Butterfield Stage Memorial Proposed Wilderness

Location: Within the Sonoran Desert National Monument
Size: 8,325 acres

The Butterfield Stage Memorial proposed wilderness in located in Maricopa County directly south of the existing North Maricopa Mountains Wilderness inside the Sonoran Desert National Monument. It is approximately 12 miles east of the community of Gila Bend and 22 miles west of Maricopa. The unit’s name comes from the 1858 government contract issued to New Yorker John Butterfield and his Butterfield Overland Mail Company to complete an overland mail route from St. Louis to San Francisco, passing through the southwestern deserts to Fort Yuma. This historic route passes through the existing Sonoran Desert National Monument and forms the northern boundary of the Butterfield Stage Memorial proposed wilderness.

The verdant washes of this unit are lined with thicker stands of palo verde and ironwood trees, which provide ideal habitat for birds and mammals. The unit also is host to high quality desert tortoise and bighorn sheep habitat. Additionally, mule deer, Gambel’s quail, mountain lions, red tail hawks, and numerous species of reptiles can be found within this proposed wilderness.

Wilderness Protection

The Butterfield State Memorial proposed wilderness also features numerous cultural sites such as prehistoric rock shelters and rock rings. With the nearby population of Maricopa projected to reach 150,000, wilderness designation would protect the cultural objects and ecological values of this part of the monument, while still providing public access.

The Butterfield Stage Memorial proposed wilderness would protect iconic Sonoran Desert species like desert tortoise and bighorn sheep — both highly sensitive to habitat disturbance and motorized uses — more fully than leaving the area open for road building and developments that could be proposed on other BLM lands within the monument.

Cultural Significance

Saguaro and desert landscape


The unit contains numerous shell and lithic scatters associated with prehistoric travel between the Santa Cruz and Gila rivers. A 1987 report by the BLM cited more than 4,000 acres of the unit as culturally “sensitive” because of the numerous prehistoric sites found within the Butterfield area. The Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, first used the route in his 1775 expedition to take settlers to the Pacific coast to colonize near the San Francisco Bay area. It is also the route used by the Mormon Battalion in 1846 when they marched from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, California using the route through Butterfield Pass. This 2,000-mile march was the longest in United States history.

The proposed Butterfield Stage Memorial Wilderness does not protect the route itself, but it does protect the scenery and landscape that these expeditions experienced during their travels across the desert. The route provides an excellent experience for motorized users — as it has interpretive signs along its length telling the tale of the Butterfield Stage and it is a relatively easy route — lending itself to family outings and other motorized visitors who prefer to initially experience the desert from the comfort of a vehicle.


The Butterfield Stage Memorial unit offers various levels of hiking from flat walking in the bajadas, to rock scrambling on the peaks and ridges. Backpacking, hunting, photography, bird watching, and sightseeing for botanical and zoological features are all possible primitive and unconfined recreational opportunities within the Butterfield Stage Memorial proposed wilderness. Access to all sides of the unit is extremely easy because roads bound the entire unit, offering visitors a wide array of choices in where to access the unit. Opportunities for backpacking are excellent if trips are combined with the North and South Maricopa Mountains Wildernesses. Overnight camping is available on the area’s western bajada and eastern canyons.

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