We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.
Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.
The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.
The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.
The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.
The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.
The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.
Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.
Having nothing at all to do with Montezuma, the early 16th-century emperor of the Aztecs (known now as Moctezuma II), nor a castle in any sense of the word, Montezuma Castle National Monument is still a very rewarding site to visit.
Because access to enter the actual structures is limited to those who really need to go in them, the park also focuses a lot on native species of flora found in the region and provides a lot of interpretive signage next to examples of plants to explain how the plants were used by the occupants of the dwellings. As an (extremely) amateur botanist, this was fine by me.
We were able to make a couple of late weekday visits to fully explore this monument, which is located just a few miles north of our campground in Camp Verde, Arizona. It was also the first opportunity for Gunther to earn a B.A.R.K. Ranger certification (more on that later).
The structures in the monument were built by the Sinagua, Native Americans who migrated to this area about 1,400 years ago and began building the cliff dwellings about a thousand years ago – hundreds of years before Moctezuma II was born. The current name of the monument, Montezuma Castle, comes from European Americans who in the mid-1800s were extremely interested in the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures of present-day Central America and wanted to bestow exotic names on nearly everything they found.
The cliff dwellings are built in Verde Formation limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock. Over millions of years, the erosional forces of water and wind have had their way with the limestone to carve many holes into the rock. The erosional holes that are enlarged by humans into structures are called cavates by archeologists. At Montezuma Castle, most cavates extend about 10 feet into the cliff. By closing up naturally open spaces, and building exterior and interior walls with masonry, the Sinagua were able to construct secure housing for their culture.
The Sinagua built and occupied the dwellings between the years 1100 and 1425, leaving the residences about 70 years before Columbus set sail. Montezuma Castle was at the crossroads of a Native American trading network that stretched from the coast of present-day California to eastern New Mexico, and from Utah into Mexico. That central location provided the Sinagua with many resources that weren’t available in the Verde Valley:
Obsidian, used for projectile points, came from the San Francisco Mountains north of the castle
Wild game and plants were taken from the Mogollon Rim, located east of the structure
Strong trading relationships with the Hohokam culture, in present-day southern Arizona, provided much more than was available in the Verde Valley
Contrary, perhaps, to popular opinion, because of that trading network the Sinagua had an awareness of their world that stretched for thousands of square miles.
Where the Sinagua went, and why, after about the year 1425 is still up for debate, but most researchers believe the exodus was due to at least one of three factors: drought, depletion of food resources, and threats from newly arrived cultures.
The Hopi culture, which may be descended partially from the Sinagua, believe this structure wasn’t meant to be the final home of their ancestors. When a culture stays too long in one place, the Hopi believe, environmental disasters and societal collapses remind them of their migratory nature – and they move on. The Zuni and other Puebloan groups are also said to be descended from the Sinagua.
Between 1991 and 1994, an inventory of the plants and animals at this national monument was taken by a team of researchers from Northern Arizona University and the United States Geological Survey. That research resulted in the cataloging of 784 species of plants and animals in this 859-acre (less than 1.5 square miles) site; only 11 percent were non-native species.
Looters of the 19th century took many of the contents of the structures, and today the ruins are open only to scientists for research, inspection, and maintenance. This is in contrast to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, in which visitors are allowed to enter the structures. Part of that policy us is perhaps due to proximity. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is one of those places you have to want to get to, since it’s nearly a two-hour drive from the closest large city; Montezuma Castle is just a couple of miles off Interstate 17 in central Arizona. About 350,000 people visit Montezuma Castle each year; Gila Cliff Dwellings gets about 42,000 visitors annually.
Montezuma Castle National Monument was established by the administration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his administration (1901-1909), five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries. In all, Roosevelt authorized a total of 230 million acres (almost 360,000 square miles) for the enjoyment of future generations like ours.
We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife while at the monument (Nancy and I were both surprised at the number of late-day visitors each day, but that was probably due to the monument’s easy access from the Interstate); however the habitat’s diversity (holes in cliffs to dry meadows to riparian areas) supports all kinds of bats, foxes, mice, owls, songbirds, snakes, lizards, and turtles.
Being open only to researchers is also due to the fact that ladders must be used to access the cliffside ruins: the buildings were definitely at least partially planned with defense in mind. Additionally most of the cliff faces south, which allows the dwellings to be warm in the winters and cool in the summers. The elevated location also protects the dwellings from occasional flooding of Beaver Creek, which flows beneath the cliffs.
The National Park Service has a pretty nifty program in which dogs can earn their B.A.R.K. Ranger certification in certain parks and monuments. Gunther knows, and you should too, that B.A.R.K. Rangers:
Bag your poop. Always have your humans bag and dispose of your waste properly.
Always wear a leash. When in the park, always wear a leash (6 feet or less) and don’t let your humans leave you unattended.
Respect wildlife. Don’t harass or harm wildlife by making noise or chasing them.
Know where you can go. B.A.R.K. rangers are permitted in parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and designated trails.
The B.A.R.K. Ranger program is really clever: it keeps dogs out of hot vehicles while their owners visit national parks and monuments, while encouraging those owners to be responsible for their pet. Since that great day at Montezuma Castle, Gunther has also earned B.A.R.K. Ranger certification at Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona, and Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. Look for future blog postings about those visits and more, and look for Gunther on the trails!
Nancy and I visited Tucson in 2010 in part to see the Colorado Rockies baseball club play a spring training game. It was their last spring in Tucson, as they moved their training operations to Phoenix the next year. We got a rental car at the airport, and driving away from the airport and into Tucson proper, we saw a saguaro (pr.: sah-WAH-row) cactus growing by the side of the road. We were so excited that we almost stopped and took a picture of it.
We needn’t have. We saw a lot more saguaros on that trip. They’re fairly common in the Tucson area, but not as common as they used to be because of land development and agricultural practices. Protecting a forest of saguaro cactus was the impetus behind the establishment of Saguaro National Monument in 1933, and the area was elevated to a national park in 1994.
The national park is divided into two districts, Rincon Mountain on the east and Tucson Mountain on the west, with the city of Tucson in the middle. We visited the Rincon Mountain District in mid-March, and enjoyed a five-mile loop hike (with only 185 feet gain in altitude) on the Loma Verde Trail.
During the hike, Nancy and I saw a lot of different kinds of cacti and succulents, some nifty birds, and a group of three German tourists with whom I briefly practiced mein Deutsch. (Me: “Woher kommen sie?” They: “Deutschland.” Me: “Willkommen!” And then we went our separate ways.)
Damage from freezing temperatures is a real threat to saguaros. A record cold snap in Tucson in 1937 caused many of the huge cacti to die a few years later. In the 1960s researchers discovered that exposure to 20 straight hours of sub-freezing temperatures can kill a saguaro. As recently as 1980 there were predictions of saguaros being extinct by the 1990s. The cacti have recovered, however: there are now plenty of healthy saguaros in the park.
I couldn’t find online why the Loma Verde Mine closed, but I do know that it’s remarkably hot in Tucson. It was in the low 80s in mid-March when we visited the national park. I’m writing this post on April 27, and Tucson recorded its first 100-degree day of 2022 yesterday.
As is the case with all of the national parks and monuments we’ve visited, our experience at Saguaro National Park was fantastic. We’ll likely go to Tucson again in the coming years, and we’ll definitely travel to the other district of the park where we’ll hopefully see … more saguaros!
We’ve found that many museums and other attractions in the southwest allow visitors to bring their dogs along. That policy is probably, at least in part, so that people don’t leave their dogs in their cars. For whatever reason it is, we’re good with it.
Gunther was able to join us on the second of our two visits to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. The exhibits that we saw on March 6 were all outside. It was a lovely day and there happened to be an airshow training program taking place at a nearby airfield, so we saw plenty of planes on the ground and in the air. As I wrote in the posting about our first day’s visit, there are hundreds of airplanes on the grounds of the museum, and taking them all in, even with a two-day pass, is a lot to handle.
There are about 400 aircraft at the Pima Air & Space Museum, inside hangers and outside on the ground, and each of them has an interesting story to tell. I wanted to limit the number of photos in this posting to 10 or 12, but couldn’t decide what to exclude. I didn’t include photos of the EWACs (early warning and control) airplanes like the Grumman E-1 Tracer that flew over Europe during the Cold War, or the bombers like the couple of Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses on display. Even with the two-day pass, we could have spent a lot more time looking at these airplanes and learning about their place in history.
Nancy and I decided to pay a visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens on a quiet Saturday morning in early March. The garden grounds are located in the northwest corner of the city, in a pleasant area of residential neighborhoods and small businesses. The gardens are at an expansive former family home, which adds a decided sense of intimacy to the experience of visiting.
We spent most of the morning wandering around the Cactus & Succulents Garden, which afforded us an opportunity to see some really interesting cacti and some birds as well.
The Cactus & Succulents Garden features plants from around the world that also perform well in the southern Arizona environment. The plants have been divided into four major areas representing the:
Sonoran Desert of North America
Chihuahuan Desert of North America
Desert regions of South America
Desert regions of Africa
Mexico has between 750 and 800 different species of succulents. The United States has about 200 native species, and South America has about a thousand species.
We saw a number of birds at the Botanical Gardens, including five species I’d never seen before.
We were really happy to visit the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It’s always fun to visit a garden that, like Denver’s, is in a residential area, and there were several more habitats in the gardens that showed even more diversity in plants. Even in early March, there were plenty of blooming flowers to enjoy throughout the gardens.
Until 1947, the U.S. Air Force was a component of the U.S. Army (during World War II the branch was known as the United States Army Air Forces). In 1966, during a celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Air Force, military commanders in the Tucson area realized that many of the historic World War II- and 1950s-era aircraft stored on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were being lost – as was much of U.S. military history. Airplane parts were being sent to smelters so their metal could be used in modern aircraft production. Base officials began to set aside examples of the aircraft along the base’s fenced perimeter so that the public could see them. Although the practice saved many aircraft from the smelter, this wasn’t an ideal solution. The Tucson Air Museum Foundation of Pima County was formed that year, and the foundation found a 320-acre site of BLM land just south of the Air Force base. The foundation’s first aircraft acquisition was a B-24 Liberator. Many years (and hanger constructions and aircraft acquisitions and hanger expansions) later, the Pima Air & Space Museum is the country’s largest non-government-funded aviation museum. The museum has more than 100 civilian, military, and experimental aircraft in its four indoor hangers (totaling a quarter-million square feet) alone, as well as many more parked on the grounds outside for a total of about 400 aircraft.
Recognizing that its collection is large and takes aircraft enthusiasts a lot of time to visit, the museum smartly offers a two-day pass that Nancy and I took advantage of. Because March 4 was pretty breezy, we opted to spend that day looking at the aircraft inside the hangers. I’ll share just a few of the ones that I enjoyed viewing, listed in order of their year of introduction.
Even if it represents a smaller percentage of its total collection, the aircraft inside the hangers of the Pima Air & Space Museum are truly impressive. They’re historic, they’re beautiful, and some of them are terrifyingly efficient at what they were designed to do. There were dozens of other aircraft that I didn’t include in this posting: a McDonnell FH-1 Phantom, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a Hawker Hurricane, a Grumman F-11 Tiger, a Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt … the list of aircraft just under a roof at this museum is incredible. Seeing a Huey up-close again, as well as other aircraft that my dad has flown, was really rewarding. Here’s a fun fact: my birth in June 1969 was induced a few days early so Dad could see me before leaving for Vietnam. I was born in McPherson, Kansas, where my two great-uncles (the B-24 Liberator crewmen) were friends a quarter-century before I was born.
In another post, we’ll return to the Pima Air & Space Museum and take a look at the aircraft outside the hangers (some of which my dad has also flown).
In arid areas like southeastern Arizona, water is especially important. Not least of all is its ability to support wildlife, and a wide range of it. Lake Cochise, just east of the town of Willcox, is one of the biggest bodies of water in the region. Located in the Sulphur Springs Valley, an 80-mile-long region stretching from north of Willcox to the Arizona-Mexico border, the lake supports a number of different species of birds and other animals throughout the year. Nancy and Gunther and I visited Lake Cochise in mid-February.
The town of Willcox hosts an annual event each January, Wings Over Willcox, that attracts bird enthusiasts from around the world. In one year, attendees saw 146 different species of birds, ranging from great horned owls to chipping sparrows.
However, Lake Cochise is best known as a primary winter stop for migratory sandhill cranes. Many thousands of cranes spend the winter each year around the lake, with the highest populations present between the months of November and February. In 2008, the Arizona Game & Fish Department counted more than 36,000 sandhill cranes in the area – the highest number ever recorded.
Two groups of cranes spend the winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley: the Rocky Mountain and Mid-Continent populations. The Rocky Mountain group has about 20,000 birds and nests in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Alberta, Canada. This is the population that has a major migration stopover in Colorado’s San Luis Valley; the town of Monte Vista has its own crane festival each year to commemorate the event.
The Mid-Continent population of sandhill cranes has about half a million birds and nests in northern Canada and Siberia. This population has a major migration stopover in the Platte River Valley near Kearney, Nebraska. That town, too, has a festival each year – Nancy and I enjoyed a visit there some years ago where we were first introduced to sandhill cranes from an Audubon Society blind next to the river. We also saw and heard sandhill cranes during our stays last year in Albuquerque through Las Cruces, New Mexico.
We had a great time at Lake Cochise, and we encourage everyone to attend a sandhill crane festival if one’s about — the cranes are a lot of fun to watch, and there are always other species to enjoy if cranes aren’t your thing.
February 13, 2022 – 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Arizona
The Chiricahua Apache culture entered what is now the southwestern United States sometime between the years 1400 and 1500. They were nomadic, moving with the seasons as hunting and farming conditions changed. Being a warrior was a sacred honor for both genders of Apaches. They began training at a young age, and worked to reach a peak level of physical training. The warriors were trained to become completely still and disappear into their surroundings. The coming-of-age test for a warrior was to run for two straight days with no food or sleep.
The Apache Wars, which began in 1849 when white emigrants began moving through the region and ended in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo and his followers, ended the Chiricahua historic way of life. The Native Americans were removed to reservations in Oklahoma and Florida, and Geronimo died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1909. In 1913, the Apaches were no longer considered prisoners of war by the U.S. government and about two-thirds (only 183 individuals) moved from Fort Sill to the Mescalero Apache Reservation, which had opened itself to other bands of Apache, in south-central New Mexico just east of the present-day White Sands Missile Range. The rest, less than 80, remained in Fort Sill; the descendants of both groups still live in those respective areas today.
Chiricahua National Monument, established in 1924 about 35 miles southeast of Willcox, Ariz., was part of the Apache band’s homeland. Today it’s a federally protected area measuring just under 20 square miles in area containing forested slopes, incredible rock formations, and sweeping vistas of southeast Arizona. Nancy and I visited the monument on Feb. 13, 2022. Since dogs aren’t allowed on the monument’s trails, Gunther took a break from sightseeing for the day.
Perhaps the monument’s most famous features are its rock columns, resulting from a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred 27 million years ago from a magma chamber south of the present monument. During the eruptions, immense quantities of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and molten rock were thrust into the atmosphere. Other eruptions caused flows of gas and ash to flow down the volcanic slopes at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. When the eruptions subsided, more than 1,200 square miles of land was covered with thousands of feet of ash. The deposits, called tuff, compressed and cooled over the ensuing years to form a rock called rhyolite.
This is a mountain called Cochise Head, from a viewpoint looking northeast from Massai Point. It’s said to resemble the rugged face of a Chiricahua lying on his back. Fort Bowie National Historic Site, which we visited the previous weekend, is just on the other side of this rock profile.
Let’s get back to rocks: the pinnacles in Chiricahua National Monument are formed by erosion. Cooling and uplift of the rocks formed cracks and joints in the tuff. Over millennia of weathering from ice wedging and water erosion, the cracks widened and weaker materials washed away to leave spires of rock. Here’s an interactive exercise: hold up your hand in front of you with your fingers straight and close together (go on: it’s fun!) Imagine that your closed fingers are a wall of volcanic rock, with your fingers separated by joints in the rock. Now slowly separate your fingers, as millions of years pass and countless freeze and thawing cycles of ice, as well as other erosional actions, wear down the rocks between your digits. Congratulations: you’ve created rock spires – told you it was fun.
We went on a 5-mile loop hike from Massai Point that dropped about 1,000 feet into Echo Canyon. It was an incredible hike that allowed us to walk among the pinnacles, as well as see wonderful views and a variety of plants and wildlife.
We got a really good sense of just what nature is capable of doing, given enough time, during this hike. I was especially struck by how some rocks have broken off, through erosion, from their original formations but didn’t end up on the ground.
There were other types of erosion on view as well. Running water can be an incredibly effective factor for erosion, especially given enough time.
There’s more to enjoy in Chiricahua National Monument in addition to rock formations. The only wildlife we saw was a chatty acorn woodpecker and some acrobatic swallows swerving through the rocks, but we saw a good variety of plants. The varying topography and elevations in the monument lend themselves to supporting a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and other plants.
Tombstone is about the same distance from Willcox, Arizona, and from Tucson, the next city we stayed at in Arizona. We decided to make it a day trip from our campsite in Willcox. Neither of us had been to Tombstone before, and Gunther hadn’t, either, so we brought him along.
Tombstone started out as one of thousands of mining towns in the western United States, but it, of course, became famous for its lawlessness. Unlike the majority of those mining towns, it’s still around: precisely because of its reputation dating back to a gunfight 140 years ago that lasted perhaps 30 seconds.
Nancy and I were both rather surprised to see how many people had the same idea as us: there were more people on the streets of Tombstone than we’d seen in a couple of months. Because of the pandemic, we didn’t venture inside any of the buildings but enjoyed a pretty day on Tombstone’s streets.
Tombstone was founded by Ed Schieffelin, who was briefly a scout for the U.S. Army. Schieffelin spent his free time searching for mineral deposits in the area, looking to strike it rich. The story goes that a friend told Schieffelin that the only rock he’d find would be his own tombstone. In 1877 Schieffelin did indeed find a significant vein of silver not far from the present location of the town; he named his mining claim “Tombstone,” and the name became attached to the town. Other miners were attracted to the area, and by the fall of 1879 several thousand people were living in canvas tents on top of the richest silver strike in Arizona’s history.
The first permanent buildings of Tombstone, no different from most boomtowns in the American West, were largely constructed from wood. As was the case with many of those towns, significant fires took their toll. What that means today is that very few of the most famous structures in Tombstone are the actual buildings dating from the 1880s. The first major fire occurred on June 22, 1881, and destroyed 66 businesses in the eastern half of the town’s business district. Less than a year later, a large fire on May 25, 1882, destroyed more than 100 businesses in Tombstone, including the O.K. Corral.
At the height of the silver boom, Tombstone had a population of about 10,000 people. It was a very wealthy city, and could offer world-class entertainment and foods that were impossible to find elsewhere in the West. By 1881, there were four churches, three newspapers (including the gloriously named “Tombstone Epitaph”), two banks, and 110 saloons. After the mining claims played out, Tombstone’s population dwindled to the point that it nearly became a ghost town. Only the fact that it remained the seat of Cochise County saved it from disappearing completely. In 1929, the citizens of Cochise County voted to move the county seat to Bisbee, about 20 miles south of Tombstone.
Today, Tombstone is definitely devoted to tourism. About 450,000 people visit this small town each year – that’s almost 350 visitors for every resident of Tombstone (current population: 1,300). For perspective, 42 million people visited Las Vegas, Nevada, (current population: 642,000) in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, which is 65 tourists for every Las Vegan.
Our trip to Tombstone was enjoyable enough. It certainly gave Gunther an opportunity to expand his horizons a bit; I don’t think we’ll return, but we’re glad we went.
13 miles south of Bowie, Arizona – February 6, 2022
Apache Pass is a natural low geologic divide in southeast Arizona separating the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”; see more below) Mountains from the much larger Chiricahua (pr. “cheer-uh-cah-wah”) mountain range. Apache Spring, a year-round source of flowing water near the pass, is the main reason many thousands of people traversed the pass beginning in 1848 through the end of the U.S. Army’s conflicts with Native Americans in the mid-1880s. Horses and people needed water to keep moving, and Apache Spring was the only dependable source of water for many miles. From the end of the Mexican War in 1848 through the end of the Apache Wars (1862-1886), Apache Pass provided a corridor for travelers between El Paso and Tucson. Once the southern route of the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1880, the pass became less important for travelers and commerce since trains weren’t as dependent on water as horses were. Until then, Apache Pass was an important point in the expansion of the American west: many thousands of people and great tonnages of goods found their way to the West by traversing the pass.
Chiricahua Apaches lived in this area for many years prior to other cultures entering the Apache Pass region. The pass was identified by both Spanish and, later, Mexican forces during their respective control of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Many Anglos first used Apache Pass on their way to the California gold fields in 1849. In 1858, the U.S. Congress authorized the development of an overland mail route, operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In operation between 1851 and 1861, the Butterfield route took advantage of Apache Spring to water its horses.
Apache Pass was also the site of the Bascom Affair, a conflict between Chiricahua leader Cochise’s band of Apaches and the U.S. Army in 1861. The Bascom Affair was the beginning of a decade of conflict between the Chiricahua and the Army, and led to the development of Fort Bowie to protect travelers using the pass and spring.
In 1872 the U.S. government struck a peace accord with the Apaches, establishing the Chiricahua Apache Reservation. For four years things went pretty smoothly, but the Apaches began to flee the reservation and conduct raiding parties into Mexico; the military presence in the pass subsequently increased. Geronimo eventually surrendered to the Army in 1886. Between the removal of the Native Americans and the completion of the railroad, the need for the U.S. military in the pass disappeared. Fort Bowie’s last garrison left the fort in 1894.
Fort Bowie National Historic Site, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and located about 35 miles from Willcox,, preserves some of the building ruins and other features of a U.S. Army outpost built in the 1860s to protect travelers using Apache Pass from Native American attacks. In addition to fort ruins, this 1,000-acre site also features a number of other interesting historical areas, all of which are accessible by a 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot to the site’s visitor center.
Nancy and Gunther and I visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in early February. It was an immensely rewarding experience, from both a historical perspective as well as a natural history view.
The site is unique in that visitors are encouraged to hike 1.5 miles to the visitor center rather than simply driving to a visitor center parking lot and then hiking from there; it’s certainly possible to drive to the center and park, but you’d miss out on a lot of natural and historical points of interest.
The Bascom Affair
The Bascom Affair ignited more than 20 years of conflict between the Chiricahua Apache and the United States government. Significantly, Felix Martinez Ward had indeed been kidnapped by Apaches but not by Cochise’s Chiricahua. He was raised among the White Mountain Apache and, as an adult, became a scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army.
The company received $600,000 per year to carry the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. Butterfield started with 2,000 employees, more than 250 coaches, nearly 2,000 horses and mules, and 240 stage stations along the route.
After the stage stop ruins, the next stop along the trail is the post cemetery for Fort Bowie.
The next significant stop on the trail to the visitor center is the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency.
A recreation of an Apache camp is a little ways further down the trail. The surrounding area, although rocky and mountainous, provided everything that the Chiricahua needed to make their home here: water from Apache Spring, wild game, edible plants, and materials for building shelter, weapons, and tools. The Chiricahua culture centered around the wife’s extended family; after marriage, the husband entered into the family and committed to supporting his wife’s relatives. While the men hunted and participated in raiding expeditions, the women maintained the wild food crops.
The Battle of Apache Pass
We were on this trail in early February and were plenty warm; I cannot imagine what it would have been like to engage in battle with Apaches in mid-July, and while trying to fight your way to water.
The First Fort Bowie
After the visitors center, hikers can either retrace their steps back to the trailhead’s parking lot or use an alternate route that provides a different perspective on the surrounding area. We chose the latter.
We also decided to drive back to The Goddard by a different route, making a loop between Willcox and Bowie on either end. It gave us a chance to see some different country, and I’m glad that we did.
We really enjoyed Fort Bowie National Historic Site. This was a “the journey is the destination” sort of experience — while it was interesting to see the ruins of the actual fort, the hike to those ruins, and the natural and cultural historic points we saw, was more rewarding. Hiking in the same paths that Cochise and Geronimo once walked, and learning more about the conflicts between the Chiricahua who lived here and the U.S. Army, is something that we’ll always remember.