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Agua Caliente Scenic Drive

Gillespie dam
Gillespie dam
will sanders

This is a part of Arizona I haven’t done much exploring in yet. Basically this is the old highway 80 that ran from Buckeye to Gila Bend. As usual I discovered parts of it by accident. First off my directions were to head out west on I-10 to Buckeye and then go through Arlington except I missed the turn to Arlington and almost drove all the way down Highway 85 to Gila Bend. U-turn time. My navigator got on her smart phone and directed me to Patterson road which is just south of the Prison. Imagine our surprise when we drove up to an old bridge across the Gila River and just upstream was an old concrete dam. More surprising was water was in the river! This turned out to be the Gillespie Dam and bridge which are registered Arizona Historic places. The dam was built by a local rancher back around 1921 as an irrigation project. About that time the highway department wanted an all weather road between Buckeye and Gila bend (Highway 85 wasn’t built yet). This road was but people had to ford the Gila River here and that could be difficult whenever it rained or flooded. The dam was meant to just let flood waters flow over the top. So they built this steel bridge. It was the longest steel span bridge in Arizona at the time. Then highway 85 came along so this road wasn’t all that important any longer. Then in 1993 they had a 65 year flood which washed out the center of the dam. The bridge survived and got renovated and in 2012 they put some information signs up which told the story of the dam and the road. However the visitors overlook is sadly lacking these signs today. This web site has the information:

Okay, back to the scenic drive. A bit further down the road past the bridge you will come to a dairy farm where you need to take a sharp left turn onto Agua Caliente road. There is even a road sign so you can’t miss it. This is a well maintained gravel road. I don’t know why because there is nothing out here. The road makes a bunch of zigs and zags for no apparent reason since this is pretty much flat level country nestled in between some mountains to the north and south. Palo Verde Nuclear plant is just to the north and a new power line is being constructed parallel to an existing one that heads southwest. There are numerous sandy washes you cross. They have nice riparian systems following their courses that have mesquite, palo verde, and ironwood trees growing along the banks.

Further down the road there are some jeep trails that head into the hills. This is range land and some cows make a living out here. There are scattered saguaros and plenty of creosote bush and some short dried up grass. What is noteworthy is the lack of jumping cactus. My theory is this particular country was never overgrazed to the point of killing off all the native vegetation. That’s when those nasty jumping cactus forests take over. The road climbs through a low pass and goes through a lava field that I thought would be impressive from what I’ve read about it. It wasn’t. So much for being the largest lava flow in Arizona. We took a couple short excursions off the road. One was real interesting as it took us down through a dry wash and through a narrow gap between the cliffs. Just enough room for the green monster to squeeze through.

Further down the road we found the turn off to Sundad. It is marked by a bunch of rocks laid in decorative shapes by the roadside. Sundad is a couple miles down a jeep trail which fourwheel drive might come in handy. There are a few old abandoned mines out here and some small concrete slabs that were probably building foundations. A concrete water cistern is up on the hill. What makes the place interesting is whoever lived out here spent plenty of time and effort constructing elaborate rock lined designs all over the place. There are stars and crosses and circles, etc.. Some have broken glass as centerpieces. The glass is slowly turning blue under the sun’s glaze. Sundad isn’t a mine ghost town. It was either a failed resort for sun worshippers or a TB sanatorium. The mountain to the south east is Face mountain. The face is looking straight up so the nose is the mountain top.

We continued down the road and passed a road sign for the turn off to Hyder. Hyder is another ghost town. We didn’t go there. This was one of the training centers for soldiers getting ready for desert combat during WWll.

Agua Caliente is another old town in the area. We didn’t go there either because we got lost. I guess we were supposed to turn south onto one of the signed streets that headed south. We stayed on the main road instead which turned into dirt tracks between fields. Agua Caliente used to have a great hot spring that people flocked to. Then the water stopped flowing and the town dried up. Apparently there is still a resort hotel there but it isn’t open. Farmers have been sucking mega gallons of irrigation water out of the ground here which probably is why the hot springs dried up. While we were getting lost we drove by some of these farms. The first one was a dirt farm. There were miles of fine dirt fields all dried out and waiting for some wind to take it to Phoenix. Deserted fields and irrigation pumps are all over the place. Some large fields are still being cultivated and irrigated with well water. I’m thinking the aquifers are getting sucked lower and lower so all those abandoned fields can’t get water any longer. We passed a huge jojoba plantation. Irrigated jojoba grows into big trees. Impressive. There were also big palm tree plantations. Dates? We traveled down some more dirt roads past alfalfa and grain fields and eventual found the old Butterfield Stage Road. That took us to a signed cross road junction. We turned south and came out to Interstate 8. This left us 27 miles west of Gila Bend and out of time to visit Painted Red Rock Reservoir and petroglyph site. Next time. We passed by an impressive solar panel field west of Gila Bend. The array stretched a couple miles maybe. This place uses mirrors that track the sun and concentrate the rays to heat up something (salt solution?) and the heat is used to produce electricity.

All in all, an interesting trip.

Will was here 4/1/14

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