An historic route linking the northern frontier of Mexico and the Spanish settlements of
California, El Camino del Diablo--Highway of the Devil--has witnessed centuries of
intrepid travelers. Yet, a journey on El Camino has never been easy.
Caborca, Sonora, Mexico, the 250-mile trip featured rest stops at Quitovac, Sonoyta, and
Quitovaquito, before plunging headlong into the expanse of desolation that lent the trail
its name. This stretch between flowing water on the Sonoyta River at Agua Dulce, and the
rumor of stagnant water at Tinajas Altas, proved arduous to all, and deadly to many. The
stone-cross markers of a half dozen fallen travelers testify to the ultimate penalty for a
The 130-mile stretch from Sonoyta, Mexico, and what is now Yuma, Arizona, was a long
ride through sere desert flats and across leg-wrenching lava malpais and drifting sand. In
the cooler months, the trip might be only a slow plod, taking 3 to 10 days. Water might be
found at Tule Tank or, if fortune really smiled, rain could deliver pools at Las Playas.
In summer, temperatures here soar to 120 degrees F and people require two gallons of water
a day just to survive. Waterholes and forage dry up. Yet, many set out anyway with the
single-minded thought of reaching Tinajas Altas (High Tanks) Most of the graves line the
last 30 miles of that leg; by one count 65 graves near Tinajas Altas proffered mute
The ancient campground at Tinajas Altas features nine cup-like pools perched one above
the other in a precipitous cleft of granite. When full, these tinajas may hold 20,000
gallons, but many wayfarers arrived to find the lower tinajas dry and only a few hundred
gallons left in the higher pools. Perilously, they clamored up steep cliffs to retrieve
mere bucketfuls for themselves and their struggling animals. Some victims, finding the
bottom tanks dry, and unable to feebly claw their way up the steep cliffs, perished within
a few yards of life-sustaining water.
From Tinajas Altas the trail forked, and weary travelers and their exhausted livestock
struggled toward the Gila or Colorado Rivers, which promised unlimited water, shade, and
forage. Stronger parties swung west through the Yuma Desert directly to Yuma Crossing.
More cautious travelers took the northern route from Tinajas Altas, skirting the eastern
edge of the Gila Mountains to the Gila River, and then followed it to the Colorado River
confluence upstream from Yuma. One of the lesser-known and even chancier forks cut north
up the Tule Valley from Las Playas and made use of water at Heart, Cabeza Prieta, or Baker
Tanks before hitting the Gila River near Tacna. Historians and archaeologists are still
trying to unravel and document precisely these historic and prehistoric routes. Seldom,
except near waterholes or through passes, were any of these corridors actually roads.
Instead, they were generally interwoven tracks and ruts made as each party winded its own
way from camp to camp following the lay of the land.
Why El Camino?
Thirst was not the only difficulty on El Camino. Marauders, lost routes, broken
equipment, and windstorms compounded the problems of reaching Yuma, let alone California.
Virtually every written account of a trip across El Camino--even contemporary
ones--chronicles some brush with disaster. Why did anyone tempt this fate? El Camino del
Diablo was a shortcut, saving at least 150 miles over going by way of Tucson and Gila
Bend, following the river routes along the Santa Cruz and the Gila. This shortcut also
reduced the chances of meeting hostile Apaches, as did traveling in summer instead of
winter, which raiding parties preferred. To those able to brave thirst and block out the
fear of peril, El Camino was the route of choice.
Also, the trail followed a geologic corridor of easily passable, though climatically
inhospitable, terrain. Between El Camino and the Gila River Trail, roughly 80 miles to the
north, lie rugged bands of apparently waterless mountain ranges that block direct travel.
To the south of El Camino lie the Pinacate malpais lavas and beyond that, to the Gulf of
California, drifting sand and tidal-flat mud. It was the Devil's highway or nothing.
"Locally, it is known as El Camino Del Diablo' (the road of the
and few names are more appropriate," Capt. D.D. Gaillard, 1896.
"All traces of the road are sometimes erased by the high winds
sweeping the unstable
soil before them, but death has strewn a continuous line of bleached bones and withered
carcasses of horses and cattle, as monuments to mark the way," Lt. N. Michler,
History of the Area
To the Indians who already lived in this land, El Camino was just another link in a
vast system of trails connecting waterholes, hunting grounds, shrines, and campsites. The
last people to live here were the Pinacatenos and Arenenos, both clans of the Tohono
O'Odham (Papago) tribe. They ranged from the Gila River to the Gulf of California and from
the Colorado River to Sonoyta, eking out a living. Life may have been difficult for them,
but this was home. Their now-faint foot trails criss-cross the desert pavements.
When the first Europeans, the Spanish, came to the region, they employed Indian guides,
who led them to concealed waterholes through the maze of trails. In 1540, Captain Melchior
Diaz led a detachment of the Coronado Expedition through this vicinity in route to
California. From 1698-1702, Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino probed the region in search of souls
and a route to the Pacific. Traveling horseback and afoot, this premier geographer
explored and mapped both sides of the trail, and put the major waterholes on his map for
later visitors. Lieutenant Juan Mateo Manje, who accompanied Kino, also left us vivid
accounts of people and places along El Camino.
Spanish clergy and military used El Camino as a route to the missions and stations in
California. El Camino was generally shorter, cheaper, and safer than sailing around the
tip of Baja, California. Notable among these land expeditions are those of Fray Francisco
Garces (1771, 1779-1781), Juan Bautista De Anza (1774-1776), and Pedro Fages (1781-1782).
Too, we must remember that although Spanish sailors discovered the ports of San Diego, Los
Angeles, and San Francisco, it remained for overland travelers to colonize them. A number
of the first permanent settlers at these Spanish posts came by way of El Camino.
Then, because of the 1781 Yuma Indian uprising at the Colorado River Crossing, the
trail fell into disuse. Although Captain Pedro Fages soon reopened the route, El Camino
del Diablo languished until 1849, when the cry of "Gold!" at Sutter's Mill in
California lured thousands of argonauts from Mexico. On the heels of these miners came the
American and Mexican boundary surveyors, mapping and cataloguing the land bought in the
1853 Gadsden Purchase. Little in their reports would entice settlers. A second wave of
miners flowed through in the 1860s when placer gold was discovered along the Colorado
River. The highway's grim name may date from this period when, as one traveler wrote,
"frequent graves and bleaching skulls of animals are painful reminders of unfortunate
travelers who died from thirst on the road."
The popularity of the trail waned when the railroad reached Yuma in 1870, and the
heyday of El Camino was over. A backwash of prospectors and transient cowboys recrossed
the despoblado, but El Camino neither regained its status as a major migration
route, nor was it settled.
After a second boundary survey in 1891-96, noted scientists arrived to study the area
and its storehouse of wonders. W.J. McGee, William T. Hornaday, Karl Lumholtz, and Forrest
Shreve, head the list of botanists, enthnologists, geographers, zoologists, and
archaeologists seeking to unravel the mysteries of this corner of the Sonoran Desert. But
by then, El Camino del Diablo had become just another lightly traveled county road.
"Imagination cannot picture a more dreary, sterile country,
and we named it the Mal Pais'." Lt. N. Michler, 1855
"Its course was marked by the pitiful milestones of solitary
each with its cruciform heap of pebbles." W.J. McGee, 1905.
In recognition of its historic significance, El Camino del Diablo was listed on the
National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The heart of El Camino still can be followed
by visitors to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1939 to protect
desert wildlife. The section of El Camino between Las Playas and Tinajas Altas remains
virtually as it was and always has been. The Indians, the Spanish, or the 49ers, would
have no trouble recognizing the terrain from the most prominent guidepost of Cabeza Prieta
Peak down to the lifesaving pasture of galleta grass at the Pinta Sands. The territory
between Sonoyta and Yuma remains one of America's and Mexico's last frontiers. A trip
along El Camino del Diablo is a step back into the pages of history as far as the eye can
Suggested Reading List
James M. Barney, "El Camino del Diablo," Arizona Highways, March 1943.
William T. Hornaday, Campfires on Desert and Lava (reprinted Tucson; University
of Arizona Press, 1985).
Ronald L. Ives, From Pitic to San Gabriel in 1782: The Journey of Don Pedro Fages
Journal of Arizona History, Winter 1971.
W.J. McGee, "The Old Yuma Trail," National Geographic, March-April