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The Sonoran Desert Traverse

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

The Sonoran Desert Traverse is an epic 300+ mile overland track that connects the Salton Sea with greater Phoenix, and highlights the historical, geological, and natural wonders of the Sonoran desert.



Route Overview



Trip Length & Recommended Season

Adventure Rating: Epic

Trip Length: 317 miles, 4-7 days

Season: Year round, but October - May tends to be the best time to go before the Summer heat settles in.

Route Technical Rating & Terrain

Recommended Vehicle / Moto

Refueling Info

Lodging Info

Permits & Recommended Gear

Alternative Routes

Route Status: Read (or report) the latest route status HERE

 

Route Details

At 86,000 square miles, the Sonoran desert is one of four great deserts in the contiguous United States. It covers a portion of southeastern California, where it abuts the drier and colder Mojave desert to the north. The Sonoran extends its reaches into southwestern Arizona, down much of the Baja Peninsula all the way to Los Cabos, and then a large portion of the Mexican state of Sonora. The mighty Saguaro cactus is perhaps the best known symbol of the Sonoran desert, but the desert flora and fauna is incredibly varied, as you won't find many Saguaro growing on the California side of the desert. Most folks link the Mojave to the desert regions of Southern California. However, there's a clear distinction between the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The Mojave tends to be drier and colder, while the Sonoran experiences periods of subtrobical moisture and warmth that blows through during the winter. The Sonoran also has two wet seasons (unlike the Mojave's single winter wet season), one in early winter, and the second during typically starting in July through September when the monsoonal moisture and storms arrive. The route extends 317 miles west to east, connecting California's Coachella Valley with the western outskirts of the greater Phoenix metro area. The route can be driven in either direction, but for the sake of this guide, we'll run the route from west to east. The Sonoran Desert Traverse connects well known trails in the region like the Bradshaw Truck Trail in the west, and Agua Caliente Road on the Arizona side. We've also spiced things up along the way creating a balance of exquisite desert scenery, historical sites, and just enough rocks, ruts, and bumps to keep things interesting!


We begin at the mouth of the western end of Box Canyon (a fantastic drive on pavement showcasing the region's geology, and a few miles north of the man-made Salton Sea, which also happens to be the first discovery point. Things start out easy enough, but the bumps will increase as you make your way onto the Godwin Jeep Trail. On your right is the 122 mile Coachella Canal (DP2), which carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California's Inland Empire region. Take note of the flora and geology at this end of the route. Most flora consists of shrubs and small trees, while the rocks tend to be a white to pale yellow, sometimes with golden hues. As you move eastward, the rocks will take on more reds and burnt oranges, and cacti, including Saguaro will begin to creep in. For those who like getting out on foot, we definitely recommend the 1.6 out-and-back hike to the Grotto (DP3)-- just follow the wash until you reach it!


You'll cross the pavement of Box Canyon Road where the track parallels Interstate 10 for several miles until heading back south, working your way around the Orocopia Mountains. Many folks opt to "drop in" to the Bradshaw Truck Trail via Red Canyon, and for good reason, Red Canyon has a ton of twists and turns and a few bumps along the way, unlike the wide and (mostly) well graded Bradshaw Truck Trail. Be sure to drive into the actual Red Canyon (DP4), and see how far you can drive up its two slot canyons! A few miles south of Red Canyon is the Eagle Mountain Train Trestle (DP5), which is a favorite photo opp location for locals and other folks passing through.


You're officially on the Bradshaw Truck Trail now (DP6). When gold was discovered near La Paz along the Colorado River, frontiersman David Bradshaw gathered a team to begin scouting a path from the Los Angeles basin to the Colorad River. Connecting Native American trade routes, the Bradshaw Trail was opened to miners in 1862. Today, you can travel along the same trails as miners and pioneers did with the mules and wagons 160 years ago! Today, the Bradshaw Truck trail is a mostly wide, and well maintained road of consisting of gravelly and in some sections, sandy surface. You should be able to cover a good amount of ground while on the Bradshaw trail, but be sure to slow down to take in the desert scenery around you. Along the way you'll pass two old sailboats, like many desert relics, nobody really knows how they got here but they've turned into local attractions.


Like many places in the desert, this corner of the Sonoran is littered with dozens of mines. A few miles after the Bradshaw sailboat, you'll come along the old charcoal kilns (DP8) and shortly thereafter, the Roosevelt Mine (DP9, a quick side trip off the main route). The modern rendition of the Bradshaw Trail meets its terminus in the rich agricultural region of the Palo Verde Valley, just outside of Blithe. Unless you've got a long range or auxiliary fuel tank, Palo Verde is a great location to fuel up. Cross the Colorado River (DP10) into Arizona. The track parallels the banks of the Colorado for several miles, with a few locations perfect for fishing and rest stops. As you push your way deeper into Arizona, the rocks become noticably more red and burnt orange, and the hills are littered with green shrubs and chaparral. The Gold Eye Mine (DP14) and Wilson mine (DP13) are definitely worth visiting. The Gold Eye Mine has all sorts of relics from the past, including a few old stone cabins and milling structures. From here, you'll cross one of the many desert basins across highway 95 into Kofa Wildlife Refuge.


Kofa is filled with rugged red canyons and mesas, and majestic saguaros. Pay attention to your surroundings and you'll see clues of vulcanism from prehistoric times. Kofa wilderness is filled with postcard-esque views around every turn. If you've got time to burn, we definitely recommend heading down to Queen canyon and Skull Rock. The trails through Kofa consist of wide graded roads, undulating jeeps tracks that twist and turn through desert washes, and some steeper and rockier sections, but nothing that a stock 4x4 can't easily manage. Highlights through Kofa include the exquisite desert scenery, and the many cabins and homesteads you'll pass along the way, which include Kofa Cabin (DP15), Hoodoo Cabin (DP19), and the Hovatter homesite (DP20). Once you've made it through Kofa, you're on the homestretch! While the Bradshaw is the well known historical route on the western end, on this end we find the famed Agua Caliente Road. On your way to Agua Caliente Road, see if you can find the Aztec 42 North marker (DP22), which is literally spelled out in rocks int he desert, with an arrow pointing north. Like the Bradshaw Trail, Agua Caliente is a well maintained and wide dirt road for the most part. Agua Caliente derives its name from an old ghost town to the south, along the northern banks of the Gila River near the town of Hyder, Arizona. Agua Caliente, which translates to hot water, was named for the hot springs in the area that were commonly used by the local Native American tribes. While the route doesn't pass through the Agua Calient ghost town, the high light of the dirt section of Agua Caliente Road is definetly Sundad ghost town (DP24). While all the remains are the foundations of the old buildings, several mine shafts and interesting rock art still make this a destination worth visiting. After visiting Sundad, the track wraps around Yellow Medicine Butte (DP25) and then heads south where it cross the old Southern Pacific rail line (DP26). The final mountain sections splits through Signal Peak and Woolsey Peak wilderness areas, until the dirt meets the pavement of old US highway 80. From here follow the pavement until you reach the Gila River (D28) and the historic Gillepsie Dam Bridge (DP29), the routes official ending point.


Alternative Tracks


Arizona Peace Trail Peak Trail Rating: 3


The AZ Peace trail provides a nice alternative through the mountains if you wish to avoid the population centers near Blythe.

Camping Recommendations The desert provides an abundant supply of fantastic backcountry camping locations. Some of our favorite areas and camps to stay at include:

  • Eagle Mountain train trestle area

  • "Duck Spot" camp along the banks of the Colorado

  • Kofa Wildlife Refuge as a whole (Queen Canyon and Skull Rock off the route are fantastic!)

  • Sundad ghost town

  • Yellow Medicine Butte area

Discovery Points

  • DP1 - Salton Sea

  • DP2 - Coachella Canal

  • DP3 - Mecca Hills Grotto

  • DP4 - Red Canyon

  • DP5 - Eagle Mountain RR Trestle

  • DP6 - The Bradshaw Trail

  • DP7 - Bradshaw Sailboat

  • DP8 - Charcoal Kilns

  • DP9 - Roosevelt Mine

  • DP10 - Colorado River

  • DP11- Old Taylor Ferry (Site)

  • DP12 - Blythe Intaglios

  • DP13 - Wilson Mine

  • DP14 - Gold Eye Mine

  • DP15 - Kofa Cabin

  • DP16 - El Paso Pipeline

  • DP17 - Red Rock Reservoir

  • DP18 - Red Rock Pass

  • DP19 - Hoodoo Cabin

  • DP20 - Hovatter Homestead (site)

  • DP21 - Hovatter Well

  • DP22 - Aztec 41 North Marker

  • DP23 - Agua Caliente Road

  • DP24 - Sundad Ghost town

  • DP25 - Yellow Medicine Butte

  • DP26 - Southern Pacific Railroad

  • DP27 - Woolsey Spring

  • DP28 - Gila River

  • DP29 - Gillespie Dam Bridge

 

Maps + Navigation


Digital Mapping Files



 

Resources


Land Managers

 

Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on Overlandtrailguides.com, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by Overland Trail Guides, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.



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