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

Childs Mountain, Arizona
Start of the road from Highway AZ-85. The dome atop Childs Mountain is visible way in back
Childs Mountain, Arizona
The gate at about 1,700 feet elevation
Childs Mountain, Arizona
Rounding a bend, the summit is visible
Childs Mountain, Arizona
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
Childs Mountain, Arizona
The Cabeza Prieta boundary
Childs Mountain, Arizona
The summit is getting closer
Childs Mountain, Arizona
and closer
Childs Mountain, Arizona
The front building is the older military radar that was abandoned about 1970. In back is the FAA radome
Childs Mountain, Arizona
On the summit ridge. The highest rock (to me) is abutting the fencing near the dome
Childs Mountain, Arizona
Looking north at Snead and Larue summits
Childs Mountain, Arizona
Looking west at the Growler Mountains, Charley Bell Pass, and way in back, the Granite Mountains
Childs Mountain, Arizona
Walking down the road, my truck is barely visible in the bend ahead. Ajo's buildings can also be seen

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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

ArizonaMainAZ P1KPBFAA Radome Site

Childs Mountain rises north of Ajo in southern Arizona. The range is volcanic, with plateau-like hills covered in basalt rocks. 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 end of the ridge, 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 force of about 100 to 200 personnel 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 Luke Air Force Range (later renamed the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range). By the early 1970s, the military abandoned the whole place, leaving the buildings behind. A 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 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, the range highpoint. This dome is controlled remotely so there is no need for anyone to be up there except for the occasional service worker. 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 at the Cabeza Prieta website to see if they had any open dates for driving to the top, but I didn't see any. 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 rolled 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 pleasant.

I was expecting that the road up to the mountain was gated back at highway 85. I planned on a long walk across the desert plain to reach the base of the mountain, but I found the road was open with no barriers. So I drove in as far as possible, about three miles, before encountering a gate. I was 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 goes west across the desert plain, passing the location of the old barracks site about halfway in (nothing remains today). The road was in poor shape, with whole sections rotted back into sand and gravel, and other parts asphalt with potholes bigger than my truck, so I took it slowly. The road bends south and starts up a soft grade uphill, then bends 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 room to pull off and a few 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, indicating it would be a warm day.

The hike is easy, as one might imagine it is to follow a paved road. After the gate, the road was in slightly better shape. And since it was a paved road, it was never steeper than a 7 or 8 percent grade, so I could walk quickly without needing to stop to rest. I followed the road upslope past a low ridge, then it bent south again, now on a plateau with the main ridgeline and all its buildings now visible. I kept a good pace, passed the Cabeza Prieta boundary sign, and passed a copse of palo verde where I could see some water jugs and trash, but no people. This middle section was flat with 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, 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 an old street grid. It's hard to believe a small city once was here.

This website shows images of the FAA dome and the old cantonment, including 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. They did a fine job.

Past the cantonment, the road steepens to meet the base of the main summit ridge, bending south and running in and out of the contours. About halfway up, another road branches off to the north, leading to Larue Benchmark. I stayed straight and soon arrived to the south summit and its giant buildings. The first building was an 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 small buildings were nearby, 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 holding the highpoint. I either encountered fencing or steep slopes covered in cactus. I was able to work up a sketchy slope to gain the top, getting a 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. It had taken me 90 minutes to hike here, a 1,100-foot gain covering 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 looked out west across the desert at the Growler Mountains and miles and miles of open Sonoran Desert. The views were wonderful in all directions, this being a prime viewpoint to take in far-south Arizona.

I now kind-of planned to hike over to Larue summit, so I started down a power-line cut, dropping about 150 feet and coming onto the 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 quick 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, then down that a few hundred paces until I found a 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. My truck was right where I left it. I changed into dry clothes and started it up, then drove out back to highway 85. 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 steer you away from the true summit, which I suspect 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 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, 2021 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.