The Woolsey Peak Wilderness is a mountainous BLM property located in Maricopa County in the south-west of Arizona. The wilderness is named after the highest peak in the Gila Bend Mountain Range, Woolsey Peak, which towers above the landscape to a height of over three thousand feet. The wilderness is bordered to the east and south by both the Gila River and the extensive BLM lands of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
While the Gila River runs around two of its boundaries, the Woolsey Peak Wilderness itself is an expanse of rocky and arid terrain with sparse vegetation covering its plains, washes, and mountainsides. The harsh desert climate means it's a place for hardened, outback hikers only. For anyone who prefers defined trails for trekking, there are some great historic routes nearby that are well worth pulling your hiking boots on to tackle.
The barren-looking Woolsey Peak Wilderness is not surprisingly a habitat for a multitude of reptiles as well as large mammals like bighorn sheep and javelina that have adapted to survive in the severe environment. It's a place for dispersed tent camping only and while no motorized vehicles are permitted inside the wilderness boundaries, you can take a scenic drive past. During the drive you'll also catch glimpses of the Signal Mountains Wilderness, another BLM managed property, bordering the Woolsey Peak Wilderness to the north. There are lots of interesting places close to the wilderness to explore too including the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site and the unusual Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The nearest town to the Woolsey Peak Wilderness is Gila Bend which is approximately eleven miles to the north-west. From Gila Bend, the wilderness is accessible down the Old US 80 then by following a series of dirt trails. The access roadways are only negotiable in four by fours or sturdy vehicles with high ground clearance. No vehicles, including ATVs and OHVs, are allowed inside the wilderness and all vehicles must be parked at least thirty feet from the boundary signs without causing any obstruction.
If you're heading to the Woolsey Peak Wilderness for a change of scenery after RV camping in the green of the Tonto National Forest, once you're through Phoenix, it'll take you about an hour to get as far as Gila Bend. It's a relatively straight run west along the I 10 then south on the AZ 85 which shouldn't cause you any problems. If you're motoring up from the Coronado National Forest, once you reach Benson on the I 10 westbound, you'll be in for a two and a half hour trip. It's a pleasant scenic drive that will take you through Tucson, the Saguaro National Park and around the border of the Picacho Peak State Park and then right through the heart of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
The closest campground to the Woolsey Peak Wilderness for RVs is at the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. It's a BLM campground that consists of a large dirt surfaced field in a desert setting. The site can be accessed from the I8, just before the town of Piedra, eleven miles along a reasonably maintained roadway. The campground is open all year round and operates on a first-come-first-served basis. It's not highly recommended to pitch up there in mid-summer, as the campground is very open to the elements and temperatures then can be excessive. There is no shade whatsoever.
The campground can accommodate rigs of any size and has eighty campsites for RVs. All the pitches are gravel surfaced. There are no utility hookups of any kind. There are paved areas furnished with grills and picnic tables for communal use but none at the individual campsites. On-site amenities are minimal and amount to no more than a block of vault toilets. There is no water supply at the campground. Generator use is permitted from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. Pets are welcome. The openness of the campground means there are stunning views of the desert sunsets which more than compensates for the lack of facilities.
Hiking in the Woolsey Peak Wilderness means trekking across uncharted terrains covered with creosote bushes and the odd cactus or two. It's real cross-country trekking for which you need to set out fully prepared with sufficient provisions and be ready to scramble over rocks in places.
If you've chosen to pitch camp at the campground in the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, you won't be short of hikes to choose from. From the campground, you can join a section of the Juan Batista de Anza National Historic Trail, the Battalion Mormon Trail, and the old Butterfield Overland Stage Route.
Serious peakbaggers will want to add Woolsey Peak to their list of achievements. While you won't need any specific specialist equipment to reach the summit, you will need some serious stamina. Any attempt at climbing up Woolsey Peak is best left until the cooler months as temperatures in summer in the wilderness can top more than one hundred degrees.
The ascent is a combination of hard hiking and class III scrambling over basalt slopes which are covered in cactus and boulders in places. The reward at the domed summit, apart from another conquered peak to add to your list, is impressive views of the lower foothills of the Gila Bend Mountain Range and the Sonoran Desert.
With the Gila River running around the Woolsey Peak Wilderness, you'll find there's no shortage of good fishing opportunities when you visit there. While the river does vary greatly in width along its length, there are good spots to be found north of Gila Bend on the south bank.
Many anglers also head to the Gila Bend Canal which runs off from the river ten minutes out of town along the Old US 80 northbound. Expect to hook some decent-sized catfish, bass, crappie, and sunfish.
Discover the amazing artwork of the desert's ancient inhabitants at the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. The site is a BLM managed property located to the south-west of the Woolsey Peak Wilderness and about eighteen miles from Gila Bend. The site contains numerous examples of petroglyphs etched on rocks scattered over an extensive area. There is an interpretive trail winding around the area with informative signs to help visitors appreciate and understand the different examples of designs they'll find there.
Trekking through the Woolsey Peak Wilderness isn't for everyone, but you can still get a good look at these rugged BLM lands without leaving your vehicle. Motor down the AZ 85 from north to south and it'll take you alongside the Gila River on the eastern side of the wilderness. Look over to the east and you'll also be able to see the North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness.
Join the westbound I 8 in Gila Bend and you'll be passing by the southern border of the wilderness from where you will see Woolsey Peak rising in the not-too-far-away distance.
Gila Bend and the surrounding area is rich in history. Find out more about the Native Americans who lived by the river as well as the mining and farming communities that sprang up around the town by visiting the Gila Bend Visitor Center & Museum.
The center provides informative brochures and maps while in the museum there are more than two thousand artifacts to browse. The museum is open seven days of the week, though times vary, so check before you go.