Exploring the Sears Point petroglyph site

“Hmm. Are you sure it’s out here?” she asked.

To be honest, it didn’t look very promising, at least not yet.

“Yep, it’s up ahead a few more miles,” I responded, in a tone that likely overstated my own confidence.

We had already driven an hour from Phoenix to Gila Bend, then another hour west along Interstate 8, then turned off at an exit to seemingly nowhere, jogged back east a mile along the access road, then turned north on an unremarkable dirt road impossibly named Avenue 76½ E. Along this rough-at-times road, we had passed two desert squatter communities, an out-of-place boat shipwrecked on the top of a small hill, and miles of seemingly barren desert.

Some skepticism was probably to be expected. After all, I hadn’t exactly explained where we were going; I had just said that we’d find some rock art when we got there.

As it turns out, we were indeed on the correct road. A few miles further ahead was the Sears Point petroglyph site, an array of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs carved into a basalt ridge overlooking the floodplain of the once mighty Gila River. This is BLM land, a site well known by those who hunt rock art, but not a destination where you’ll find many tourists.

Finally, the road crested a small ridge, dipped towards the dry riverbed in the distance, and we could see our destination ahead. Ribbons of sandy driving routes spiderwebbed around tamarisk and mesquite clumps that dotted the lowland. I was glad to have my Subaru as we sloshed through deep pockets of sand and gravel, maintaining enough speed around the corners to avoid getting stuck. And just like that, we arrived at a patch of dirt sporting two informational kiosks and some carsonite signs indicating the road’s end. We parked, stepped out of the subie, and immediately scanned the butte for the first sign of rock art.

“There’s some over there,” I said, nearly in code, and pointed towards a prominent panel gazing down upon us.

We grabbed some cold water from the cooler, donned our daypacks, and scrambled up towards the first panel with cameras in hand. And so began our rather impromptu visit to Sears Point.

The Sears Point petroglyph site

Archaeologists consider Sears Point to be one of the most significant rock art sites in the Southwest. In addition to more than 2,000 rock art panels incorporating nearly 10,000 petroglyph elements, the area contains a number of geoglyphs and other archaeological and historical features.

Simply put, there’s a lot to see out here. And you’ll need to do some exploring to see it.

Sears Point is just one of several other similar sites along the Gila River, including Quail Point, Hummingbird Point, and Oatman Point just a bit upstream. The only site signed from the interstate is Painted Rock, a now-defunct state park that’s since reverted to BLM management. I won’t get into what you’ll find at each of these sites, how to get to them, or what makes them special, but a quick google search will answer most questions one would have.

It’s important to note that while Sears Point is a named archaeological district, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is managed as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by BLM, sadly none of these adds sufficient protection for this site or its neighboring ones.

The campaign to protect the Great Bend of the Gila

As a result, several organizations—led by Archaeology Southwest and the National Trust for Historic Preservation—have been campaigning to protect Sears Point and other important archaeological and historical sites upstream as the Great Bend of the Gila National Monument. It’s a good idea and the cultural resources here are definitely worthy of such a designation.

The short video below explains a bit more about the cultural heritage this campaign seeks to protect.

Some tips if you plan on visiting

  • You’ll want an AWD or 4WD vehicle to drive to the parking area, though don’t attempt it if it’s rained recently. You could probably make the drive with a 2WD high clearance vehicle if you stopped short of the deepest sand, which starts around here, roughly a mile from the main petroglyph panels. Either way, be prepared to extricate yourself if you get stuck no matter what you’re driving.
  • Don’t go in the summer heat, and be prepared with water and shade. You’ll spend your entire visit scrambling over rocks while the sun beats relentlessly down on you, so please act accordingly. If it’s warm out, you might want to consider gloves to protect your hands from hot rocks.
  • If you don’t have much time, check out the rock art panels near the top of the butte to the right. The largest panels and most easily accessible glyphs are found in that area, which will require some scrambling to get up to the faint trail that connects them. If you can, spend some time exploring the entire area, including the tops of the basalt mesas—there are thousands of petroglyphs, geoglyphs, rock alignments, and other artifacts in walking distance of your car. Stay alert to your surroundings and bring a gps to help you find your way back.
  • Photographing sometimes faint petroglyphs on shiny basalt in the glaring sun can be a challenge, so keep this in mind as you plan your arrival and departure times. A circular polarizing filter can also be helpful in reducing shine and helping the rock art stand out better. An umbrella can both help keep you cool and shade smaller glyphs for better photographs. I wish I had considered these things before my visit.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles, and don’t touch the petroglyphs or do anything else that might impact the site. Once damaged, we can never get these resources back.
  • Want to learn more about lesser-known archaeological sites the public hasn’t ever heard of? Here’s the very best way to do that.
  • Do some research before you go, especially on other nearby sites, if you’d like to make a longer day out of it. There are many accessible places to explore in the surrounding area and within the Great Bend of the Gila proposal area.
This entire region of Arizona is worth exploring—and protecting. Sears Point is located near the far western end of the proposed national monument.

How to get there

From Gila Bend, Arizona, drive west on I-8 towards Yuma for roughly 30 mins to exit 78, Spot Road. At the end of the off ramp, turn north and then right on the frontage road. Head back east for about 1 mile to Avenue 76½E, then go north along the dirt road for about 7 miles. When you hit the sandy wash, stay on the most used route and aim for the low buttes to the west. You’ll find a small dirt parking area and two kiosks; park here and explore the area on foot.

If you happened to miss them, scroll back up to check out the sliding photo gallery from the trip. Click on one to enter fullscreen mode.

Kayaking the Salt River Under a Full Moon

One of my favorite annual trips to lead is a moonlight paddle down the Lower Salt River east of Phoenix.

The Salt River is a great little trip either early in the morning, or long after the tubers have gone home—it’s serene, has some nice scenery, is convenient to the metro Phoenix area, and offers easy logistics. I think it’s at its best during a full moon.

Armed with water cannons, some adult beverages, and glowstick-decorated kayaks, we met at Blue Point Picnic Area after work, unloaded our boats, and set up the car shuttle. We hit the water just as the sun set and stopped to enjoy the moonrise over the mountains in the first eddy downstream. There’s something special about paddling a river with just the light of a full moon. With the limited light, there’s an interesting incongruity: ripples and small rapids seem more exciting while the overall trip seems more placid.

Generally speaking, our night was more float than paddle. We shared beverages, enjoyed small conversations, and relaxed in the tranquility of the water. We stopped for a break and a group photo at the beach at Goldfield Ranch, joined by about a dozen feral Salt River horses. Drinking vessels sufficiently refilled, we returned to the boats and continued downstream to our take-out at Phon D Sutton Rec Area.

The remainder of the trip was a continuation of the earlier enjoyable night. The water cannons got quite a bit more use, which are particularly fun when you’re not entirely sure who squirted whom. The worst part of the evening was finding ourselves at the take-out; it had arrived much sooner than everyone wanted. Clearly, we’ll need to arrange another one next month.

I didn’t put much effort into taking photos. The combination of low light, the constant rocking of the kayak, and my preference for carrying a small point-and-shoot camera generally make for less-than-stellar photos. However, I post them in the hopes that they paint at least a crude picture of the evening’s moonlight adventure.

Driving the Black Hills Back Country Byway

The Black Hills Back Country Byway runs 21 miles off US-191 between Clifton and Safford.

There it was—an obscure, thin black line on a map, a 21-mile dirt road shortcutting two sections of Hwy 191 along the eastern edge of Arizona: the Black Hills Back Country Byway. I had first noticed it when I was inspecting the map for the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, one of the state’s many National Conservation Lands. The road subtly poked into the Gila Box, providing a popular put-in spot for rafters down the Gila River. I wasn’t here to raft the river though—at least, not yet anyway.

Arizona Highways had included the route in its listing of scenic drives in the state, so I had been attempting to work it into various trip itineraries for quite some time. On the return journey from southern New Mexico last weekend, I found my opportunity.

As we made our way north from the settlement known as “Three Way” [insert giggling], we wondered if the basalt-covered hillsides to the west were the black hills after which the road was named. We searched online for a detailed map of the backcountry byway, but—as is often the case these days—the BLM website was not forthcoming. After a bit of searching, we discovered that the ‘Guthrie’ and ‘Toll Gate Tank’ topo maps seemed most useful quads for navigating the route, and the Gila Box Riparian NCA map probably gives the best overview. Having a map isn’t essential to this endeavor, as the main roadway is well defined and the turnoffs are well signed, but it’s always a good idea when you’re traveling in the backcountry. While high clearance vehicles are recommended by BLM, I’d consider the road passable under dry conditions by most sedans. Nonetheless, this area is remote and you should be fully prepared with extra water and emergency gear before attempting this or any backcountry drive. Not including stops, you’ll need roughly 60-90 minutes to drive from end to end. You can access the Black Hills Back Country Byway off US Highway 191 near milepost 139 east of Safford and near milepost 160 south of Clifton. Both ends are well-signed and feature an informational kiosk a short distance up the road.

The Black Hills Back Country Byway isn’t a knock-your-socks-off scenic drive, but it is definitely a worthy detour if you’re passing through the area.

The byway follows the old road between Safford and Morenci built in the 1930s. There are a handful of interpretive sites and picnic areas along the way, as well as access to several rugged roads penetrating more remote areas. One of those side roads accesses the Black Hills Rockhound Area, where you can try your luck at taking some gems home. You’ll also cross the historic Old Safford Bridge over the Gila River (built in 1918 and listed on National Register of Historic Places, but more recently renovated), which offers a great spot to stop and enjoy the river and the resulting shade. The 7-site Owl Creek Campground is on a bluff overlooking the bridge and riverway for those who want a longer experience.

The Black Hills Back Country Byway isn’t a knock-your-socks-off scenic drive, but it is definitely a worthy detour if you’re passing through the area. It’s a rather pleasant drive through the backcountry of southeastern Arizona. The view from the Canyon Overlook Picnic Area overlooking the surrounding topography with Mt Graham looming in the distance is definitely camera-worthy. And the thin ribbon of lush green riparian vegetation along the Gila River also begs for an extended stop. The scenic drive would be a perfect compliment to any journey down the famed Coronado Trail.

A day spent exploring the Kofa

After having our weekend camping trip get cancelled, Jen and I decided to salvage our Sunday with a day trip west towards the Colorado River. Our goal was to explore the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge a bit, check out the desert wildflower scene there, and scout a few places to camp in the future.

After packing up the car with our gear, snacks, and picnic supplies, we hit the road for the 2.5-hour drive to the western approach of the Kofa Mountains. The entire low desert region around the town of Quartzsite, Arizona is prime RV camping in the winter months. The BLM public lands surrounding the town, and those that ring the Kofa, allow for long-term camping, so the desert flats are filled with both trailers and coaches, as well as the occasional #vanlife rig.

Kofa is a rather large place. It’s 665,000 acres of rugged mountain ranges and sloping valleys, all but one-fifth of which is designated Wilderness. The land was originally set aside to protect desert bighorn sheep back in 1939, the product of a Boy Scout advocacy campaign to protect the species. Mining, however, has seemingly always been a part of the modern history of this area. The name Kofa comes from the King of Arizona mine located along the mountain range’s southwestern edge.

The spiral labyrinth

I’m definitely not a fan of transforming the landscape of our public lands—even impressively-created spiral labyrinths.

Our first stop of the day was just outside the National Wildlife Refuge’s official boundary at a feature called the spiral labyrinth. I have no idea when it was constructed, who made it, or why. I’m not exactly a fan of mutilating the desert with something like this, but I’ll admit that it’s a lot cooler than I expected it to be.

The labyrinth is located just off the main road into Palm Canyon and is scraped into desert pavement, much like the ancient intaglios further west. At more than 60 feet wide, the spiral is impressive—especially given the quality of its design and construction.

I would have loved to stay here for much longer than we did and to walk the entire thing. Unfortunately, two inconsiderate asshats were camping right next to the thing, preventing us from taking the photos we’d like or even enjoying a serenity.

Queen Mine Road

Moving along, we entered the refuge and turned onto Queen Mine Road. The road is quite a bit rougher than Palm Canyon, as it eventually leads into a tight canyon where it dead ends. Thank goodness I have Sam the Subie. I’ve always wanted to camp along this road, which is home to a somewhat iconic photo spot, sometimes called the Kofa spires or Kofa sea stacks. It’s also the approach one would use for scrambling up Signal Peak, the highest point in Yuma County. I’ll be back to tackle this summit another time as part of my Arizona County High Points quest.

Palm Canyon

We doubled back and headed towards Palm Canyon for lunch. Palm Canyon is the most common destination for visitors. It’s incredible easy to find—the main sedan-friendly road into the Kofa leads directly to it. It’s also a signed half-mile foot trail, which means it’s usually the only Kofa destination that you’ll find on hiking websites or guidebooks. The canyon is home to the California fan palm, the only palm species that grows natively in Arizona.

We positioned the car to block the wind, made some sandwiches and enjoyed the vista. After lunch, I scouted around the mouth of the canyon for some tent-appropriate campsites we could use on a future group trip. And yep, there are some primo sites with great views into the canyon. We’ll definitely be back.

King Valley

It was now time to explore the expansive King Valley, which bisects the wildlife refuge and separates its two primary mountain ranges: the Kofa Mountains and the Castle Dome Mountains. We headed back to the highway and down to King Road, then took it southeast into the interior of the refuge. Passing countless camp pull-offs and expansive vistas, we eventually headed northeast over the desert flats towards Polaris Mountain and the Kofa Mine. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the foothills, so we couldn’t stay and explore the area on foot.

A stop in Yuma

After departing the Kofa, we turned south towards Yuma. On our way, we stopped at the Yuma Proving Ground, a large military testing installation. The proving ground, still currently in use, is a remnant of General Patton’s massive Desert Training Center. An interesting note on the national wildlife refuge: in times of war, it can automatically revert to active Yuma Proving Ground land.

There are a dozen or more old tanks on display outside the main gates—each of which was originally tested on the facility grounds—so I stopped for Jen to take a look and read the various plaques.

Our purpose in heading out of our way to Yuma was simple: beer. Jen has officially adopted #azbeerquest and had not yet marked off Yuma’s sole craft brewery. This must be corrected. But first, we needed to stop at a dive bar that’s been on my list to visit for several years. It didn’t disappoint. I even had to fight off some handsy (and apparently quite lonely) locals looking to get frisky; I suppose that’s what you get at a former strip club.

We departed to grab dinner and a beer flight at the brewery and mark another off the quest. After a long but enjoyable day, we headed towards home, completing an impressive loop around southwestern Arizona.

Day trips rock!

I’m always a bit surprised when a friend seems shocked that we’d did a day trip like this one. I sometimes get questions like:

“How did you know where to go?” or “How long did it take you plan that trip?” or even “I could never just go do something like that.”

Let’s just set the record straight: day trips rock!

They’re easy to put together and they’re easy to do. They allow you to get out and explore your state. And if you bring food along with you, then they only cost a tank of gas. Don’t have a destination in mind? Don’t let that stop you. Grab a map, hit the road, and decide as you go. Don’t know what to bring? Just bring whatever you want to have with you. I’d recommend some water, beverages and snacks, and warm clothes if it’s cold out. Besides that, there’s really not much to it.

Stay tuned here and we’ll help ensure that you start taking more of those day trips and just get out more.

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