The town of Gila Bend (pop. 2,000) sits near the Gila River 68 miles southwest of Phoenix. Father Kino, who came through here in 1699, found a prosperous Maricopa village with irrigated fields yielding two harvests annually. The Butterfield stagecoach first rolled through in the early 1850s, and a town later grew up around its station.
Today Gila Bend serves as an agricultural center and a travelers' stop. Surrounding farms raise cotton, wheat, barley, and other crops. San Lucy, a Tohono O'odham village, lies just north of town. Hop off I-8 on the Business Loop through town for the seven motels, a few RV parks, and a variety of restaurants. A tourist information sign on the Business Loop will direct you to the Gila Bend Museum and Tourist Center (644 W. Pima St. or P.O. Drawer A, Gila Bend, AZ 85337, 928/683-2002, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily), which offers historical exhibits and travel information. The public library and a city park are two blocks north of the Business Loop at 202 N. Euclid.
Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site
Prehistoric travelers left hundreds—perhaps thousands—of designs on the boulders of a small hill northwest of Gila Bend. A caretaker tried to count the pieces of artwork on just one boulder, then gave up saying he "wasn't drunk enough." You'll recognize the human figures, deer, pronghorn, snakes, and other life. Other designs remain a mystery, though at least one "calendar" has been found to mark winter and summer solstices. The rock art will fade away if people touch it, so avoid contact and make sure that the kids don't climb on the rocks! The BLM's Phoenix Field Office (623/580-5500) manages the site and provides shaded tables for picnics and a campground. You'll need to bring water. Day use costs $2, camping $4. A paved road leads to the entrance. Take I-8 Painted Rock Dam Road Exit 102 (13 miles west of Gila Bend) and follow it north 12 miles, then turn left 0.5 mile on Painted Rock Road.
You don't have to travel far to go from the biggest city in Arizona to some of the state's loneliest landscapes! Adventurous travelers discover pristine animal and plant communities, plus signs of prehistoric villages and trade routes. A few trails lead into some wildernesses, while others require challenging cross-country hiking. Most access roads will daunt ordinary cars—you'll need a high-clearance vehicle to get close. The Bureau of Land Management's Phoenix Field Office (21605 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85027, 623/580-5500) looks after these areas.
Woolsey Peak and Signal Mountain Wilderness Areas
Although less than 40 miles southwest of Phoenix, these adjoining wildernesses see few visitors. They protect part of the Gila Bend Mountains and take their names from their respective highest summits—3,271-foot Woolsey Peak and 2,182-foot Signal Peak. The open desert below the weathered volcanic peaks offers many cross-country hiking possibilities. You can also hike across Woolsey Peak Wilderness on an eight-mile former road that has trailheads at both ends. Both wildernesses can be reached on a vehicle road that runs between them.
Access is easiest from the Phoenix side, but you'll need a high-clearance vehicle: head south 5.5 miles on AZ 85 from I-10 Exit 112, follow old Hwy. 80 west and south 14 miles via Hassayampa, turn west 5.5 miles on Agua Caliente Road (pavement ends), then turn southwest on an unsigned road at a bend. After four miles you'll see a sign identifying Signal Mountain Wilderness on the right, then in another three miles, a sign identifying Woolsey Peak Wilderness on the left. The trailhead for the hike across Woolsey Peak Wilderness is near Woolsey Spring; look for an unsigned track to the left at a wide spot in Woolsey Wash. You can also get here from the east edge of Gila Bend by heading north 25.2 miles on old Hwy. 80 to Agua Caliente Road (between Mileposts 25 and 26), then following directions above.
A 4WD vehicle is recommended if you continue southwest on the road between the two wildernesses. At the T-junction where it finally ends, turn right (west) 1.3 miles, then right (northwest) 3.4 miles at the next T-junction and continue to Saddle Road (Milepost 35) at a third T-junction. Here you can turn north toward I-10 and Phoenix or south 10.8 miles to Rocky Point Road (turn left 12.6 miles for Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site) and I-8 west of Gila Bend. Note that some maps show roads across the Gila River just below Painted Rock Dam, but these washed out long ago; you have to detour via Saddle Road.
Sonoran Desert National Monument
Arizona's newest monument, designated in 2001, contains three wilderness areas within its nearly 500,000 acres. Located about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix, it can be reached from I-10 in the north or off I-8 near Gila Bend in the south. As the name suggests, the monument protects fine examples of Sonoran Desert plant and animal communities, including desert bighorn sheep. Early travelers crossed the Maricopa Mountains on a shortcut known as the Forty-Mile Desert between Maricopa and Gila Bend, saving 80 miles over following the Gila River. Butterfield Pass takes its name from the stage service that used this mountain route from 1858 to 1861. You can still cross the pass with a 4WD vehicle and a good map. Today this road divides the North and South Maricopa Mountains Wildernesses. Over to the southeast lies the smaller Table Top Wilderness, named for its highest peak. Hikers can follow trails in the wilderness areas, including a trail to the summit of Table Top Mountain. Note that part of the southern monument lies within the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, so you'll need the same permit and clearance as for Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to visit this section.
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