieta Wilderness can be torturously hot. As many as 90 to 100 straight days from May to October may exceed the 100 degree F mark with high temperatures sometimes soaring above 115 degrees F. This combined with low annual rainfall (as little as 3 inches on the west side) and the lack of any perennial water catchments anywhere on the refuge, make preplanning for your trip a potentially lifesaving activity. Always carry plenty of water. This means at least 1 to 1.5 gallons per person, per day. Hats, sun screen, sunglasses, and first aid kits should be standard travel items throughout the Southwest.
In the winter, carry extra clothing for cold nights. Dress in layers and be prepared for temperatures which may drop down into the 30 degree range. Lightweight rain gear and sturdy hiking shoes may add comfort to your trip during sudden thunderstorms or cross country hikes through cactus and cholla bajadas.
Safety and Current Conditions
During the summer, be prepared for lightning storms, flash floods, and dust storms. Hotter than normal conditions reinforce the need to carry extra water and limit physical activity during the peak temperature times of the day. Always be watchful for unexploded ordnance and old mine shafts leftover from the mining era. Travelers along the international border should also be alert to potential smuggling activities in the area.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.