The Desert Around Ajo Part 2

Ballena Blanca’s camping spot in Cabeza Prieta.

This is part 2 of our The Desert Around Ajo post. See part 1 here.

April 20 – April 26, 2020.

I was looking forward to visiting the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, even though it wasn’t going to be too much different from the 4 days we had just spent camping on BLM land outside of Ajo. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take the route into the refuge I really wanted to travel along – El Camino del Diablo (The Devil’s Road). This ominous-sounding bit of road runs along the southern edge of the refuge along the US/Mexico border and requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Starting in 1540, it was an important route between Yuma, AZ and Sonoyta, Mexico for Conquistadors, missionaries, prospectors, and traders. The road’s devilish name was inspired by the many who died along the route due to the treacherous terrain, searing heat, and lack of water. Some of the graves of these unfortunate souls can still be found along the road. But where we were going, besides all the wildlife, the most interesting thing we might find was out in the desert would be unexploded ordinance (military talk for live bombs).

Yes, live bombs. Apparently the military has used the refuge as a gunnery and bombing range. And, I guess, it is OK to leave all their unexploded ordinances out in the desert. Perhaps this is why we needed to get a permit to enter the refuge. And because as part of the permitting process, we were required to watch a half-hour online video that basically told us not to touch the bombs, I guess it was OK for us to be out there too.

Although we didn’t see any bombs, we did see tons of wildlife. Something new every day. It seemed like there would be no end to it. But finally, rising temperatures were threatened to rename Ballena Blanca to El Diablo de la Combi. So after 4 days at the refuge and 2 more at the Barry M. Goldwater Range (a gated locked military range the same permit allowed us to enter), we finally said goodbye to the desert around Ajo – all the birds, flowers, blooming cacti, baby hawks, rodents, lizards, and all the unexploded bombs.

* Click pics to enlarge and open into a slide show.

** And BTW – if you are wondering how id all these plants and animals, we have an iNaturalist account. You can see our observations on the account and follow us here.

Map of Cabeza Prieta. You may notice that one of the keys to the map states that certain areas (the majority of the refuge and where we wanted to go) of the refuge are closed from March 15- July 15. This surprised us since we had just been at the Cabeza Prieta visitor center days before March 15 (when the visitor center was still open) inquiring about permits and were not told this information. So after delaying driving into the refuge for 4 days by wandering around the BLM part of the desert we finally decided to go for it. But first, I called the visitor center to make sure we weren’t breaking any rules. As I suspected, the information on the sign was not current.

You may remember that we saw a hawk’s nest in Part 1 of our Desert Around Ajo post. We saw this second nest when we entered the refuge. This time it was a Harris’s Hawk and a baby.

Baby Harris’s Hawks (or eyas of Ajo).

Lilac Sunbonnet.

Harris’s Hawk.

Graceful Spurge.

Arizona Lupine.

Mocking Birds.

Lazuli Bunting.

Green-tailed Towhee.

California Barrel Cactus.

Gila Woodpecker on a blooming Saguaro.

We spotted this Turkey Vulture drying its wings.

I moved closer for a picture and I thought he was going to fly away.

But he was only turning around for a proper pose.

Palo Verde Blooms.

Varied Lupine.

White Ratany.

Round-tailed Ground Squirrel. This little guy’s home was about 15 feet from our campsite at Cabeza Prieta. I loved being able to watch him run around from inside the van. At first, I thought he/she was a bachelor/ette until…

I started seeing little guys too!

Saguaro with blooms.

Common Side-blotched Lizard.

Heartleaf Suncup.

Ocotillo blooms.

California Fagonbush.

Saguaro.

Entrance to our camping spot at the Barry Goldwater Range. Along with our permits were we provided with a code to open the lock on this gate.

Desert Gold around our campsite.

Barry Goldwater Range at sunrise.

Purple Mat.

Small Wirelettuce.

Mojave Desert Star.

Armored Stink Beetle.

Praying Mantis.

View around the Barry Goldwater Range.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

More view around the Barry Goldwater Range.

More view around the Barry Goldwater Range.

Saguaro with lots of blooms.

Saguaro bloom.

Saguaro bloom.


It has been a beautiful spring here in Arizona and we feel so lucky that despite all the things that are closed down we can still get outside and enjoy nature. Have you been having a nice spring where you are right now? Have you been spending more time outside lately? Have you seen anything exciting out in the wild or even in your back yard lately?

10 thoughts on “The Desert Around Ajo Part 2

  1. What amazing pictures. I never would have guessed (being a armchair naturalist) that hawks nest in cacti. Thanks for that!

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks! The hawks were a surprise for us too! They seem to be pretty resourceful. We forgot to mention it but it looked like all the cactus needles were remove from the saguaro where the nest was. You can kind of see this in one of the pictures.

  2. Marie Fowler said:

    Beautiful photos! But how do you stay cool out in the dessert? I would think sleeping in the van could get hot

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks! It does get hot. We have an 18-volt Ryobi fan which helps a lot. But when it gets really hot we just have to go to higher ground – which is what we ended up doing when we were in Ajo. It was so hard to leave but it wasn’t fun anymore in the heat. We are now at much higher elevation outside of Prescott, AZ.

  3. Jo said:

    ENVY!!!!
    Great shots Duwan!

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks so much Jo!

  4. Capt Robert said:

    Love it, my own private National Geographic Magazine. You take great pics.

    PS: Next time you have wifi watch “Rango” with Johnny Depp. There’s a great scene with a Harris Hawk.

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks Robert!

      We have seen Rango before but I don’t remember the hawk. It looks like we will have to rewatch lots of movies now with birder eyes!

  5. Again, such amazing shots, Duwan. We could have used that Gnatcatcher in South Carolina. 🙂 And the Mojave Desert Star looks like such an interesting flower with its curled petals. Such beautiful spring scenery you have been a part of. The saguaro blooms are amazing. The other surprise (to me when witnessing it in the past) is how cacti are home to so many animals.

    While I know we would have loved to be out in the desert with you, I also know that our tolerance for the heat (especially with Maya) would have been much lower than yours. One of my Facebook/Instagram friends are currently driving (or just drove) the entire El Diablo road you mentioned…

    Spring is non-existent in Massachusetts right now. As I write this comment, it is snowing outside with heavy winds causing a windchill of ten degrees less than the real temperature. Bottom line: it’s freezing outside, in May!!

    • Duwan said:

      I really need to give some more details on these flowers. The Mojave desert star is tiny. I walked by it lots of times because it didn’t look like much from 5′ up before I decided to photograph it.

      It hot very hot and we only stayed as long as we did because I wanted to use that gate code to get into the Barry Goldwater Range. I am glad we got to see some saguaros really blooming out before we boiled.

      If I ever get on Instagram again perhaps I should follow friend. If they are doing it right now – they have to be freaking hot.

      Wow, I can’t believe it is snowing in Massachusetts! I hate cold weather. The weather here outside of Prescott is perfect right now. Hopefully we will be able to keep up with pleasant temperatures as we travel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.