My favorite outdoor experience while in Arizona recently was visiting the Sonoran Desert National Monument. It is far less developed than many other National Monuments. In fact, Ruth and I took Interstate 8 that crosses it between I-10 and Yuma and didn’t see a single sign for it. Since it was created in 2001, we expected to be made aware of it. When we got to Gila Bend, we knew we had crossed a large portion of its 496,000+ acres, so I went into a motel to find out where we could access Highway 238, the only other highway that crosses it. Highway 238 had a sign and much to offer the traveler.
Both routes offer a good look at an undisturbed Sonoran Desert landscape, but 238 was far richer and more fun. We had been told that this National Monument contains an extensive saguaro forest, but our map didn’t tell us where it was and we did not see it even though we saw lots of saguaros. This large National Monument also has 3 mountain ranges–Maricopa, Sand Tank, and Table Top. All of the literature we saw about it warned us not to visit the portion south of I-8 that contains the Table Top and Sand Tank Mountains. Our map, for example, told us to expect “…frequent border smuggling activity” there and suggested we lock any unattended vehicle and pay attention to our surroundings if we ventured into it. We didn’t. Because of its troubles and military involvement, those who visit the Table Tops are told to get a permit and watch a safety video.
The Sonoran Desert National Monument has 4 hiking trails totaling 26 miles and 3 wilderness areas. Solitude and star-gazing are assured if you overnight. It contains much flora and fauna. the fauna includes mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and our map chillingly warned us not to put our hands and feet in brush or under rocks and boulders. Less dangerous denizens include the Sonoran Desert tortoise and many small birds.
Highway 238 is also called Maricopa Road and parallels a railroad line. Maricopa Road is described by one source as “little traveled” and we found that to be the case. Other roads in this monument are dirt and recommended for only 4 WD. We saw lots of Foothill Palo Verde trees along this route. Many were blooming with bright yellow flowers. We also saw sand dunes and one roadside shrine. The more impressive ones known as capillitas, these are a common social phenomenon in Southern Arizona. This one was especially well-tended.
After crossing the lonely Sonoran landscape, it was a bit of a shock to be in the surprisingly large town of Maricopa, AZ. More than 43,000 people live here.