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Mexico to Benson - Unusual Encounters | AZBDR Stage 1


Running a BDR (Backcountry Discovery Route) this year is going to be a little different for us than it has been in years past, for several reasons. First, we'll be exploring a state that - due to its distance from home, or even Las Vegas where the Tacoma is now stored - we've done very little adventuring through. This should be a great thing, as one of the "problems" with the last couple of BDRs we've explored was that we were already reasonably familiar with what we'd encounter, making the trip less exciting. Second, we'll be running the route in April - a far cry from our usual July endeavors - since we're a little worried about the temperatures we'd find in the middle of summer. We're hoping this works out, but we'll certainly be threading the needle as far as snow goes along a couple high-elevation segments of the trail. And lastly, this year we have a schedule to meet. With the Tacoma stored in Las Vegas, we've got flights in and out that are already booked. We've allocated one day per stage - plus a travel day on each end - but it's no secret that unforeseen events can quickly cause a trip to go sideways.

And so, we are headed south - to the border between the United States and Mexico - to the beginning of a 750-mile route that explores the historic Empire Ranch, Sierra Ancha Cliff Dwellings, Mogollon Rim, Saguaro Cactus Forests, Navajo Nation, and Vermillion Cliffs. More mountainous than many expect, we'll experience a green terrain rather than the rocky, remote, and hot environment for which this state is known. Or, at least, that's the promise, as we view the Grand Canyon from vantage points most people never see.

Could we complete the entire Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route in only six days?

Stage 1: USA-Mexico Border to Benson | 128 miles
Stage 2: Benson to Globe | 127 miles
Stage 3: Globe to Young | 86 miles
Stage 4: Young to Winona | 135 miles
Stage 5: Winona to Cameron | 125 miles
Stage 6: Cameron to Utah Border | 153 miles

Getting There

It was a ten-hour drive from Las Vegas to our jumping off point in the Coronado National Memorial, so we got comfy, fired up a few of our favorite podcasts, and resigned ourselves to a full day of driving. At least, we knew, the end of the BDR would be a bit closer, only necessitating a four-hour return trip as we exited the state.

Unlike most BDRs where the route begins just south of the state border, we'd never actually cross the southern border on this one - for obvious reasons - so we caught the welcome sign as we entered from California!

As darkness approached, it was time to think about camp. This wasn't something I'd given much - really, any - thought to before setting out, but as we neared Miracle Valley and the USA-Mexico border, my passenger started to get noticeably nervous. Her concern - which I probably should have thought about earlier - was for our personal security in this region of our country that gets plenty of attention in the news and political media.

It's my belief that a lot of that news is sensationalized and exaggerated for political gain, and that the reality of the situation is nearly the same as I've found it to be everywhere else that I explore: if you're not out looking for trouble, you're unlikely to run into any. Still, regardless of the reality, I realized the value in @mrs.turbodb feeling safe as we kicked off the trip, so we looked for - and found - a campground outside of Sierra Vista. Less than an hour from the starting point, and high in the mountains, Reef Campground was the perfect place to spend the night.

At 7,200 feet, we awoke to clear skies, 29°F temperatures, and great views as we descended towards the start of the AZBDR.

We'd seen this blimp as darkness set in the previous evening but had no idea - though we do now - why it hovered over Sierra Vista.

Here We Go!

The first stage of the AZBDR begins just west of Miracle Valley at the Coronado National Memorial. Both of these places have colorful histories - though surely not for reasons that their creators imagined - and as we headed west through the Memorial, @mrs.turbodb gleefully pulled out the research she'd done prior to the trip when I absentmindedly asked, "I wonder why this is a Memorial and not a Monument?"

The official start.

The Memorial was initially designed as a gesture of goodwill and cooperation between the United States and Mexico, in recognition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's 1540 expedition to the area.

As a result of this expedition - one that has been characterized by historians as one of the greatest land expeditions the world has known - a new civilization was established in the great American Southwest.

Thus, the site was first designated Coronado International Memorial on August 18, 1941, with the hope that a comparable adjoining area would be established in Mexico, similar to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park between the United States and Canada.

However, despite interest by the government of Mexico, the Mexican memorial was never created. Therefore, Congress changed the designation to a National Memorial on July 9, 1952, and on November 5, the Memorial was established by Harry S. Truman.


Only a few miles into the trip - and still on pavement - we pulled over for the first of several "while we're here" detours. This one was a short hike to the Coronado Cave, which we - or at least I - envisioned to be similar to Carlsbad Caverns or Mitchell Caverns, and well worth an hour to explore!

Up the hillside we go.

An unassuming entrance.

Formed by shallow seas that deposited limestone in the area more than 250 million years ago, the interior of the Coronado Cave extends 600 feet into the mountain, with ceilings in the main chamber extending 20-50 feet high.

In visiting Carlsbad and Mitchell Caverns, one of the things that was front-and-center was how protective the custodians of those sites where. Entrance to the caves was closely monitored, pathways through the darkness were predetermined and railed, and supervision of visitors was constant. Frankly, when we were in those caves, it felt a little overwhelming, but as we wandered through Coronado Cave, it was immediately apparent that the oversight was necessary. Here, there were no stalactites or stalagmites, and the few large columns that still existed on the cave floor were hopelessly chipped. Everything was covered in a centimeter of fine dust. This was a dead cave.

Wandering between slanted walls.

I had a hard time even finding a place to setup the LED puck lights to light the scene. which really just shows how sad this cave has become.

Back at the trailhead we ate a quick breakfast and pumped a bit of gear oil into the transmission before getting on the road and transitioning from pavement to dirt - albeit very-well-graded dirt - as we headed towards Montezuma Pass.

Through the oak, this looked more like the foothills of the California Sierra than Arizona - at least, to us!

Looking east from Montezuma Pass.

West from the pass - and the direction we were headed - toward the border between Arizona and Mexico.

There isn't a lot of interesting terrain on this first stage of the route, and as we sped along at a good clip, it was obvious that the real point of this leg of the journey was getting up close and personal with a several-mile-long segment of the border "wall." Having not spent much time along the border, that was fine with us, and we were quite curious to see what the wall would look like, how heavily patrolled it might be, and - of course - how difficult it would be to cross (though, I didn't mention this last bit to @mrs.turbodb for obvious reasons).

A whole lot of nothing out here.

Every 5-10 miles we'd run across one of these communication towers, surely used by the US Border Patrol in their surveillance efforts.

Watch out, there might be spy blimps in the area!

It was just as we reached the border that we spotted the pronghorn. It was immediately strange when it looked at us but - unlike every other time we've seen a pronghorn - did not run. As it looked away, we followed it gaze, and realized that there was more at play. There - not thirty feet away - a coyote trotted through the dry grass, its attention focused on the four-legged animal rather than on us. And then, a chase!


Not the chase we were expecting!

"The pronhorn is chasing the coyote!" @mrs.turbodb exclaimed, as I tried my hardest to follow the excitement with my lens, watching as the autofocus jumped across the sea of waving grass rather than homing in on the hunter-turned-hunted and prey-turned-predator. Still, I had to agree that it was an exciting few minutes, and certainly more action that we'd see in our remaining time at the border!

The impenetrable border "wall." I'm sure I could make some snarky political comment about this, but seriously, fortifying this really where we should be spending our money?

Inspecting the barrier - a rusting welded snake of used train rail - both of us managed to step in some sort of the most awful smelling shit I've ever encountered. That wouldn't have been all that bad, except that I only noticed it after I climbed into the Tacoma and got a nice big chunk of it rubbed into my floor mat! .

It took a good 25 minutes to clean my mess up. During that time, we kept our eyes peeled for any action along the border.

Parked just north of the wall, with east-west visibility for miles, we noticed no Hamas militants pouring across the border. Unsurprisingly.

It was the last we'd see of the border - the remainder of the route whisking us north through the rest of the state - and soon we found ourselves just north of Sonoita and cruising toward the Empire Ranch.

Snow-capped peaks of Mt. Wrightson towered in the distance as we kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn't run into any of the white stuff along our route.

The historic Empire Ranch has been a working cattle ranch for almost 150 years. Established in 1860, the 160 acre homestead was acquired by Walter L. Vail in 1876 for the sum of $2,000. Over the next 20 years, Vail expanded the original land holdings to include over 100,000 acres while also developing the Total Wreck silver mine, adding to ranch prosperity.

In 1928, the Chiricahua Ranches Company (CRC) - owned by Henry, Frank, and Charles Boice - purchased the ranch. Frank and his wife, Mary, moved to the Empire Ranch in 1929 and added many modern conveniences to the Ranch house.

Modern conveniences.

Propane, and eventually natural gas, was piped into the house; a large electric walk-in refrigeration unit was installed; plumbing was upgraded, and cement stucco was applied to the exterior house walls. The living room, dining room, and kitchen in the family residence were remodeled.

A tastefully remodeled sitting area.

On the kitchen counter, a metal tin with a still-familiar design.

During the 1940 and 1950s many Hollywood films were shot at the Empire Ranch and in the vicinity. The Boices hosted numerous film stars, including John Wayne, when Red River was filmed at the Empire Ranch.

The Boices sold the ranch in 1969 and over the next 20 years, several mining companies owned the land, leasing it to ranchers and never developing any mineral resources. Then, in 1988, a series of land exchanges put the property into public ownership under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which continued to lease the land while preserving the headquarters for future generations.

Empire Ranch Foundation

The Empire Ranch house and outbuildings today.

From a more consumable angle.

It was a little after 12:30pm when we pulled out of the Empire Ranch parking area and headed east through the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and towards the end of the first stage of the BDR in Benson. Unlike the morning's terrain, the roads here were a little less traveled, nine gates inhibiting @mrs.turbodb's ability enjoy her after lunch napping window.

Some of the cottonwoods were leafing out - but not all - as we drove through a wetter area of the property.

Leave gates as you find them!

Mere minutes before we passed through this sea of spring green ocotillo, a grader came through and "smoothed" the road. If only they'd compacted it as well, the soft soil making traction difficult as we climbed the steeper sections.

We pulled into the Benson Wendy's just before 3:00pm. We hadn't planned to eat dinner quite this early, but we'd completed stage 1 much faster than we'd expected and knew that getting a jump start on stage 2 would give us a little bit of buffer should any future stages require reroutes or otherwise slow us down.

Definitely the fastest first stage we've ever experienced!

And so, munching on our burgers and fries, we looked at the map, trying to figure out where we'd make it before the sun dropped below the horizon. From the looks of it, we'd make it reasonably far into Stage 2, the roads seemingly a combination of pavement and well-graded gravel.

It didn't make for the most exciting of BDR beginnings, but we hoped that would change as we continued to our trek north!



Mexico to Benson - Unusual Encounters | AZBDR Stage 1 Mexico to Benson - Unusual Encounters | AZBDR Stage 1 - Prologue Running a BDR (Backcountry Discovery Route) this year is going to be a little different for us than it has been in years past, for several reasons. First, we'll be exploring a state that - due to its distance from home, or even Las Vegas where the Tacoma is now stored - we've done very little adventuring through. This should be a great thing, as one of the "problems" with the last couple of BDRs we've explored was that we were already reasonably familiar with what we'd encounter, making the trip less exciting. Second, we'll be running the route…
Benson to Globe - Kinda Boring | AZBDR Stage 2 Benson to Globe - Kinda Boring | AZBDR Stage 2 - Having wrapped up Stage 1 of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route (BDR) more quickly than we'd anticipated, it was early afternoon as we headed north out of Benson, toward Globe. Having just gorged ourselves on Wendy's, we weren't in any position to stop at the shop directly below this tantalizing sign as we left town. While unexpected, we were both glad that things were working out this way. We've found it much more pleasant to end a day halfway through a stage - rather than at the end/beginning of one - in order to find somewhere to setup camp and…
Globe to Young - Take a Hike | AZBDR Stage 3 Globe to Young - Take a Hike | AZBDR Stage 3 - Globe definitely won the "best marketing" award of all the towns we passed through on this trip. It was fantastic to photograph. Rolling out of Globe early on our second day of running the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route (BDR), we were once again on - you guessed it - pavement! This was quickly getting old - as we sped north at speeds we rarely encounter on our adventures - and by now we were pretty sure that the AZBDR wouldn't be climbing to the top of our "favorite BDR" list unless something changed dramatically, and quickly. AZ-288 (the Globe-Young Highway)…
Young to Winona - The Mogollon Rim is Closed | AZBDR Stage 4 Young to Winona - The Mogollon Rim is Closed | AZBDR Stage 4 - As our tires hit pavement in the outskirts of Young, it was time to start thinking about Stage 4. Climbing - and then traversing the Mogollon Rim - this was where satellite imagery, which I'd been watching on a daily basis for several weeks prior to our departure, suggested that 5-19" of snow still blanketed the ground. This didn't look promising. Still, my copilot - having spent the last half hour looking through the road conditions page for the Coconino National Forest - thought we stood a chance, at least in part. Though she confirmed closure of the Forest Service…
Winona to Cameron - Volcanoes, Pueblos, and a Grand Canyon | AZBDR Stage 5 Winona to Cameron - Volcanoes, Pueblos, and a Grand Canyon | AZBDR Stage 5 - Having "wrapped up" (and by that I mean, essentially, skipped) Stage 4 of the AZBDR in a little under six hours, it was just after 3:30pm when we set out from Winona in search of open roads. The elevations here were nearly as high as those on the Mogollon Rim, so I was a little worried that we'd soon find ourselves blocked by snow, but @mrs.turbodb was reasonably confident that we'd be just fine. As usual, she was right. The snowy San Fransisco Mountains would provide a familiar - and beautiful - backdrop for much of this stage. For the…
Cameron to Utah - The Best for Last | AZBDR Stage 6 Cameron to Utah - The Best for Last | AZBDR Stage 6 - A quick recap... We knew even before starting the AZBDR that we'd need a permit to cross the Navajo Nation, and we knew we could conveniently pick up the permit just outside of Cameron, AZ just prior to entering Navajo land. What we didn't know for sure were the hours of the permit office. Knowing that we didn't know, we'd tried calling the permit office earlier in the day - just before visiting Waputki National Monument - thinking that we could pick up our permit well before the office closed for the day. However, when no one answered the phone,…
Underwhelming | AZBDR Epilogue Underwhelming | AZBDR Epilogue - The Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route (BDR) is the eighth that we've completed in as many years. Through the experience of each one, @mrs.turbodb and I are - as you can imagine - regularly comparing the current BDR to those we've explored in the past and a few years ago I finally started writing some of these comparisons down. Now, naturally, I feel obligated to carry on that tradition into the future. TL;DR - the Arizona BDR is the least technical that we've run, and the vast majority of the route would rank near the bottom of our list of "best…



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  1. Skidoo
    Skidoo April 27, 2024

    "The pronghorn is chasing the coyote!" Amazing photos, ours was so unexpected I didn't get photos, really bummed. We saw this in Lamar Valley, YNP. The coyote was sneaking around when the pronghorn spotted it and chased it a couple of times around a rock outcropping about a 100ft in diameter. Coyote ducked into the outcropping and the pronghorn lost it and gave up the chase. A while later coyote snuck out and got about a mile away when pronghorn spotted it and came after it, chasing it for a couple miles until it was out of sight over a ridge. Looked it up and coyotes are searching for the pronghorn young which bed down in the grass to hide. So when they have young, pronghorns will keep the coyotes away.

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 27, 2024

      I was lucky to catch it on camera. I had the camera out just for the pronghorn. The fact that we were able to approach in the Tacoma and it didn't run away seemed so strange (we've driven alongside them as they've barreled along the side of the road, but they always run. It was only as we were both remarking as to the "not running" that we noticed the coyote move and realized we were seeing something special.

      We didn't see a youngster around, but I have no doubt that what you're describing is what was going on. And of course, the youngster knows better than to reveal itself before the adult comes back. And certainly not to a couple of hoomans.

  2. Greg von Buchau
    Greg von Buchau April 28, 2024

    Just did the Camino Del Diablo a couple of days ago and that border wall is visible on a lot of the route even though you are miles away from it. It looks like a black Train from a distance but unlike a Train it doesn’t move.

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 28, 2024

      Nice - hope you had fun out there. The "wall" is certainly interesting; we inspected the construction and while it's relatively forgiving in how it was assembled, there was still a lot of work to weld it all together.

  3. David Devoucoux
    David Devoucoux April 29, 2024

    Well rats. I wish I had known you were traveling around here. I would have met you at Empire Ranch to say hi and thanks for your travels.

    After 50 plus years living in Arizona, I've found it to be quite the interesting state. Hopefully, the rest of the AZBDR is more exciting for you and the Mrs..
    I'm pretty much retired from off road adventures...but..I'm following!

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 29, 2024

      Hey David, that would have been cool. Actually, you're the second Arizonian to have mentioned something similar! It's always difficult to keep track/remember where everyone is located. It's also hard to know exactly when we'll be somewhere to actually meet, unless it's the very beginning of the trip. This particular trip was also a bit strange because we didn't know (especially at the beginning) whether there'd be a time crunch to get the entire thing wrapped up.

      As always, puts a smile on my face to hear you're enjoying the stories and along for the ride. I'm sure we'll be back to AZ (though ... foreshadowing ... likely not for the BDR again) so keep an eye out for a green 1st gen Tacoma and honk/stop me if you see it!

    JOHN D MORAN April 29, 2024

    You may know that much of the border with Mexico is open, easily crossed on foot but the steel rails cut & welded are meant to stop vehicles like the tank traps in WWII and it can be dangerous. Even here, more than a hundred miles from the border there are drug cartel "grows" in the desert, the sheriff raids them but more keep popping up. Recently I drove out some dirt roads to have a look and found several that had been raided but remnants of structures remained. Also, Sierra Vista is home to Ft. Huachuca and other military units. Our (when I was in the Army) fast response signal unit was moved there for a short time some decades ago. I'm sure your journey north will be more exciting in coming stages. Great photos of the coyote and the pronghorn, once again the coyote loses but this time to a four-legged foe, LOL!

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 29, 2024

      Yes, I do know that much of the border is wide open. Probably a good thing (IMO), since I can only imagine that people would find ways across or around, no matter what the "barrier" situation was. Plus, no matter what one's thoughts are about immigration, I'm sure we can all think of better ways to spend money than building an "impenetrable" wall. (heck, even "impenetrable" castles eventually were breached).

      And yep, I'm sure there are dangerous places as well. That's a bummer. While likely not cartel-related, a canyon in Death Valley that I've been trying to get into for a few years has been closed by the NPS due to a grow operation and the inherent danger in being "in the wrong place at the wrong time," should a visitor and grower end up there together.

      Glad you're enjoying! I always look forward to your reactions and stories! 👍

  5. Skyhiker
    Skyhiker April 30, 2024

    Likely you're already done with the adventure, but, if you're still on the road, I really liked the Navajo taco at the Cameron Trading Post! 😀

    • turbodb
      turbodb April 30, 2024

      Thanks! We are already done (takes some time to process photos and write up the stories), but we did run into a bit of an interesting time in Cameron. And, @mrs.turbodb may have discovered the Navajo Tacos as she searched for somewhere to eat! 😉

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