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  • Wheeling and Hiking in Southern Arizona's Cochise Stronghold, Coronado National Forest

Wheeling and Hiking in Southern Arizona's Cochise Stronghold, Coronado National Forest

Mark Quasius
Oct 31, 2013
Many of those old western movies included scenes with Apache Indians waiting to ambush the cavalry or unsuspecting stagecoach travelers. These scenes were from southern Arizona, which was the turf of Cochise and Geronimo and featured a rugged, dry landscape populated with cacti and very little water. Well, times have changed, but the scenery has not. You can still get out there and explore the rugged majesty of that terrain. It’s just that you won’t need the cavalry for protection and you can stay at some nicely appointed RV parks.
Southern Arizona offers much to see and do and is a popular venue for RV travelers. Summer temperatures can get high, although the humidity is quite low, so most RVers visit in the cooler winter months when the warm weather of this area is a welcome respite from the colder northern states. An ideal area to stay when visiting this area is Benson, Arizona. Benson offers a number of nearby RV parks and has a full range of services in town to handle any RVer’s needs.
Photo 2/17   |   Cochise Stronghold Sign
Cochise Stronghold
The Apache tribes covered a wide area, but the Chiricahua Apache were located south of Benson. The heart of their land was the Cochise Stronghold on the east side of the Dragoon Mountains. The stronghold contained a number of locations for their base camp and offered a protective hiding place where Cochise’s tribe could spot approaching visitors at a distance. It also afforded excellent protection and cover should they wish to avoid any visitors or from which to base an ambush. The location was important because it contained a spring and stream for their all-important water supply. Various camps were set up along the length of the stream.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service maintains a picnic and camping site in the stronghold. Numerous hiking trails take you through the valley so be sure to bring good hiking boots. The roads are good so you won’t need four-wheel drive or an SUV to access the site. Access is gained by taking Interstate 10 and then exiting 318 and heading through the small town of Dragoon. Follow Dragon Road east until it meets Cochise Stronghold Road. Follow that road south to the graveled Ironwood Road, which will take you west into the stronghold. The Forest Service campground and picnic area are at the end of the road. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water because it does get hot when hiking in the stronghold.
Dragoon Springs
Dragoon Springs is located on the west side of the Dragoon Mountains. The springs were a source of water for the Apache as well as for the nearby Butterfield Stage Station. The Butterfield Stage ran from San Antonio, Texas, to San Diego, California, and was established in 1857 when the need for an overland mail route that serviced the west was realized. The route traversed the southern portion of the country, passing through El Paso and Yuma over some of the most grueling mountain and desert terrain possible. It took 22 days to cover the distance and 139 relay stations were placed along the route to service the 1,800 livestock and 250 coaches owned by John Butterfield. The stage ran until 1861, when the Civil War and increased hostilities with the Apaches relocated the route through Utah to the north.
One relay station was located at the mouth of Jordan Canyon, just west of the Dragoon Mountains. A 45-foot by 55-foot structure was built with a corral at one end and two 9-foot by 10-foot rooms at the other end. The stage station was not without trouble. In 1857, a fight broke out amongst construction workers and three men were killed. In 1862, four Confederate soldiers died in a battle with Apaches, and later that year two U.S. Army soldiers were killed in a similar altercation. The graves of several of these men remain to this day.
Water for the stage station was provided via wagon from the head of Dragoon Springs. The springs and the stage station along the way can be accessed via a Jeep trail that leads from the town of Dragoon. From Dragoon, we headed south on the graveled Old Ranch Road until it turned to dirt. We then followed the signs and continued south on the Jeep road toward the springs. The road ends at the springs, but a trail will let you hike the last bit to the source. The Butterfield Stage Station is located about a mile from the end. A small parking area to the side of the trail will lead you up the short hiking trail to the stage station.
Photo 9/17   |   Dragoon Springs Station Sign
Fort Bowie
Fort Bowie was originally established in 1862 as a result of a series of engagements between the U.S. Army and the Chiricahua Apaches and was situated to protect the important source of water at Apache Pass. The original temporary fort was small and was replaced in 1868 by a larger more permanent fort on a plateau 300 yards to the south. While relations between the white settlers and Chiricahua Apaches were originally quite good, that changed in 1861 when another band of Apaches raided the ranch of John Ward and made off with captives. The Army intervened and mistakenly blamed Cochise and the Chiricahuas for the raid and demanded that Cochise return the captives. Lt. George Bascom and a detachment of 54 men went to Apache Pass to confront Cochise and demand the return of the captives. Cochise denied making the raid and even offered to help find the hostages, but Bascom decided to hold Cochise and some relatives captive instead. Cochise escaped and some of his family members were killed. This set the stage for the future conflicts between the U.S. Army and the Apaches for years to come, culminating in the capture of Geronimo in 1886. Geronimo and his followers were held at Fort Bowie for a while until their eventual banishment to Florida.
The fort’s buildings were constructed with adobe exterior walls with wooden porches, roofs, and interior walls. The thick adobe walls kept the buildings cool during the hot summer days and warm at night. When the fort was abandoned in 1894, local ranchers pilfered the wood for use in their own structures. What remains today is an extensive collection of adobe walls that mark where the various buildings were. Fort Bowie was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1960. A visitor center and museum serve as the park’s headquarters.
Access to Fort Bowie is gained by passenger car and a short 1.5-mile hike. From Willcox, Arizona, take Highway 186 south for 20 miles to the Fort Bowie turnoff then head east on the gravel road another eight miles to the parking area. The trail passes numerous interesting features along the way to Fort Bowie. The remains of an old Butterfield Stage Station, Apache Spring, Siphon Canyon, Bascom’s Camp, and the fort cemetery are all located along the trail. Be sure to bring plenty of water on the hike, although you can refill your water containers at the visitor center. Toilets are located at the parking area and at the visitor center.
Other Destinations
Benson is also located in a convenient location to explore other areas. Tombstone, “The town too tough to die,” is located 24 miles to the south. You can walk the streets where Wyatt Earp roamed, visit the Bird Cage Saloon, or go check out the OK Corral where the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against the Clanton gang in the famous shootout. The old county courthouse is now an excellent museum showcasing the mining life and history of Tombstone. Daily gunfights are still common, although slinging lead has now been replaced with blanks.
Continuing on to the south another 23 miles brings you to Bisbee, Arizona. Bisbee is a mining town known for copper. The huge Lavender Pit Mine is an open pit mine just south of town. The Copper Queen Mine is dug into the side of a mountain. Visitors to the mines can enter on the same electric shuttle trains that miners used to access the mine. The historical Copper Queen Hotel is located downtown, across the plaza from the mining museum. Built in 1902 by the Copper Queen Mining Company, it served up the good life for politicians, mining officials, or visitors. Teddy Roosevelt stayed there during his time with the Rough Riders. The Copper Mines held out much longer than Tombstone’s silver mines to the north but eventually ceased production around 1975 after producing more than 8 billion pounds of copper.
Regardless of your tastes, you’re bound to find tons of history, scenic wonders, and a warm climate in Cochise Country. One interesting fact we learned is that the Apaches originated in Alaska and made their way down to this part of the country. Apparently they knew a good thing when they saw it.
Photo 16/17   |   Bisbee is a short drive from Benson and a popular tourist destination. Built around mining, visitors can take a shuttle train into the Copper Queen Mine.
Photo 17/17   |   Tombstone is a popular nearby destination. The Boot Hill graveyard is always one of the highlights.

Sources

Benson Visitor Center
520-586-4293
http://www.bensonvisitorcenter.com
Bisbee Visitor Center
866-224-7233
http://www.redlodge.com
Cochise Stronghold (USFS Site)
800-257-2570
http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coronado/
Fort Bowie
520-847-2500
http://www.nps.gov/fobo
Tombstone Visitor Center
888-457-3929
http://www.tombstonechamber.com

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