Childs Mountain • Highpoint: Childs Mountains
• Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range
• Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge
• Pima County


Start of the road from Highway AZ-85. The dome atop Childs Mountain is visible way in back
 

The gate at about 1,700 feet elevation
 

Rounding a bend, the summit is visible
 

The "middle flat area" where the old military cantonment was located. I think it was actually ahead, where the road goes up then bends right
 

The Cabeza Prieta boundary
 

The summit is getting closer
 

and closer
 

The front building is the older military radar that was abandoned about 1970. In back is the FAA radome
 

On the summit ridge. The highest rock (to me) is abutting the fencing near the dome
 

Looking north at Snead and Larue summits
 

Looking west at the Growler Mountains, Charley Bell Pass, and way in back, the Granite Mountains
 

Walking down the road, my truck is barely visible in the bend ahead. Ajo's buildings can also be seen
 

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Arizona's
Prominence Peaks

 

Date: November 8, 2014 • Elevation: 2,880 feet • Prominence: 1,240 feet • Distance: 8 miles • Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes • Gain: 1,200 feet • Conditions: Sunny and warm

Childs Mountain is a sprawling range located north of Ajo in southern Arizona. The range is mostly the result of ancient magma flows, resulting in plateau-like hills with more breadth than height. The principal ridgeline forms the western edge of the range and features three highpoints: the range highpoint at about 2,880 feet on the south, a point named Larue Benchmark about a mile and a half to the north with an elevation of 2,829 feet, and another point called Snead Benchmark about a mile farther north, elevation 2,846 feet.

The mountain was taken over by the military back in the 1950s, and radar systems designed to warn against Soviet attacks were built, but never used. The military maintained a working force of about 100 to 200 men at any one time on Childs Mountain during most of the 1960s, as part of the ongoing military operations in the area. Some radar installations were used for other means, the mountain being part of the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. By the early 1970s, the military abandoned the whole place, leaving the buildings behind. A narrow paved road starts from state route AZ-85 and runs about seven miles to the top. The road is paved but not maintained, so it is slowly deteriorating back into gravel and sand.

Many years later, in 2000, a newer FAA "ARSR-4" (Air Route Surveillance Radar) radar dome was built on the southernmost summit. This dome is controlled remotely so there is no need for there to be anyone up there at all times, if ever. The range lies entirely within the Goldwater Air Force Range, and the ridgeline with the summits lies within the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. In recent years, access has been controlled by the Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversee the Cabeza Prieta. In the cooler months, they will open a gate and allow people to drive the roads to the top. They do this about once a month, and usually time it so that people can view the sunset from atop the ridge.

A couple weeks ago, I looked over the Cabeza Prieta website to see if they had any open dates for driving to the top, but I didn't see any. Actually, I am not interested in driving to the top, but if this was the only way I could get to the top, I would have no choice. Anyway, I emailed some people asking if hiking the road was allowed, fully expecting to be told no. Instead, they directed me to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Ajo, and I was told that yes, with a permit, hiking the road is allowed. This is apparently a new development, and I was also told that soon, they will install a kiosk at the gate for hikers to sign in. I was pleased, and decided to take advantage of this opportunity as soon as possible.

I scored my Cabeza Prieta-Barry Goldwater permit at the Phoenix BLM offices during the week, and set aside Saturday the 7th to hike the peak. I left home at 4:30 a.m. and was rolling into the general area by 7 a.m., just as the sun was coming up. The day was clear and not too chilly. In fact, the temperatures would reach 90 in some places this afternoon, warm for November. But for now, it was very nice.

I was expecting that the road up to the mountain was gated at highway 85. I had planned on a long walk across the desert plain to reach the base of the mountain, but I found that the road was open and no barriers whatsoever. So I drove in and decided to drive in as far as possible. I was actually a little bummed that I could drive in this far, since I really was psyched for a long walk, but at the same time, if I could cut off a few miles of flat desert trekking, I'd be a fool not to.

From the highway, the road runs west across the desert plain, passing the location of the old barracks site about halfway in (nothing remains today). The road was in pretty bad shape, with whole sections sand and gravel, and other parts still with asphalt, but with potholes bigger than my truck, so I took it slowly. The road then bends south and starts up a soft grade, then makes a long bend north again, now at the base of the first steep slope of the range. The road is gated here, about 1,700 feet elevation. I parked about 200 feet below the gate, alongside the road where I had some room to pull off and some palo verdes to keep my truck somewhat out of sight. I got my stuff together, locked everything up and started the hike at 7:15 a.m. By now, the sun was just breaching the eastern horizon, and while it was still cool, I could feel the thermal effect of the sun, so it was definitely going to be a warm day.

The hike is very easy, as one might imagine it is to follow a paved road. After the gate, the road was in generally better shape. And since it was a paved road, it was never steeper than 7 or 8 percent, so I could walk quickly without needing to stop. I followed the road as it gained up this slope, then it bent south again, now on a plateau-like bench, with the main ridgeline and all its buildings now visible. I kept a good pace, passed the Cabeza Prieta boundary, passed a large copse of palo verde trees where I could see some water jugs and trash, but no people. This middle section was flat with some slight downhills.

This middle section was the site of the "cantonment" servicing the small population that was stationed here. This is where all the administrative buildings, some dormitories, a post exchange, a gymnasium and even a swimming pool (!) were located. All such traces of these buildings have been removed, even the concrete slabs. The only hint that something used to be here is when looking down from higher up, you'll see lesser vegetation and some "lines" suggesting old streets. It's hard to believe a small city once stood here, but one actually did.

This website shows images of the FAA dome and the old cantonment, including some grainy black-and-white images of the buildings. It is fascinating to consider how active this area once was. Honorable mention should be given to those who had to tear it all down and return it to nature, so to speak. They did a fine job.

The road then steepens to meet the base of the main summit ridge, then bends south again and runs in and out of the contours. About halfway up, another road branches off to the north, leading to the middle summit, Larue Benchmark. I stayed straight and in short order, had arrived onto the south summit and its giant buildings. The first building looked like the old Air Force installation that was abandoned so many years ago. It was falling apart, doors off hinges, spray painted and vandalized. The newer FAA dome was ahead, enclosed by hefty fencing. Other smaller buildings were everywhere, with generators buzzing and the big FAA dome making its own humming noise.

It wasn't exactly the easiest thing to get past the buildings and onto the ridge of rock holding the highpoint. I either encountered fencing or very steep slopes. I finally walked past the buildings and was able to work up the slope to gain the top, getting a damn cholla ball stuck to my leg in the process. The highest point, to me, was a rock abutting the fence near the big dome, but a few other spots looked like contenders, so I tagged them all. I also took a few photographs. It had taken me 90 minutes to hike here, figuring about 1,100 feet of gain and about four miles.

I looked north at the other two summits, Larue and Snead. Larue is clearly lower, while Snead looked like it could be close, but going by the maps, Snead is about 20 feet lower than where I was. I really did not feel like hiking all the way to tag Snead's summit. I looked out west across the desert at the Growler Mountains and miles and miles of open Sonoran Desert. The views were wonderful. I never really stopped up here. I planned to hike over to Larue, so I started down an old road cut and some power-line cuts, dropping about 150 feet and coming onto that road that leads to Larue. I turned left and took about three steps. Do I really want to do this? I looked at my map and saw it was not a quicky walk, but a good mile and a half, for a peak that was not of particular interest to me.

I decided I had got what I came for. Thus, I descended back to the main road, the down that a few hundred paces until I found a nice shady spot on the road to sit and enjoy a break. I looked east and all the ranges that way -- Sauceda, Batamote, Pozo Redondo, and those surrounding Ajo the town. I could see the spire of Kino Peak way off to the south, and the rounded hump of Woolsey Peak north by Gila Bend.

The hike out went well, and I was back to my truck at 9:50 a.m., a 2-hour, 35 minute journey. I had put in eight miles and was feeling beat, but good. These were some of the easiest eight miles I have ever hiked, but I was happy for the good workout and a chance to be a mere molecule in the desert for a couple hours again. I never saw a soul, and I don't think anyone ever drove up the road. My truck was right where I left it. I changed into dry clothes and started it up, then drove out back to highway 85. Going by my odometer, the gate is just a shade under 3 miles from the highway. I was happy I didn't have to hike those extra six miles, out and back, although I would have had I no choice otherwise.

I decided to head directly home, going back to Gila Bend first and having a breakfast at the Space Age Restaurant. That's my regular stop when coming home via Gila Bend from a hike. Once filled with delicious cholesterol and saturated fats, I drove back to Scottsdale, home by 1 p.m.

So later that day, I got onto the web and did a little searching for Childs Mountain, finding a few blog sites by people who had driven up for the sunset. I quickly determined that they all drive to the Larue summit. The Cabeza Prieta people have apparently added a few informative signs and a parking area. So that means that if you drive up, they shunt you away from the true summit, which I am sure most people don't mind.

This got me thinking: I had inquired to the Cabeza Prieta people about hiking to "the summit", and I assume (after the fact) they figured I meant the one where they allow cars to go, not to the one with the FAA dome on it. I was unaware of this distinction beforehand, so I never clarified what I meant. I had said "summit", and to me, that's the highpoint. Did I go where I was not allowed?

Well, there are no signs or gates or any barriers up there that would suggest for people to stay away from the true summit. The FAA dome has substantial fencing and the usual wording about tampering with the facilities. There were some "no trespassing" signs on the fencing, which to me meant to stay out of the fenced areas. But nothing up there said to stay away from the whole area. I have no interest with tampering with FAA domes anyway. All I wanted to do was tag the highpoint. I am sure most people in my situation feel the same. I am not exactly sure how I could "tamper" with a 10-story FAA dome building anyway, even if I wanted to.

All that being said, I am sure that once they have the sign-in kiosk at the gate, that some people will hike to the true highpoint, and if so, be a good citizen and leave no trace of your presence, and for heaven's sake, don't tamper with the FAA dome.

(c) 2014 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.