Sonoran Desert National Monument

While in the general area quenching our thirst to find out about the Corona Satellite Calibration Targets we had seen signs mentioning the Sonoran Desert National Monument and wanted to go explore. Sitting about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix it comprises 496,600 acres of cactus forests among untrammeled plains and rugged mountain ranges. It was designated as a National Monument by President Clinton in 2001.

In this part of the U.S. there are some distinctly more recommended and safer times of the year to explore the desert region. This being early December we decided (and hoped) we would get cooler, drier, less crowded conditions (although the Sonoran Desert National Monument is one of the least visited sites in the National Monument System). As soon as we started looking into the logistics we found it was a lot more complicated than just driving there and getting our adventure on but in the end, after the extra effort, it was truly worth it.

Let’s start with permits. As this was to be an adventure, we really didn’t know where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see and so we needed unhindered access. A large portion of the Monument includes the Sand Tank Mountains which connect to the distinctively zigzagged north-eastern border of the U.S. Air Force’s Barry M. Goldwater Range.

section of map showing border between the Sand Tank Mountain area and the BMGR
Permit Required

Following online instructions we created an account on a Luke AFB website, then were required to watch the 13+ minute long video “Barry M. Goldwater East Safety Video” which covers such diverse subjects as the environment, issues with drug smuggling, human trafficking and illegal immigration, endangered species, permitted recreational activities and the dangers of unexploded ordnance. Once we watched the video we had to take a “quiz”…which comprised only one question which was: “Did you watch the whole video?” Selecting the “Yes” box gets you this reply:

we passed the quiz
Woo Hoo I got 100% !

Now that we were A students we were allowed to actually apply for the free permits that would give us unfettered access to several areas within the Monument. We had to select which areas we wanted permits for and we decided to just chose them all as we were not sure where we would be going. Once the areas are selected a permit is generated and you can download it as a PDF file. That file is essentially useless until you print it out though because you have to have it in your vehicle or on your person at all times. It was actually recommended that we make a couple copies so we could leave one on the dash of the Tacoma if were away from it while hiking and have one with us in case we got stopped on foot out in any of the restricted areas. Plus we needed to print out, initial it in 14 places and then sign a two page “Hold Harmless” form before we could legally enter those areas. That meant heading into the little town of Gila Bend and finding a place with a printer that would allow us to print out all the sheets we needed. We found the Shell station and they graciously printed the files out for us and we took the opportunity to fill up the Tacoma’s gas tank and our two NATO Jerry cans with fuel as well as both our 80 liter bulk water tank and our 20 liter MWC (Military Water Can).

Now, permits printed and liquids topped off we still had to do One. More. Thing. That was to log into that iSportsman site and formally “Check-in” so the powers that be know we are traipsing about the area (and don’t forget to “check-out” when you exit the area as well). All a bit of a PITA but it needed to be done correctly if we wanted to legally enter the area.

So now we finally get to the part of the story where we actually enter the Monument.

Sonoran Desert National Monument Entrance sign
We Made It !

And, of course, let us not forget:

We Are Not Deterred

And just to remind us that all that effort to get the permits was worth it:

Hey, We Already Did That

Looking at our map we saw that Vekol Valley Road seemed to head straight into the heart of the area we wanted to explore and so headed that way.

Our Favorite Type Of Road And Area

We were planning on heading South on Vekol Valley, turning west on BLM Road 8008 and entering the Sand Tank Mountains area through gate 10A. Due to having my head up my butt we missed 8008 but soon had the option to turn on 8026, head West as well and instead enter at Gate 11A.

Map showing our route to the entrance gate
It Is Good To Have Options

We soon got to Gate 11A where we would enter the restricted area.

Gate 11A
This Works Just As Well

We were still planning to follow Road 8008 along the Southern border of the Sand Tank Mountains area but we soon found out that road marker maintenance is not a priority. Soon enough we mistakenly wandered off the beaten path and onto “roads” whose signage was, let us just say, inadequate.

Thanks, That’s Not Very Helpful

Because of that we ended up heading the wrong way several times until we came to dead ends or until the path narrowed so much that even I was unwilling to bash and scrape up the Tacoma that much. There was enough vegetation hanging over the roads that having a window down in the Tacoma ended up making Willow a flower girl.

Willow in the Tacoma covered in leaves
Leaves In Hair, Don’t Care

A couple of times we even got out our DJI Spark drone to see where we were and (hopefully) where we needed to be. Drones: not just for fun anymore but a useful navigation tool as well. Seriously.

We finally found our way back onto Road 8008 and continued West. After our long day of dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s” to legally enter the Monument and then dealing with poor signage and heads up butts it was now late in the day and we decided to stop the exploration and find a suitable camping spot as soon as possible. With the sun throwing loooong shadows we picked up our pace a bit as finding and setting up a campsite at night is not one of our favorite activities. Following the signs we turned out of the wash we were in and up the hill onto BLM Road 8008D. We quickly found out that was a no go.

Willow down in the washed out road
Even The Tacoma Is Not This Capable…Probably
Old, rusted car down in the washed out road
He Couldn’t Make It Either…Like 80 Years Ago

Because of that unexpected complication we had to head back the way we had come, luckily not that far, then back down into the wash and look for the next opportunity to make it back out of the wash and onto ground more appropriate for camping. We ending up doing about a mile long loop down the wash and then back up the bank before we found a nice camping spot only a few hundred meters past the washed out area. After all the details and complications of the day we called it good, decided to skip a normal, elegant campsite setup and instead we simply “dumped” (gently placed) all of our “stuff” (i.e. quality gear) that we carry in the camper shell out onto the ground next to the Tacoma and went to bed…finally.

The next morning dawned early and overcast and we started the process of actually setting up camp. Coffee made and dog daughter fed we got situated for a day of on-foot exploration around our little corner of the Sand Tank Mountain area. The area is named for the sand tanks, also called tinajas (“small jars” in Spanish) or rock tanks carved out of the bedrock over thousands of years of erosion that become filled with sand either from flooding or wind-carried sand sufficient to fill the cavity. These bedrock catchments collect water in wet months or from springs which becomes trapped between the sand grains. The surface sand dries making a kind of cap or crust but the water below remains trapped and protected from evaporation longer than it would in a sand-free rock hole. The water is only accessible by digging which limits which species can access these precious moisture reserves in this desert region. We found all these details out after we were there and so we didn’t go looking for these natural wonders on this trip but certainly will the next time we go exploring there.

Drone shot of camp spot
Drone Shot Of Our Camp Spot

As we were cleaning up after our morning coffee constitutional though we heard the first rumblings of something we would hear on a regular basis for the next week…A-10 Thunderbolts (popularly know as “Warthogs”) screaming directly over us down the valley we were situated in, taking a hard turn to port around one of several hills west of us and heading into the USAF bombing range and letting loose with their awesome nose-mounted 30mm Gatling gun. Willow was far from pleased. This is a very good approximation of what we heard, just a bit farther away.

We were less than 1.5 miles from the zigzag border of the bombing range.

Map of how close we were camping to the border of the BMGR
Kinda Close

The actual strafing was occurring in the next valley over (about 5 miles away as the crow flies – but it sounded way closer).

They Flew The Red Lines. We Camped At The Purple Area. The White Line Is About 5 Miles.

It sounded like what you would hear when you drive over one of those steel cattle grids embedded in a road, but image if the barrier was hundreds of feet long instead of 5 feet and you were driving over it in a semi truck towing a trailer. We placed the modified, comical No Step On Snek version of the Gadsden Flag we always carry with us on the roof of the Tacoma and throughout the week it seemed as if the pilots saw that and were flying directly over us and using the Tacoma as a visual marker to set up their quickly upcoming hard bank to port to start their strafing runs. A couple of times we were out and near the Tacoma, heard a plane approaching, made a point to wave towards the plane and were rewarded with a wing wag in response although a much louder, faster, more impressive flyby than the video below, but… you get the idea.

Our camping spot was right next to the wash we had traveled down to get around the washout the day before and, as washes are regularly wildlife highways we decided to start by heading down the embankment and checking things out. We quickly found out that wildlife was not the only travelers that had passed through this area.

Almost immediately down the embankment from our campsite we found signs that illegal/undocumented immigrants had passed through the area. We were surprised as the most direct route to here from the border passed through an active military bombing range and going around would add dozens and dozens of miles to the journey. From the looks of what was left behind these people probably had to run from Border Patrol agents and leave their worldly possessions behind or else they were caught and made to dump those same meager possessions. We found two children’s day packs filled with clothing, toothbrushes and toothpaste and a small amount of Pesos in them. They were a bit moldy so they had probably been there for more than one year. Having read stories of migrant deaths in this area while making this passage we were hoping to not find any human remains but I saw nothing and Willow didn’t alert to anything so we hoped for the best. We took some pictures, left the items where they were and reported the find to the CBP.

An immigrant child's rotting backpackAnother different immigrant child's rotting backpackAn immigrant child's underwear found in a rotting backpackAn immigrant child's toothbrush and toothpaste found in a wash

Pesos Found In The Small Pocket Of An Immigrant Child's Rotting Backpack
I’m Rich…Rich I Tell Ya

A few days after that find and reporting it to the Border Patrol we came across more evidence that illegal border crossers/undocumented immigrants had been passing through this area in the form of several gas and other plastic jugs hidden under bushes that all contained or had contained water. Even the gas jugs smelled like water and not gasoline.

gas jugs used to hold water for border crossers
We Found These And Several More Water Containers And Turned Them Over To The CBP
All 5 of the Containers for water we found in the desert
All 5 of the Containers For Water We Found

Eventually a CBP patrol showed up and contacted us. We showed them where we had found the containers and backpacks and asked if they would take the containers away for proper disposal and they agreed to do so. On the one hand it is sad to see these signs of lives, some so young, in turmoil and transition. On the other hand, be a better parent and don’t subject your poorly equipped and poorly prepared children (or yourselves) to the harsh realities of the desert where little setbacks can kill you. Hoping you possibly find a water stash and/or praying to make the crossing successfully is no substitute for the first three of the eight “P’s” (prior, proper, planning) – the remaining “P’s” are, in order: “prevents piss-poor performance…probably.” Or, you know, play the long game and apply for immigrant status through legal channels.

The entire week we were there exploring the weather was less than perfect. Usually overcast there was also several short bouts of rain although nothing we weren’t expecting and hadn’t prepared for. In between showers we took quick, spirited hikes out into the surrounding lands looking to see if we might find some of that aforementioned unexploded ordnance…or anything interesting for that matter. We ended up finding no UXO but did find signs of boom and bust years in regards to water.

Large, fallen, dead Saguaro cactus
The Old Guy Finally Gave Up The Ghost
Willow sitting in front of a large, dead Saguaro cactus fallen across the road
Pro Tip: This Is Not A Tree. Don’t Step Over, Straddle Or Jump Over It. Walk Around.

While this desert region supports a vast variety of plant and animal life the Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) stands tall as the most striking icon of the area. Saguaros are endemic to the Sonoran Desert. They generally live long lives often exceeding 150 years. When you see one with arms that essentially tells you that individual is at least 75–100 years of age as that is the common age when they sprout their first arm. We were lucky enough to find our campsite right in the middle of one of the Saguaro forests found within the National Monument.

One of our daily hikes took us in the direction the A-10’s had been traveling before they took their turns down into the bombing range. Over to our right we noticed something obviously man-made and went to investigate. We found the remains of a mine and what we assume to be an ore smelter.

Words Not Needed, The Picture Gets The Point Across
Willow sitting atop the remains of an old copper ore smelter
The Remains Of The Indian Chief Copper Smelter

Over the next few days we took dozens of hikes in all directions from our campsite. Most hikes started with Willow seeing me putting my hiking boots on, getting all bouncy and excited and running off in the direction she had decided we would explore that day. As soon as boots were doffed and water supplies situated I would look up towards the sound of the tinkling bear bell on her collar and head in that direction. That dynamic looks like this:

Willow waiting for me to follow

It’s a good system to get off the beaten path although around here there is no beaten path except roads made by humans and trails made by larger game animals. Many game paths are hard to see but Willow’s nose knows and I often get a more intense hike than if we had followed some well-worn trail.

Knowing we had to be in Santee, CA on December 17th to get our new Aluminess rear bumper installed we sadly made the decision to head out of the Monument and start on our way westward. At first we thought we might take a southward tack to try and get as close to the bombing range as we could to maybe see the A-10’s killing desert shrubbery and possibly find a spent GAU-8 casing or have a better chance at finding some interesting UXO to give a nice smack with my Geologist’s Pick…just kidding. We ended up on some seriously crappy roads just as we were getting close to the bombing range border. Wanting a smoother ride for my girl we made the decision to give up that quest just as we came across some USAF road signage.

US Air Force off road signage
The Road Seriously Devolved Past This Marker So We Decided To Turn Around Here
close-up of the road sign with the US Air Porce logo
Close-Up Of The USAF Logo

Turning away from the USAF lands we took a look at our mapping app, Locus Map Pro, and were filled with juvenile glee (well…I was) to see a mountain peak named Squaw Tits in the area and not far from where we found ourselves.

screen grab of map showing Squaw Tits mountain
Yup, Gonna Head Towards The Tatas

As it was along the general path we were going to take back to Highway 8 we decided to swing in that direction if only so we could say “we had been to see the Squaw’s Tits.” And now we have.

On our way there we came across the remains of an old cabin, mining or homestead I do not know, but it had seen better days.

The Tacoma and Willow in front of the remains of an old mining cabin
One Quick Picture Before She Ran Off To Roust The Critters In The Cabin

And a quick 24 second drone shot to give you the lay of the land:

We had seen historical,

Historical pic of the cabin with FJ40 Land cruiser
Photo courtesy of

and satellite photos of this cabin and in those it looked substantially better than the sad condition we found it in.

Satellite picture of cabin with roof still on
In Better Days With Corrugated Roofing Still On And Held Down With Tires

Taking our leave of the historical relic we made it back to the highway with daylight to spare and decided to take a look at the northern portion of the monument. We had read that there was a free campsite called Margies Cove West Campground and so looked it up and headed that direction. Once on Highway 8 we went back through Gila Bend and turned northward on Highway 85 about 10 miles before we turned east off the paved highway at Woods Road (just south of mile post 134) and onto the dirt road leading in towards the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness Area.

Willow in front of the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness Area signAfter about 10 miles on dirt roads in decent condition we made it to the campground itself.

Willow in front of the Margies Cove Trailhead and Campground sign
Made It To Our Spot For The A Couple Of Days

It wasn’t much, just a vault toilet, a fire ring and a picnic table but it was free and we had the entire place to ourselves which is a Huge extra added bonus.

Drone shot looking down on the Tacoma, Willow and our camp site
Tables And Fire Rings Are Luxuries But They Are Nice To Have
Drone shot showing the Tacoma all alone in the campground
Having The Entire Campground To Ourselves Was The Best Luxury Of All

We spent a couple of days hanging out here relaxing and cleaning the dust out and off of everything we had brought with us on this desert adventure. Good times.

Even having spent a whole week in the monument we only were able to scratch the surface of what you can do, see and experience here. Now that we know a bit about what to expect the next time we come explore will be easier and more familiar.

If you would like to visit the monument there are numerous day-use spots where you can hike, mountain bike, picnic, ride horses or test the limits of your high-clearance 4×4 vehicle. You can also enjoy dispersed camping all over the monument without having to go through the process of getting permits. Only part of the monument requires that you go through the process of going online and getting a permit if you want to enter. One of the best government websites we’ve found that explains all the activities you can enjoy, a link to a Flickr page of photos, directions to the monument and everything you need to know about the permit process can be found at this BLM page.

We hope you have as much fun as we did exploring what this National Monument has to offer.

Have fun out there!

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