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Hiking the Dragoon Mountains

By George Stocking - August 3rd, 2000

It's easy to see why Chief Cochise and the Chiricahua Apaches favored the rugged Dragoon Mountains in Arizona as a haven when fleeing the U.S. Army more than a century ago. The Apaches could easily disappear into this vertical labyrinth and still be able to observe any intruder's approach from the safety of the peaks. Clear springs seeped year-round, and the hillsides produced enough sustenance to revitalize the warriors after their long overland treks. Mesquite beans, pi-on nuts and the fruit of the banana yucca supplemented whatever small game could be found.

But the ultimate victors in this chapter of frontier history are reflected in the name of the rugged range itself -- the Dragoon Mountains. (A dragoon in the U.S. Army was a cavalry soldier outfitted with the heavier armaments of an infantry soldier.)

Like the better-known sky islands of southern Arizona, the Dragoon Mountains rise abruptly out of the sagebrush plain. There, however, the similarities end. The Dragoons lack the altitude of the other sky islands; the highest peak tops out at 7,519 feet. Thus, the upper reaches of the range don't quite achieve the "alpine" environment of the mountains' more well-known neighbors like the Chiricahuas and the Huachucas. But I find myself continually drawn to the Dragoons, lured by the same qualities that attracted the Apaches more than 100 years ago.


Storm clouds cling to the mountaintops following a winter storm in the Dragoons. (photo by George Stocking)

The Dragoons are a maze of granite spires, yawning crevices and abrupt precipices. Balanced rocks and boulders the size of small houses are sprinkled across steep hillsides. The wheaten grasslands are dotted with huge oaks under whose canopies you could conceal a small house (well, at least a large outhouse). Soaptree yuccas and sporadic cholla break the profile of the tall flowing grass. Deer and raptors, snakes and coyotes ... the range abounds in wildlife.

In the Dragoons, all things begin either on the west or the east side of the range. The sanctuary of Cochise Stronghold is on the east side. It was the site of Cochise's death and, according to his biographers (and the many soldiers he eluded), the place that gave him life.

Perhaps the most beautiful spot in the mountains, the stronghold's towering rock faces are almost completely hidden by a splendidly wooded canyon. There, one of the most beautiful and tranquil campgrounds in the state is nestled among thick oaks and sycamores. The heart of the stronghold can be reached from the campground via a steep, winding hiking trail that crosses the range.

The Western Dragoons
As beautiful as Cochise Stronghold is, it's the western side of the Dragoons that grabs my imagination and inspires my creative spirit. The "West Stronghold" is more isolated, but it also harbors a maze of forest roads that offer good accessibility. And it is here on the western side, high on a rock face, that I now sit.

After the sun has completely set, I start making my way back down to the desert floor. I always find the descent to be far more frightening than the ascent, and in the fading twilight I begin to grow slightly concerned. The footholds that looked so obvious on the way up now look minuscule and negligible. It is with a thankful sigh of relief that I finally slide (on my butt, naturally) down to the relative safety of the plain. The mile-long trek through knee-high grass consumes the rest of the remaining light, and I arrive at my campsite under a magnificent oak in near darkness. The lights of Tombstone twinkle in the distance, about 13 miles away but become obscured when the weather takes a turn for the worse.


Late light on the Council Rocks area of the Dragoons. (photo by George Stocking)

A cold wind blows across the plain. Rain begins to plop to the ground in large drops almost immediately. The oak shelters me admirably, giving me time to make the customary pre-storm scramble to stow things away and batten all hatches before retreating into the tent.

The glowing green face on my watch says it's 6:30 a.m. when I gradually become aware that the drone of rain on the tent fly has disappeared. In fact, there is not even the quiet pattering of a light drizzle. Lacing up my boots, I put on my jacket and crawl through the door of the tent.

The reason I don't hear the rain is because it has turned to snow. Small flakes dance around me in the swirling breeze, and a decent layer of the white dust covers the tent. Looking around I see that the sky to the east is clear; the storm cloud hovers around the mountain tops. The range itself sports a fine, barely visible layer of the tiny white crystals. Suddenly, I hear a clatter behind me. Twenty or more mule deer stampede across the plain, coming within 75 feet of me.

I leave the wet tent to dry in the sun (the storm has already blown itself out), and depart in my four-wheel-drive truck along Forest Road 687. The road parallels the western side of the range and winds through intermittent grasslands. Coming around a sweeping turn in the road, I get an overview of the canyon that runs directly into the West Stronghold.

The Tweed Manor
The afternoon is as crystalline as the morning, so I decide to make a short detour to "Boss" Tweed's now ruined adobe manor. William Marcy Tweed, of the Tammany Hall political organization in New York, embezzled $30 million from the city coffers in the late 19th century.

He got away with it initially and moved to the Dragoons to hide out and live the good life on his ill-gotten fortune. He built a large adobe dwelling (reputed to contain 15 rooms, each one with a fireplace) before he was eventually caught and returned to New York to stand trial.


1,000-year-old pictographs at Council Rocks. (photo by George Stocking)

Council Rocks
My favorite spot in the Dragoons, my personal sanctuary, is Council Rocks. I park at the trailhead and begin the short but steep climb. In a narrow passage between two boulders, I turn to marvel at red pictographs thought to be more than 1,000 years old.

Archaeologists believe the ancient drawings originated with the Mogollon tribe, and were probably augmented by the Apaches about 900 years later. A flat boulder nearby is covered with metates from grinding corn. Some of them are almost a half a foot deep.

The trail on Council Rocks Mesa winds through a series of balanced boulders and tremendous rock formations. The previous night's storm has deposited large pools of water in the hollow portions of the rock, and the still water casts mirror-like reflections.

Trip Planner

Distance from the Valley: 180 miles

Getting There: To reach Cochise Stronghold, drive east on Interstate 10 past Tucson and head south on State Route 191. At the town of Sunsites, turn right onto Ironwood Road at the sign for Cochise Stronghold. For the West Stronghold, exit I-10 on State Route 80. Turn left on Middlemarch Road about one mile before Tombstone. Proceed up Middlemarch Road to a sign indicating a left turn (on FR 687) into the West Stronghold. Middlemarch road continues through the Dragoons, emerging at Pearce.

Season: Fall, winter and spring (summers can get quite hot).

Camping: The developed campground at Cochise Stronghold, on the east side of the Dragoons, is one of the best campgrounds in southern Arizona. The site has water, restrooms and is the starting point for good hiking trails (the Cochise Trail leads from here over to the west side of the Dragoons). The fee is $6 per vehicle (follow the directions to Cochise Stronghold). Free, primitive camping is available on the west side.

Cautions: Main access roads are well-maintained, but good clearance is required for the more remote forest roads in the Dragoons.

Further reading: "Once They Moved Like the Wind; Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars," by Dave Roberts (Simon and Schuster).

For more information: Coronado National Forest, Douglas Ranger District, RR 1, Box 228-R, Douglas, AZ 85607; phone (520) 364-3468.


Comments

4 hours in 4 hours out and lived!

Entering the strong hold from the back one day.Thought I saw a

funny looking tree in the distance. My truck drove down in a

wash. When I came up out of the wash, the tree was gone.

Could this have binn a big foot? Theres more but have run out

time

Posted on October 2, 2009 - 12:57pm
by VisitorDave Varner

dragoons

great article....My first trip to this area was last weekend, it won't be my last.

Posted on September 15, 2008 - 3:25pm
by Erick Anderson

Dragoons Article

What a wonderful article...Thanks for letting us share it with you.

Bob

Posted on May 31, 2008 - 8:12pm
by Bob Schnebly

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