This pleasant small town appears lost in a sea of desert. It's 10 miles northwest of Why and 42 miles south of Gila Bend. The town's name (pronounced "AH-ho") may have come from the Tohono O'odham word for paint; Native Americans collected copper minerals here to use in painting their bodies.
Prospectors settled as early as 1854, but Ajo didn't really get going until the dawn of the 20th century, when suitable ore-refining techniques became available. The New Cornelia Copper Company began operation in 1917 and was later bought by Phelps Dodge. Squeezed between low copper prices and high costs, Phelps Dodge shut down the mine and smelter in 1985, but retirees and winter visitors helped soften the blow to the town's economy. Graceful palms and flowering trees surround the Spanish colonial-style plaza and many public buildings downtown. Greenery and trees also decorate the miners' tiny houses.
The New Cornelia Open Pit Mine just south of town ranks as one of the world's largest at 1.5 miles across and 1,100 feet deep. A tiny visitor center, usually open daily from October to April, has a few exhibits and a copper mining video at the overlook. From downtown, turn southwest on La Mina Avenue, then turn right on Indian Village Road and follow signs. Continue a bit farther to Ajo Historical Museum (520/387-7105, about noon-4 p.m. daily, Oct.-April) and its diverse collection of mining, mineral, home life, and Native American exhibits. Native American workers once lived in this part of town, and the museum building served as St. Catherine's Indian Mission from 1942 to 1968.
Ajo has a surprising number of community events during the cooler months. Biggest are the Sonoran Shindig celebration of wildlife on the third Saturday in February, Ajo Historical Home Tour in late March, the July 4th Parade, the Ajo Great Western Street Fair on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and La Posada candlelight procession and caroling the Saturday evening before Christmas.
Ajo Country Club (520/387-5011) offers a nine-hole golf course and a restaurant open daily for breakfast and lunch. It's seven miles northeast of town via Well and Mead Roads.
Bed and Breakfast: The Guest House Inn (520/387-6133, 700 Guest House Rd., www.guesthouseinn.biz, $79 s, $89 d) provides bed and breakfast in an attractive house.
Under $50: La Siesta Motel (2561 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-6569) offers three sizes of rooms from $36 s and $46 d, plus a pool, hot tub, and tennis courts.
$50-100: Marine Motel (1966 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-7626, $50-58 d) has a pool. The basic Copper Sands Motel (3711 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-4097, $55-60 d) is the last motel until Gila Bend.
Shadow Ridge RV Resort (431 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-5055, $12-14 tent, $24 RV w/hookups) is close to downtown. Farther north are Ajo Heights RV Park (2000 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-6796, $22 RV w/hookups) and Belly Acres RV Park (2030 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-5767, $18 RV w/hookups). La Siesta Motel (2561 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-6569, $10 tent, $20 RV w/hookups) is a good deal with a pool, hot tub, and tennis courts. Copper Sands Motel (3711 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-4097) has some RV spaces for $15 w/hookups. All of Ajo's RV parks except Copper Sands have showers.
The Ajo Lily (downtown plaza, 520/387-7000, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is a Mexican-American-Italian cafe. Coyote Bob's Deli (also on the plaza, 520/387-6434) serves sandwiches, light meals, and ice cream. Don Juan's (southwest of the plaza across the highway, 520/387-3100, daily except Wednesday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) prepares Mexican-American food.
Head north on the highway for a supermarket, bakeries, and more restaurants. Pizza Hut (627 N. Second Ave., 520/387-6842) serves lunch (buffet available weekdays) and dinner daily. Seņor Sancho's (663 N. Hwy. 85, 520/387-6226, daily for lunch and dinner) offers Mexican fare. Bamboo Village (1810 N. Second Ave., 520/387-7536, closed Mon.) features Cantonese cuisine for lunch and dinner.
Information and Services
The Ajo District Chamber of Commerce (400 Taladro, Ajo, AZ 85321, 520/387-7742, www.ajochamber.com, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., shorter hours July-Sept.) is on the main highway one block southeast of the plaza. Si Como No ("yes, why not") sells regional books and topo maps as well as gifts and clothing at 207 Taladro, just southeast of the plaza. Many businesses in town advertise Mexican insurance. Ajo's post office and public library are on the plaza.
The 860,000 acres of desert wilderness west of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument hasn't changed much since white people arrived. The region has no facilities or paved roads. Desert bighorn sheep, for which the refuge was founded in 1939, and the endangered Sonoran pronghorn receive protection here. Wildlife and vegetation resemble those in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, but they endure a harsher climate. Cabeza Prieta's annual rainfall averages about nine inches in the east and three inches in the west, with some areas going more than a year without rain. Twelve small mountain ranges rise above the desert floor. The recent severe and extended drought has caused a serious decline in the number of Sonoran pronghorn, so much of the refuge and some adjacent lands may close to public vehicle entry during the fawning season of March 15th to July 15th.
The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge visitor center (1611 N. Second Ave., Ajo, AZ 85321, 520/387-6483, http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/cabeza/index.html, 7:30 a.m.-noon and 1-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.) provides information, permits, wildlife exhibits, and a large selection of video programs.
Only jeep tracks and remnants of the old El Camino del Diablo ("The Road of the Devil") traverse the landscape. Allow at least two days to cross the refuge on the roads between Ajo and Wellton; distance is 124 miles one-way, 59 miles in the refuge. An alternate connecting route, the Christmas Pass/Tacna Road from I-8, allows a shorter journey. Or you can do a longer trip from Ajo via the Tinajas Altas Mountains and come out at the I-8 Foothills Boulevard exit near Yuma.
If you'd like a taste of Cabeza Prieta, drive to Charlie Bell Pass in the Growler Mountains, just 20 miles (two hours) west of Ajo. High-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicles can make this trip. With luck, you may see pronghorn on the plains and desert bighorn sheep in the mountains. The road ends at the pass, where you can hike down the other side or up into the hills.
You can also approach the refuge from Yuma by heading south from I-8 Foothills Exit 14 or the more frequently used branch south from near I-8 Wellton Exit 30. These sandy roads connect near the Tinajas Altas Mountains, and it’s possible to make a loop on them in a long day. A connector road over Cipriano Pass provides another loop option. On the road from I-8 Foothills Exit 14, you can detour to Fortuna ghost town and see where miners dug millions of dollars worth of glittering gold between 1896 and 1904. Water held a far greater allure for most people crossing the desert, though, and the only reliable source for many miles lay in the nine natural pools of the Tinajas Altas ("high tanks"). At the lowest pool you'll be standing on the very spot where many Native Americans, Spaniards, and 49ers have stood in a life-or-death search for water. Padre Kino passed this way around 1700 and called the pools Agua Escondido ("hidden water"). The lowest pool is an easy walk from the road. The steep and slippery streambed is dangerous to climb, but you can bypass it by scrambling up the slope to the right and descending to the upper pools; you'll see where people have gone up this unsigned route. The pools aren't signed either, so look for a short track to a parking area on the south side of the I-8 Foothills Exit 14 road just 1.8 miles from its junction with the Wellton Road. Note that there are two branches of the road across the Tinajas Altas here; you want the southern one.
Permits and Precautions
Visitors must obtain a permit for entry, sign a liability release for the military, and carefully follow regulations—it's especially important not to approach any ordinance or other military hardware. You'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle for all but the Charlie Bell Pass road, as anything else will get stuck in the loose sand. Because 93% of the refuge is managed as wilderness, vehicles must stay on specified roads. Be aware that Cabeza Prieta's rough roads can be very hard on vehicles. Heavy brush can scratch up vehicle paint ("Arizona pin-striping"), though this isn't a problem if you're just driving to the Tinajas Altas Mountains from the Yuma area. Carry desert travel supplies and at least two days' worth of extra water. Three campsites on the way have tables and grills, but you're not restricted to these. Be sure to talk with a refuge officer before your trip to find out current conditions, then let someone know your intended route. Illegal aliens have become a major problem in the refuge, and you may encounter them as well as Border Patrol agents; it's not recommended to leave your vehicle out of sight. Summer temperatures can be downright dangerous. A single permit covers both Cabeza Prieta and surrounding military land. Before heading onto military land, you must telephone authorities with your proposed route and dates; if the coast is clear, you'll get permission.
A good map and directions will be valuable—this isn't a region to get lost in! The refuge office provides a map, but the book Backcountry Adventures: Arizona by Peter Massey has detailed road logs with GPS coordinates.
Three other agencies also provide the permit—the Bureau of Land Management's Phoenix Field Office (21605 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85027, 623/580-5500), Luke Air Force Base, Gila Bend Auxiliary Field, Range Operations (Gila Bend, AZ 85337, 520/683-6200), and the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (Range Management Dept., Box 99160, Yuma, AZ 85369-9160, 928/269-3402).
On to Western Arizona