Puerto Blanco Drive
Note: This is a 5 Star Route, meaning that it is a highly curated, premier riding route.
Riding around the Ajo area (the southwest corner of Arizona) is like an ice cream shop on a hot day; too many awesome flavors to choose from, and they are all just delicious. Puerto Blanco Drive is an excellent choice, a great complement, or even addition to the Ajo Mountain Drive ride in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. More miles of rugged Sonoran Desert that are remote and inspiring. The route also includes old mines, springs, historic sites, and the “new” border wall. The one minor downside is the route finishes up with 4 miles on the Sanorian Highway, which is not our favorite but provides you quick access back to the start.
Undoubtedly one of the most scenic roads in Arizona, the 37 mile Puerto Blanco Drive travels deep into the unspoiled backcountry of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, across cactus plains, and through mountain foothills. [The American Southwest]
Adventure / Gravel Route
– Loop: 42 miles / 1300 ft gain
– Surface: ~ 90% gravel / dirt road, 10% paved
– eBike Friendly: Yes
– Location: ~ 2 hours, 25 minutes west of Tucson, Arizona
– Published: November 2020 (Last Revised: March 2021)
Terrain & Technical Riding Difficulty[what this means]
45% remote 4 wheel drive jeep road with has some rugged spots. 44% hard-pack, fast gravel road with some traffic. 11% paved highway.
While I did seem to have some cell coverage (Verizon) most of the ride, much of that was roaming on Mexico’s Telcel, and I’m not sure how that would play out in an emergency. I recommend bringing some sort of emergency beacon/tracker such as a Garmin InReach or a Spot Device. It’s a pretty remote ride. On that note—this ride is best done with a partner or group if you have that option.
When we like to ride this …
… fall through spring when the temperatures are more moderate.
The town of Ajo is a great place to basecamp for 3 to 5 days of riding in the southwest desert of Arizona. Arts, culture, and riding! What could be better? For more information on where to eat, where to stay, and what to do visit these sites: Ajo – Local First Foundation, Visit Arizona, and the Ajo Chamber of Commerce. Also, a great Instagram feed to follow is VisitAjo.
For help with GPS files, the RideWithGPs mapping app and to learn how to download our routes for free, see the “Using Our Rides” page.
This was my first trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument after 3 years of visiting Southern AZ in the late winter. If you’ve never been, it is 100% worth the trip. I was amazed by how green the area is and blown away by the variety of cacti/flora. This ride, in particular, showcases the entire selection of what the Sonoran Desert has to offer, and I cannot recommend it enough.
With more than 3,500 native plant species, the Sonoran Desert has the most plant life north of the tropics. Some of the common types of plants in the Sonoran Desert include saguaro, cholla, prickly pear cactus, ocotillo, mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde. In such desolate conditions, cacti fruits ensure the abundant wildlife a reliable food source. In contrast, mesquite and palo verde trees provide must-have shade for our feathered, furry, and scaly friends.[Gaia Provides]
Miles 0 to 5 / The Start / Mixed – Paved and Hard-packed gravel
The ride leads out from the visitor center parking on a very short section of pavement before the road turns right, and the gravel begins on a 2 way stretch of road, climbing at a barely noticeable grade.
At the ~ 1 mile mark, the road begins to vary between short sections of gravel over hardpack(with some light washboard sections) and pavement. The terrain becomes more rolling, and the desert scenery becomes greener and lusher. This first section of road from the visitor center is deemed drivable for all vehicles, and I was passed by a few headed in either direction. Red blinky light recommended.
Miles 5-22.5 / North Puerto Blanco Road / Primitive 4 wheel drive road, one-way
When you reach the Pinkley Peak picnic area [~ mile 5], this marks the end of the 2-way road and the beginning of a long gradual descent with a few small climbs mixed in (nothing too steep). The road narrows as you pass through an open gate and a sign stating high clearance vehicles required from this point on. The flora closes in on you; and, the road surface becomes a bit less tame (reminiscent of most of the dirt roads featured in the Ajo Mountain Drive Loop also within the boundaries of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument). It is mostly hardpack dirt with some embedded large and small rock, with some sections of larger loose rock on top of hardpack, some rutting, some smooth red dirt, and some light washboard.
In short, this is a 15+ mile stretch of road with very little consistency regarding road surface. While not super technical, this stretch requires the rider to keep their eyes down and on the road, as things change frequently, and it would be very easy to take a spill or flat while taking in the scenery(which you will want to do) and not focusing on the road in front of you. I don’t say that scare anyone—it is all fun and rideable, but there isn’t a lot of consistency here, and this is where the views really start to vie for your attention. Take breaks along the way to take it all in, as the further into this section you go, the more dramatic the scenery.
Around mile 12.75, there is a small parking area where hikers can access a trail or two. I mention this as a point of demarcation because I found the next few miles to be the most stunning of the entire ride. Here the road hugs close to the base of a few larger rock structures and offers a different experience than the rest of the loop.
Near mile 17, you start another short gradual climb for about 1.5 miles topping out right around another small picnic area and what remains of the Golden Bell Mine—that is to say 2 shafts in the ground with metal grating placed over them. Not necessarily the most interesting aspect of the ride, but interesting nonetheless. This a good place to take a short break. After that, you begin the final part of the descending, which is mainly hardback or loose over hardpack, and with the slight downward trend, you can get going pretty good if that’s your intention. The road conditions these next few miles are some of the most consistent up until this point.
Around mile 20, you come to Bonita Well. This spot houses an abandoned water tower (old school “windmill”) and a cattle corral. After this spot, the immediate scenery becomes less dense and more open, with larger rock formations now in the distance.
About a mile beyond Bonita Well, there is a fenced off area to your right with an antenna tower, some solar panels, and a large propane tank. The next 1/4 to 1/2 mile is the most difficult part of the ride (as of February 2021). The road turns to loose and deep pebble gravel. It doesn’t last long, but it was a workout on 42 mm tires. I walked a few of the worst sections for a total of no more than 2 minutes of walking. Prepare for a short hike-a-bike if needed—it won’t ruin your day.
Mile 22.5-38.5 / South Puerto Blanco Road / Hard-pack gravel
At ~ mile 22.5, the road ends at a T intersection. Here go left and start heading back towards Highway 85. This is the start of South Puerto Blanco Drive, which was previously closed due to “new” border wall construction from 2016 to 2020. From this point on, you are back to 2 way traffic. This intersection also signals that you’re at the lowest elevation of the ride, and it’s time to start gradually heading back up to the visitor center. Luckily, it’s only about 500 feet of gain spread over the next 20 miles—the fastest rolling and smoothest 20 miles of the ride.
As you take a left onto South Puerto Blanco Drive, you will almost immediately notice the border wall. After a few twists and turns, you end up paralleling the wall on your right for about the next 13 miles of dirt road. Keep an eye out to spot a rare Senita Cactus—I found only a few the entire ride, and they were all in the first few miles of this section. The road conditions here are hardpack or loose over hard with some sections of mild washboard, nothing to ruin your day. There is almost always light sand covering the road here, but not at all deep. The road is wide and open, and it’s the first time all day you can take a break from focusing on your line and just pedal your bike and take in the scenery. This 13-mile section is fast rolling and goes by quickly even though you’re gradually ascending.
The Senita looks very similar to the Organ Pipe cactus, but the senita has a dense cluster of spines near the top of mature branches. [Arizona Daily Independent]
At mile 24, there is another intersection. You will eventually want to go left, but take the short detour right to Quitobaquito Springs. “This isolated pond is home to three species that occur naturally nowhere else in the U.S.: the Quitobaquito spring snail, the Sonoyta mud turtle and the desert caper (also known, charmingly, as the vomitbush).”
Miles 38.5-42 / Highway 85 / Paved with traffic
South Puerto Blanco Drive ends at Highway 85, and with it comes the end of the gravel and dirt for the day. Hang a left and hammer down the last 4 or 5 miles back to the visitor center. Not much to say about this stretch. It’s paved and in good condition, slightly ascending, fast rolling. The speed limit is 55 mph, and it does have fairly heavy traffic, with only 6” shoulder. You’ll basically be riding the white line, so make sure your red blinky light is on. I was passed by at least a dozen vehicles on this section, but they all gave me plenty of space.
At mile 42, arrive back at the visitor center parking lot.
Food & Water
I rode the loop on 42mm tires with tubes (GASP!) and pressures around 22psi(I’m 155lbs). Wider tires would be preferred, but this is doable on 40s.
There are some sections with jumping cholla along the gravel roads, so … be careful! And carry a flattened metal fork … the best tool for removing one from your skin.
The following two reviews of Puerto Blanco Driver are worth a few minutes of your time.
For a shorter ride, there are options for out and back routes or point to point. The most remarkable views of the ride are between mile 5 (Pinkley Peak picnic area has parking) and Bonita Well at about mile 20. This would make for a 30 mile out and back if you started at the picnic area(all vehicles are allowed to this point). If you have two vehicles/drivers, there is an area large enough for parking at mile 22.5, where South Puerto Blanco Drive begins(check with Border Patrol to make sure you can park there). You could start from the visitor center or Pinkley Peak picnic area and finish at this parking area. South Puerto Blanco is pretty tame, and most vehicles should not have a problem making the 13-mile drive along the border wall.
About 2/3 of the way into South Puerto Blanco Drive, there is a spur road to your left. Take it, and it’s a 4-mile ride to Senita Basin, a sheltered location at the south edge of the Puerto Blanco Mountains. It is said to be the best place to see the three large cacti species growing together, and there are several hiking trails to access. The out and back will add 8 miles to your day. I’m not sure of the road conditions/elevation changes—though I did see a few regular passenger cars coming and going, so I doubt it’s anything unrideable.
- March 2021 / Promoted to 5 Star. Added “Route Details” section, pictures, Get Involved info and RobertV as author.
- November 2020 / Original Post as Development Route.