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Name: Total Wreck Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating:(based on two user vote)
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (easy 4WD) - May be washed out - see member comments
Time: 3 - 5 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 18.0 miles (one way) Elevation gain/loss/change: +1684 / -2397 ft / -713 ft (one way)
Type: Through trail Avg Elevation: 4600 ft
Best time to go: fall, winter, spring Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Low Educational Merit: Low
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: December, 2011
Short Description: A fun and easy 4WD trail along a gasline road to the Total Wreck town site and mine
Geocaches: Tons of cool geocaches around. Here's just a few. Empire Gulch Geocache; Total Wreck Mine;
References / Contact Information: Empire Ranch; Empire Ranch Roundup; Sonoita; Born Tourist Visit;
Points of interest: Vast landscape and grasslands near Empire Ranch, historic Empire Ranch, Total Wreck mine and town site, some areas great for horseback riding, tons of trails to explore
Special Considerations: Trail is located in illegal immigrant and smuggler high traffic area, see page regarding warning (it's not as bad as it sounds). Lots of old mines in this area, stay away from open mine shafts and be careful of mine tailings. Long wheelbase vehicles will have issues and drag bumpers. Lots of dips.
How to get there: From Tucson, take I-10 to the Sonoita exit (281). Head south on Hwy 83 for 19 miles, then turn left onto Empire Ranch Road. Click here for directions.

Trail Description

February, 2016: Road may be more difficult due to recent washouts. See memeber comments.

This is a super fun, but easy 4WD trail. lt starts by Empire Ranch near Sonoita and the first section takes you through the vast range grasslands of the area. This is a very beautiful section of Arizona. The trail follows a gasline road and there are tons of short (50-100 ft) climbs and descents. Some of these are very steep and can be a little scary for newbies. These are a blast. Many of these also have bypasses that are less steep.

When we went, we only needed to take one bypass. The portion of the trail at the bottom was completely washed out (about a 5 ft deep by 5 ft across) at Waypoint 007a. The first portion of the gasline road is smooth, the last half is rocky and bumpy.

The area around Total Wreck is rocky and bumpy. There's not much (or anything) left of the town site. There are TONS of mines on the hill just west of Total Wreck. We climbed this hill on foot and I've never seen so many shafts and tunnels (vertical and horizontal) within such a small mountain. It was like walking on a hill made of Swiss Cheese. The main remnants of Total Wreck is the rock walls of the old mill (Waypoint 009).

I believe it's possible to make it to Total Wreck coming in Hilton Road from the north in a high clearance 2WD truck.

General Information and History

Not a lot of info on the Total Wreck Mine and Town Site, but here's what I've found so far:

Silver was discovered in the Richmond lode of the Empire mining district in the eastern Empire Mountains in 1879. John L. Dillon, the owner of the claims, named the town site Total Wreck, because he thought that the mine was on a ledge that looked like "a Total Wreck" because it was below a quartzite ledge with large boulders of quartzite strewn all over.

A post office was established on August 12, 1881, and was discontinued on November 1, 1890. The population was around 200 residents in 1883, at which time its structures included five saloons, three general stores, a butcher shop, a shoemaker shop and a half dozen Chinese laundries. By 1884 mines of the area had produced some $500,000 in silver bullion. Mining declined through the 1890s and early 1900s.

I don't know if it's true or not, but legend has it that there was a shooting at the Total Wreck Mine and a man was shot in the chest. He survived due to the large stack of love letters he had in a pocket there which caught the bullet. He was rumored to have married the woman who had written the love letters.

The Empire Ranch (near the trail) was a big part of history in southern Arizona. From the Empire Ranch Foundation Website:

The Empire Ranch was originally established in the 1860's as a ranch of 160 acres with a four-room adobe ranch house and adjoining corral.  Owned by Edward Nye Fish, a Tucson businessman, the ranch was acquired in 1876 by Walter L. Vail, a native of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and Herbert Hislop, an Englishman. 

Over the next 20 years, as a part of the historic expansion of ranching, railroads, mining and other growth in the West, Vail and various partners expanded the original land holdings to include over one million acres.  The ranch house became an extended complex with more than 22-rooms and many related structures, and remained a Vail family enterprise until 1928.

In 1928, the Empire Ranch was purchased by the Boice, Gates and Johnson partnership, successor to the Chiricahua Cattle Co., when their cattle had to be moved from the San Carlos Indian Reservation. The Boices were respected cattlemen known for their promotion of the Hereford breed of cattle in the Southwest. Partner Frank Boice and his family lived on and managed the Empire Ranch, and became sole owners in 1951. During their tenure they also hosted Hollywood production companies for the filming of a number of classic western movies.

In 1969 the lands were sold to Gulf American Corporation for a proposed real estate development, and later resold to Anamax Mining Company for mining and water potential.  None of these developments materialized, however, and to this day the lands and ranch headquarters have  supported only cattle operations.

In the 1980s a groundswell of public support developed to preserve the ranch and its natural resources in their pristine condition.  In 1988 a series of land exchanges put the property into public ownership under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of Interior.  In 2000, the U.S. Congress officially designated these 42,000 acres to be Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

The Empire Ranch Foundation was established as a private non-profit organization in 1997 to work with the BLM to develop private support to preserve the ranch buildings and enhance the educational and recreational opportunities it offers to the general public.

A fun thing to do in November is to attend the annual Empire Ranch Roundup. Click here for more info.

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The Trail

Note: There are numerous roads that crisscross this trail in both directions. I have not mentioned each and every one, but only the main ones. On the gasline road, just keep going straight and you should get there no problem.

You can start this trail from either entry point, north or south. We chose the southern entry point for our trip. From Tucson, head toward Sonoita and turn left onto Empire Ranch Road (Waypoint 0001a). This is a well-graded dirt road and travels through the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

This is a beautiful area of Arizona, with open range grasslands and views as far as you can see. The rolling hills and smooth trails are not difficult, just fun.

After almost 2 miles, turn left onto the gasline road (Waypoint 0001b). The first five or so miles takes you over rolling hills and through sandy washes.

Waypoint 001 is just before one of these beautiful washes. Go straight at the intersection. We walked up the wash for a few hundred yards and found this strange tree. There are huge cottonwoods lining the wash. Very nice.

You will go through another nice wash at Waypoint 002. Keep straight at the intersection of the gasline road and LC902. There were a few trucks (2WD) with horse trailers camped out in this wash when we went through. The areas looked wonderful for horseback riding.

Some of the hills get steep in this section of the trail (all the way to Total Wreck Mine). Many of them have bypasses. We were able to go on the main trail at every one of these except one (at Waypoint 008). Some of the conditions at the bottom of the hill can't be seen from the top, so if you're nervous, take a look or take the bypass. There were no big ruts in these roads when we went, but I can see the capacity for them in the near future. Vehicles with long wheel-bases will drag coming in and out of these dips. The mainly stock 03 Tacoma 4dr that went with us dragged his trailer hitch many times on this trail.

Keep going straight at the intersection at Waypoint 003. This road comes at an angle to the gasline road and it looked more well-traveled than the gasline road. Not sure where it goes. Keep straight at Waypoints 004 and 005.

At Waypoint 006, there's a cattle tank and road off to the left, keep going straight. After about this point on the trail, it becomes rocky and bumpy. Say so long to the nice smooth trail you've been on for the past 8 miles. Keep straight at Waypoint 007.

We had to take the bypass at Waypoint 008. A couple of ATVers saved my butt on this one. We hadn't seen anyone all day and I waited at the top of the hill for them to come up at Waypoint 008. I started down the main trail as I had done for all the others and they waved me down, saying, "The roads washed out, you want to take the bypass."

Not having any issues prior to this, I thought they were being dramatic, but I got out of the Jeep and walked down the hill. You couldn't see the bottom from the top. And they were right. There was a huge washout. Maybe 5 ft deep and 6-10 ft across. They smiled as I walked back up the hill and asked if I was going to try it. I told them not today and I think they were slightly disappointed. They had there video cameras out and were hoping to see an idiot get stuck. Not today fellas!

As you come up to Total Wreck (Waypoint 008a), you'll start to see lots of signs of mining. I believe the small valley just before (south of) Total Wreck Mine is where the town site was, but I haven't verified it and we didn't have time to go looking. I do know there's not much left of the old town site.

As you come up the small saddle to Waypoint 008a, the road forks. The trail on the left is more difficult, with some large rock ledges, the trail on the right is easy. They both come back together just after the saddle. There are a few trails around the area, one of which leads up the hill on the left (the blue line on the map). We walked this hill, not knowing if there was a place to turn around at the top. It's a difficult hill with limited places to turn around at the top, but could be done by a skilled wheeler and a decent vehicle. We saw some ATVs do it. There's not much at the top of the hill, just a bunch of mine openings. This hill is just covered in them. It looked like Swiss Cheese. If you like exploring old mines, this may attract you, but me, being Mr. Cautious, stay out of them and wasn't worth the hiking up the hill.

The best remnants of Total Wreck is the rock wall and foundations at the Mill Site (Waypoint 009). You will bear left after the saddle (straight keeps you on the gasline road which is another, but more difficult, way out). A few hundred yards after this intersection, you'll come to the Mill site on your left (there will be the old car on your right before this).

This is a nice area to stop for lunch and hang out and explore a while. Cat-dog had a great time sniffing around the old Mill site. The trail becomes a lot easier from here on out. People say it can be done in a high clearance 2WD truck. There are many small wash crossings in this area, so the road can be washed out after big storms.

When you're ready, keep going on this trail. At Waypoint 010, keep straight, then take the left at Waypoint 010a. Bear left at the houses at Waypoint 010b. Now you're on a maintained dirt road.

Take a right onto the paved road at Waypoint 011. It's paved just down the long, steep hill, so don't get used to it just yet. It turns dirt again at the bottom of the hill. Just keep going on this road (Hilton Ranch Road) until you reach Highway 83 again (Waypoint 012).

Wasn't that a great trip? Be safe and have fun!

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Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here. You can also rate this adventure by clicking here.

Member Comments

Road Washed Out

February, 2016: Total Wreck is living up to it's name. We ran the trail the same direction as you, from Empire up North. The low wash areas had incredible scenery and nice flowing water with amazing erosion and geological formations. At the same time, they have made the trail pretty hairy too. Sinkholes are everywhere. Some spots on the trail were so narrow that both my driver side tires were in the air at the same time (thought I was going over). Having a full size was difficult, a narrower vehicle would be better suited through these parts. And the hills with the steep climbs and descents are pretty rutted out. I'm thinking that any trail where you need to run half of in 4 Low, locker engaged and lift 2 wheels simultaneously in the air together, is probably deserving of at least a 3 rating in difficulty. Easily comparable to the Chimney Rock back way.

Visited the area in the 1940s

May 20, 2012: I used to drive to the total wreck mine and town from Pantano in my ford model a roadster in the 1940s. the town and mill were pretty intact then, of course  abandoned, already for a  long time. that was only a trace of a road then.      

george harper

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