Many travelers know Ajo as a rest stop en route to Southern Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, but there’s plenty to see in and around town, too, from a thriving slice of the Sonoran Desert to extensive human history. The Ajo Scenic Loop, a point of pride for the community, offers both of these attractions, and in good weather, you can tackle the 10.7-mile route in just about any vehicle.
Reset your trip odometer at the Ajo Plaza, which was built in 1916 in the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style. Head north a short distance on State Route 85 before turning left onto Rocalla Avenue, which offers a view of rocky buttes straight ahead. Past some homes that date to the early days of mining in Ajo, the road climbs, curves to the left and becomes Alley Road. The pavement then ends, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by tall saguaros, ocotillos and a few organ pipe cactuses (Stenocereus thurberi), which are found only in this part of Arizona and in Mexico.
Next, the road winds into and out of a few washes before cresting a hill at Mile 2.6, where Ajo Peak and North Ajo Peak become visible straight ahead. As the road continues south, you’ll get a view of distant mountain ranges to the southeast before traversing some more washes, where seasonal water flow has nurtured a group of tall saguaros and pristine organ pipes for centuries. And once the loop curves to the east, you’ll start approaching Black Mountain, which tops out at 2,969 feet.
Around Mile 4.5, keep an eye out on the right for Locomotive Rock, a small formation that resembles a steam engine and is a popular destination for mountain bikers. Soon after that, you’ll get your initial view of the New Cornelia Mine, the first open-pit mining operation in Arizona. Smaller-scale operations began at the site in the early 1900s, and by one estimate, the mine produced more than 3 million tons of copper, along with smaller amounts of molybdenum, gold, silver and other minerals, before shutting down in the mid-1980s due to low copper prices. But if economic conditions change, the mine could become active again someday.
Remnants of mining activity are visible for the rest of the drive, and from here, the tall cactuses begin to recede from the roadway. Large ocotillos take their place, and Black Mountain looms over the road until Mile 6.2, when you’ll reach a “T” intersection. Turn left to stay on the scenic loop and skirt the southeast edge of the mine site. Here, the saguaros return, and to the northeast, you’ll see the Batamote Mountains, a small range that resulted from an ancient volcanic upwelling. It’s known for its populations of bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.
By Mile 8.1, you’ll be back at SR 85 and turn left to make the quick drive back to Ajo. But there’s one more thing to see: At Mile 9.1, look for a historical marker atop a hill on the right side of the road. This marks the former site of Rowood, which once was one of four small towns clustered around the New Cornelia Mine. Only Ajo survives today, and its buildings tell the story of a community that was built around copper and now is enjoying a second life focused on the arts. Once you complete the loop, take a stroll through more of Ajo’s history, which includes two 1920s churches adjacent to the plaza and the nearby Curley School, built in 1919 and now used as artist housing. There’s a lot to explore. Much more, in fact, than you’re likely to find at the average rest stop.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 10.7-mile loop
Directions: From the Ajo Plaza, go north on State Route 85 for 0.1 miles to Rocalla Avenue. Turn left (west) onto Rocalla Avenue, which turns into Alley Road, and continue 6.1 miles to a “T” intersection. Turn left to stay on the scenic loop and continue 1.9 miles to SR 85. Turn left onto SR 85 and continue 2.6 miles back to the Ajo Plaza.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle, such as an SUV or truck, is recommended, but the route is passable in most vehicles in good weather. It crosses several washes, so do not attempt the drive after recent rain or if rain is in the forecast.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Ajo Chamber of Commerce, 520-387-7742 or ajochamber.com