I think one of the most interesting areas in western Arizona, is the strip of mountains that run parallel to hiway 95, as it runs north and south not far east of the Colorado River. Much of it has a shattered look about them. The darker colors add dramatic impact. Brooding. Secretive.
For many years, I drove by them on the way to somewhere or returning from somewhere; in early morning shadow and the golden sunlight cast upon them in the afternoon. I haven’t seen them in a storm, with jagged lightning and blasting thunder, but I would like to.
In late May 1975, as part of another trip, we had the time to be almost a part of them. But first, we started our vacation in California’s Imperial county just off the Ogilby road and onto the desert pavement surrounded by mostly dead Ironwood trees and more lively Paloverde all solid green color and spangled with bright yellow blossoms.
Much like backpackers in the Sierra Nevada mountains spending their first trail day acclimating to the thinner air, my longtime friend Larry and I unwind for a day on the desert breathing the smells and looking far away; acclimating to the desert. The noise of the hiway doesn't reach us a mile or so away from it.
I still lived and worked in Los Angeles, while Larry lived in San Diego. I had gone out to our camp site on Sunday, arriving around 4 P.M. with a light wind from the west. 96 degrees. I quickly set up camp and opened a cold, frosty, can of beer and a bag of tortilla chips.
Using the truck as a wind break I recuperated from the long drive. So quiet you could hear the blood pulsing in your eardrums. The sun set at 7:20 P.M., 90 degrees, and after moving my liquid high-low thermometer to what would be shade in the morning, I too retired with a gentle breeze blowing through the camper windows.
Larry arrived around noon the next day, and set up his part of the camp. It was a catch-up day. At dawn, the air temperature was a cool 66 degrees; by 2:00 P.M. It was 105 and dry. Lots to talk about and plan for the next day. We were going to explore a bit around Black Mountain, north of us and covered with radio antennas blinking at us in the night. Later that night the wind picked up quite strong. It shook the campers a bit.
The next morning, Tuesday, we commented to each other about the strong wind in the night. Some dust still hung in the air, but we were optimistic, and set about preparing our dual-purpose motorcycles for the day. That done, we set out north from our camp, up the Blythe-Ogilby road, watching for the road that would take us up Black Mountain.
As luck would have it, the intersection from Imperial Gables to our west was the same junction to the Black Mountain road to the east. The road started out as well maintained dirt, then soon within a mile became paved all the way to the top. It was an easy climb up the road which followed the ridge line of the mountain. It was 6 miles one-way from the junction to the top.
From the 2,164’ peak we had a splendid view in all directions. Looking down on the northwest slope, we could see the spectacular scenery in Julian Wash. However, we did not take on Julian Wash until 1983. We turned around and headed back the 13 miles to camp, and a late lunch. 105 degrees at 3:00 P.M.
The rest of the day was spent in looking at the Arizona topographic maps and trying to stay cool. The low for the day was 86 degrees.
Wednesday dawned. This was an exciting day. After a leisurely breakfast, we cleaned up the camp, moved grocery sacks from the cabs of the trucks to the campers, hooked up the CB radios, rehung the hi-lo thermometer in my camper, checked and double-checked our auto club maps and pulled out onto S34, heading south to I-8 and Yuma, Arizona!
As many times as I have been over the Ogilby road, I still enjoyed it. Soon we turned onto I-8. It was only 3 miles to Yuma, but the whole character of this portion of the desert changed. The Colorado River was immediately to our right for several miles as we left the Arizona Border inspection station, and changed time zones.
We found gas stations to top off our tanks, and the station attendant directed me to the ice plant on 3rd street, where we topped off the ice chests. This ice plant was part of a custom meat packing plant where the successful hunters in November brought their game to be processed and filled huge home-made ice chests to keep the dead animals from spoiling on the way to the plant. As a result you could get ice in all its varieties, from cubed, to shaved, to block.
We drove on the surface streets until we spotted US-95 where we turned east and shortly north toward the Castle Dome Mountains. 41 miles from Yuma the Castle Dome Mountains angled in our direction, with the Middle Mountains and the Yuma Test Station on our left. Hiway 95 itself, followed the Castle Dome Plain. Now we began looking for a way to leave the hiway and move toward the KOFA Game Range. Later maps call it the KOFA National Wildlife Refuge. KOFA stands for the King OF Arizona mine, a very famous gold mine.
As we came up from a dip in the hiway, we saw a utility marker and dirt roads leading to a utility corridor serving a power transmission line. We drove in and saw a wide mesa that ran all the way, it appeared, to the game range boundry. As we drove toward the corridor plumes of very fine, tan, dirt rose behind us. We stopped on the other side of the power line, near the edge of the mesa and set up a temporary camp for the night. This was the first of many visits we made to this area. It was much cooler than our Ogilby camps. We broke out the chairs and the ice cold beer! We had arrived.
After lunch we prepared the motorcycles for a short run out to the border of the game range. This was about 5 miles one-way. As we drove closer to the boundry the vegetation as well as access to a cross road we could see became denser and the smooth mesa broke up into small channels of rocky dry wash. They were not very deep, only a foot or so, but it was very tricky weaving through the bushes, pencil-cactus, and confusing washes. By the time we gave up and turned back, we could no longer even see the cross road. Our maps told us the cross road was named McPherson Pass, and it ran through the game range.
We returned toward camp and kept on going, crossing the utility road and headed for hiway 95. On the way we passed sets of valves and pipes protected by a square pipe rail. Though we could hardly see through the dust, we rightly guessed a gas pipeline was a part of our mesa. Glancing down to my bikes front wheel I saw that the dust was so fine it flowed like water as the tire rolled along. It was great! A bow-wave curling off each side!
We reached hiway 95 and turned south to the Castle Dome Mine road which should connect to the McPherson Pass road without all the bushwhacking. The road was easily found, but ended in a mess of abandoned mine shafts and roads going in all directions. From the debris, that area must see very heavy activity when deer season opened in November. We made note of it and returned back out the way we came in, to hiway 95 and north back to our camp. All that dust gave me a great thirst for something icy cold and I was sure Larry agreed as he was far ahead of me. Soon I joined him in the shade of the campers. It felt good to stop and unwind for the rest of the day.
As the afternoon wore on, we suddenly heard a lot of noisy animal “snuffling” sounds, along with a few grunts. Javelina, or wild boar, which on a good day are just mean. On a bad day they will chase you and let you feel their sharp tusks. They are a favorite with the bow hunters.
We decided to relocate our camp to the north side of the mesa we were on. That side had a much deeper wash and was nearly choked with vegetation including trees, cactus, and the stately saguaro (pronounced suh-war-oh) cactus which bears edible fruit. The baby saguaros were growing under the protection of “nurse trees” until they were tall enough to make it on their own.
Thursday dawned windy and 79 degrees. Larry decided we should try to get onto McPherson Pass from our camping area. After preparation of our motorcycles, we rode just short of the end of our mesa and angled off cross-country to the southwest. We also flagged our “trail” so we could find it again in the future. I was glad to reach the McPherson Pass road, and get away from the bushwhacking. I took a long pull at my canteen and we headed north on a graveled road that passes through as well as around the KOFA Game Range.
We investigated one wash that left the road and ended a mile later in the backside of the Castle Domes where someone had been doing some gem mining as there were scraps of quartz crystals and some fire opal. After browsing around the site, for a bit, we returned to the McPherson Pass road heading north to the point where it connected with the well-graded dirt “King Road”. From that point we turned west and vowing to come back this way again, we arrived at highway 95 and headed south to mile-post 62 and our camp.
Coming back on the camp road I saw a freshly fallen saguaro blossom which I took back to camp and photographed it. We were really impressed with the Castle Dome mountains! It was lunch time and a time to mark our route on the map. In late afternoon we saw a herd of wild burros crossing our mesa near the utility corridor.
We spent three more days in this fascinating place, which I’ll cover in the future.
I hope you enjoyed our trip. See you next month.