Corbitt's National Parks
      Sonoran Desert
                National Monument


2001: National Monument

Size: 496,337 acres

2008 visitors: ?

Stamp: ?

Rating (1-5):

About the Site

Sonoran Desert National Monument contains an abundance of cultural resources, including evidence of ancient villages, campsites, rock art, and artifacts of the prehistoric Hohokam and other native peoples. In addition, there are trails that extend back in time hundreds or even thousands of years used by local peoples to collect salt and shells from the Gulf of California.

The Sonoran Desert National Monument was designated by Presidential Proclamation on January 17, 2001 to protect a “magnificent example of untrammeled Sonoran Desert landscape.” Significant natural and cultural resources are protected in the monument, including three wilderness areas, abundant saguaro cactus forests, rock art and prehistoric sites, the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and other historic trails, and a wide variety of native wildlife.

This National Monument is the most biologically diverse of the North American deserts, and the monument captures a significant portion of that diversity. The most striking aspect of the plant community within the monument is the extensive saguaro cactus forest. The monument contains three distinct mountain ranges, the Maricopa, Sand Tank and Table Top Mountains, as well as the Booth and White Hills, all separated by wide valleys. The monument also contains three Congressionally designated wilderness areas and many significant archaeological and historic sites, and remnants of several important historic trails.

The Butterfield Stage came through here, way back in the 1850's. This was on the Overland Mail stagecoach route, which only ran from 1858 to the beginning of the Civil War. The Butterfield line also ran through Fort Bowie National Monument in southern Arizona. Butterfield got a government contract to deliver the U.S. Mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. The 2,800 mile journey lasted about 25 days, and went through some of the least inhabited areas of the West. The picture over to the side shows a pit dug to hold water. Barrels of water would be hauled in from Gila Bend to fill this depression, because there are no springs in the mountains and the horses would be thirsty once they'd pulled the coach through the pass.

What You're Going to See

Like other BLM-managed sites, the Sonoran Desert National Monument has no facilities and no central attraction; its purpose is mainly to protect the historic sites, native habitats, vegetation and wildlife, rather than attract visitors. There's plenty of back-country hiking available, but again, make sure you bring plenty of water and travel with someone. Four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearances are recommended (by the BLM and by me).

Personal Observations

I grew up in the Sonoran Desert (okay, in a city surrounded by the desert), so what I saw here was nothing new. That's why I give it only one subbie. I was desperately looking for something good to say about it, but I come up short. Well, there are saguaros aplenty. Not much else. To be fair, I was driving through and didn't stop to smell the creosote, didn't look for birds, and it was the middle of a summer day, so the animals were hiding. Nevertheless, one subbie.

I drove through the Monument starting in Gila Bend. There's one paved road that bisects Sonoran Desert, and that's the one I took. Starting on Gila Bend's main drag, go east past the turnoff for I-8, and continue as if you're going to take Highway 85 north to I-10. But don't turn north! Just outside of town, look for a little road to the right, where you can still see the railroad tracks. That road is highway 238, and it goes all the way through the Monument to the community of Mobile. Although the new map I purchased especially for this trip shows that Highway 238 is dirt in places, that's not true. It's a well-paved two-lane highway the entire distance.

If you have a four-wheel vehicle with high clearance, and not driving a Suburban like I was, I recommend taking the trail that leads to the Butterfield Stage Stop. xxx miles out of Gila Bend, look for a turnoff on your left. You'll see a BLM sign and a box with brochures. The first part of the trail is an easy drive, but the part that goes through Butterfield Pass takes an hour of slow driving. It's somewhat scenic, though. After the pass, xx miles from Gila Bend, stop at the kiosk and learn about the Mormon Battalion. After getting back in your car, take the south (right) trail to return to Highway 238. This byway is a dirt-road trip of 12 miles, and it took me about 90 minutes. Continue on east to Maricopa, from where you may go north to Phoenix, south to I-8, or southeast to Casa Grande.

Getting There

The Sonoran Desert National Monument is in south central Arizona, 60 miles from Phoenix. Interstate 8 provides some access at the Vekol interchange (Exit 144) and the Freeman Interchange (Exit 140). State Highway 238 and the Maricopa Road afford access to the North Maricopa Mountains and the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. Exit 119 (Gila Bend) will take you to the road I described above.

Nearby Attractions

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is about 60 miles to the southwest. Ironwood Forest National Monument is only about 35 miles to the southeast, and Saguaro National Park is only ten or twenty miles beyond that. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is about 50 miles due east, south of Phoenix. Hohokam Pima National Monument is in the general neighborhood, but since it's closed to visitors, it's exact location remains a mystery to me.