Dirt Playground: “Willcox Playa” in Southeast Arizona

Odometer (Legend coupe):  549,086


Odometer (Legend sedan):  150,755


Odometer (Integra):  238,331


Odometer (Vigor):  106,387


Odometer (ILX):  188,457


Odometer (NSX):  106,412


Trip Distance:  390 Miles


My maturity level took a deep dive on Saturday when I sat in my driver’s seat and looked out upon a gigantic expanse of perfectly flat land in all directions.  I was unsupervised.  I had a slick-shifting 6-speed transmission at my fingertips.  And my sense of adventure begged me to go have some fun.  So, I hit the Traction Control button to deactivate any kind of traction aid, gripped the steering wheel, and let ‘er rip.  Result?  I haven’t had that much fun driving a car since my autocross adventure in 2009.  Talk about a riot.


My friends Jason and James were there to witness it — encouraging it, even.  The Willcox Playa – some 3.7 square miles of dirt flatlands – is a dry lake bed in Arizona’s Cochise County in the southeast corner of the state.  But for me, it was a playground where I could pretend I was a professional rally driver.  I can only imagine how much more fun the experience might have been in a rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle.  Time to plan another trip back.


This weekend trip started out as an excuse to meet up with one of my road trip partners in crime, Jason Pawela of Driven for Drives.  Jason was crazy enough to join me on the 8,000-mile Alaska trip earlier this year and I hadn’t seen him for about 6 months since.  We decided to plan a lunch meet-up at the exact geographic midpoint between us:  Willcox, Arizona.  The town of 3,700 people lies 194 miles from Phoenix and 195 miles from Las Cruces.  It was absolutely perfect from a logistical perspective.


Joining for this one was another seasoned road-tripper, James Lee of Six Speed Blog, who typically joins our group drives in whatever “flavor of the week” he’s road testing at the time.  This week, it happens to be a saucy red 2017 Toyota Corolla with a host of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) goodies.  Yes, I just used the words “Corolla” and “racing” in the same sentence.  I was surprised, too.  Jason’s car of course was the 2004 Mazda 6, now with 217,000 miles and still as robust as ever, and I was in my 2013 ILX.


It took us about 3 hours to get to Willcox, and we met up with Jason spot-on at our 1:00 predetermined time.  Dining options in a town of 3,000 people are sparse, and I’d already eaten at 2 of the 3 top-rated spots on Trip Advisor.  (See:  Chiricahua National Monument road trip).  Next on the list?  “Grandma D’s Cafe.”  It sounded safe.  And it ended up being one of the most hospitable places I’ve ever dined.



Housed in the historic part of Willcox at the northwest corner of Haskell Avenue and Maley Street, the place appeared to have been there forever.  Luckily we had enough time to eat before the 2:00 p.m. closure (grandma cooks breakfast & lunch only!).  I went with the Cochise Burger, adorned with green chiles, avocado, and an over-easy egg for a little extra protein.


Grandma was nice enough to get a photo with us and I jotted down our blog websites on a notepad for her.  If you’re reading this, thanks for the hospitality and the great food!  Hope to see you again, Gma!


At this point, we did a car-key-swap and I got to drive Jason’s Mazda the few miles toward Willcox Playa.  To get there, we headed west on I-10 about 4 miles, then south on Highway 191 to a dirt road turnoff that we’d scouted out thanks to Google Earth.  The entrance to our playground was right where we thought it would be.  Luckily for us, the dirt was hard packed for the most part — I’m sure if it had rained recently, we wouldn’t have gotten past the gate.  And also luckily for us, we didn’t venture into any dangerous parts of the Playa.  It wasn’t until after our visit that I read online that the U.S. Military uses portions of the area as a bombing range.  Yikes!

It was a memorable journey for us and I hope you enjoyed being a part of it!  Some additional photos and a short video are below.  Don’t mind the circus music 🙂

Fueling up at Picacho Peak, midway between Phoenix and Tucson


Entering Grandma D’s in Willcox


The Cochise Burger at Grandma D’s


Lined up outside the restaurant:  James’ Corolla, Jason’s 6, and my ILX


Park near the railroad tracks


Arriving at the Willcox Playa


Clearly James was having a good time!


Where’d those skid marks come from?


Getting down and dirty.



Wide open spaces, just like that Dixie Chicks song.


It was colder than it looks.  Definitely a breeze in the air!


Headed back to Phoenix near Picacho Peak (at left) on Interstate 10


I’m going to put in a plug here for my friend Darren of “IDrewYourCar.com.”  Darren contacted me after my recent Jalopnik feature offering to do some digital artwork for my garage.  I am thrilled with what he put together for me!  Each of my five “old” Acuras has been drawn up in exact detail and printed in 13×19 size.  Even the colors are spot-on.




A perfect addition to the garage!  Thanks Darren!


Finally, I’m a nerd about anniversaries and last night just happened to be my 5th anniversary with my 1992 Acura NSX.  It was December 17, 2011 when I flew to San Jose, California and picked up the car.  Last night, James and I went over to Tempe Town Lake for a couple of celebratory photos with the Mill Avenue Bridge in the background.


Of course I wore a T-shirt to match the car.  Duh!


It’s been a fun 5 years and 26,000 miles with that one.  Have a great rest of your weekend!

27 Responses to “Dirt Playground: “Willcox Playa” in Southeast Arizona”

  1. Cheers! Happy 5-yearer for the NSX. Drive was tremendous fun. Who knew that Wilcox could offer such an amazing time. Thank you and James for meeting up…perfect wrap for 2016.

    • Agree – was glad to be a part of this drive and the many we’ve taken together prior. Thanks for meeting up with us and let’s keep the wheels spinning into 2017 and beyond.

  2. Hello Tyson. Did you get to drive that red Corolla? Did you know the Corolla is the best selling car in the entire world? I really like the design of the latest generation. It also happens to be extremely reliable.

    • Hi Carlos, I did drive the Corolla. It’s a very fine ride for bring an entry level compact! It even had some technology I was surprised about, like the radar cruise control and a few other electronic gadgets. I didn’t care much for the continuously variable transmission nor the drone on the freeway of the TRD ‘upgraded’ exhaust system, but I can see why people by the Corolla in such large numbers. It’s just an all around ‘friendly” car. Easy to drive, reliable, and a good value for the price.

  3. Tyson, I have been wanting to ask you if you have changed the air bags in your car? The 2013 Acura ILX is on the Takata air bag recall list. http://www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/takatalist.html

    • Hey there, no, I haven’t had the airbags replaced. As far as I know, the parts are not yet available in my area. My car is almost 5 years old so I think if there was an airbag problem with it, I would probably know by now! But I still planning on having it fixed whenever possible.

  4. What a fun adventure!!! What trim level is your acura ilx? I bet your car needs a car wash now, lol!!

    • Yes it does need a bath! The ILX is a 2.4 liter “Premium” trim level. For model year 2013, the only way to get a 6-speed manual transmission was to get Premium. (And you couldn’t get navigation / Tech package). Always odd optioning.

  5. great little drive! How does Willcox compare to the Utah Salt flats?

    • Hey Dave, I actually commented to the other guys on Saturday that the “dirt flats” reminded me a lot of the Salt Flats. The upper layer was crusty and broken but it was a little softer underneath. I would imagine that during rainy times they are mostly mud. The Salt Flats are definitely way bigger and might be less messy to drive on at high speed. I’ve been wanting to get back out to Bonneville one of these days.

  6. Driving on the playa must have been a blast. Some of those action driving sequences looked like they could have been from a car commercial on TV.

    Those drawings are fantastic. Very cool addition to your garage!

    And happy 5 year anniversary with your NSX!

  7. Tyson, just because there has not been a problem with your air bags in five years does not mean they are not defective. My understanding is that you won’t know there is a problem with the airbags until there is an accident and airbags deploy. They will not deploy on their own without an accident. But if they deploy, the defective airbags have caused numerous deaths by projecting broken shrapnel throughout the passenger compartment. There have been 11 deaths and about 180 injuries in the United States alone. I include a link to an article. Please try to fix this as soon as possible. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2016/05/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-takata-air-bag-recall/index.htm

  8. Hi Tyson. Looks like you guys had a great time in Willcox! Did James take the Corolla for a spin on the dry lake? Loving the night images of you with the NSX, the lights & colours make the car pop!

    • Hey Adam, actually James decided not to subject the Corolla to that kind of treatment since it’s a “press car” (loaner for testing) and not his own. Plus, it was brand new! He rolled 1,000 miles on the way back to Phoenix that day.

  9. autoscribe1974 Says:

    Those illustrations are great- perfect for the garagemahal! And congrats on your NSX anniversary, here’s to many more.

  10. Tyson,

    First I want to say I hope you & everyone have a very happy holiday.

    Now that that’s out of the way… what the heck were you guys thinking!?

    You don’t go to a place like Wilcox Playa to do donuts in your own car… that’s what rentals are for. Maybe we could get some guys together and bring my 3 wrecks down to flog them a little? 🤣

    Congrats again on the NSX anniversary. Maybe you can show me where @ Tempe Town Lakes you took the pics?

    • I know, I can’t think of many people who would plan a weekend trip to a place like Willcox. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much. I tend to gravitate toward places that are remote and quirky. I also happened to note that Willcox is home to one of the state’s most impressive track facilities: “INDE Motorsports Ranch.” It would be fun to go back for an event there sometime. I wouldn’t dream of letting you flog any of your vehicles in the manner that I flogged mine. As for the Tempe pictures, they’re along Lake View Drive on the north shore of Tempe Town Lake, accessed via Washington Rd and right underneath the Mill Avenue Bridge. We’ll head out there sometime… how about a photoshoot of the 93SE when it’s back from resto?

  11. Brad Heffran Says:

    Around here this time of year, we get to spin wheels and slide cars sideways a lot! Happy holidays 🙂

  12. Twas a fun day running around in circles like a cat chasing its tail and great to see Jason too! It’s always good to see that guy.

  13. Keyword, nerds. No cool drifting to be found here, turn off yer traction control and get r done boys

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