With clouds of dust billowing in the rearview mirror as widespread fields of golden grasses covering vast Southern Arizona ranchland are passed, the final miles toward Cochise Stronghold Trailhead are covered along Ironwood Road.
West of Sunsites, Ariz., the Dragoon Mountains rise to 7,500 feet, massive boulders and sheer cliff walls drawing closer. As the road rounds a sharp cliff of granite boulders, suddenly a narrow canyon is entered, forested primarily of oak, juniper and sycamore.
A couple of hours and 80 miles east of Tucson, Cochise Stronghold Trail leads into the Dragoon Mountains, amid huge cream-colored boulders, delivering hikers into a spiritually rich, historic canyon. It was on these lands that the great Apache Chief, Cochise, and his people, lived much of their lives. The canyon walls seem almost anxious to narrate tales of the late 1800s, during the time the Apache made their last stance to preserve their way of life.
Under crystal blue skies, 65-degree weather and just a faint breeze, Cochise Stronghold Trail begins at a bridge crossing beside a sign reading:
DIED JUNE 8, 1874
IN THIS HIS FAVORITE STRONGHOLD
In this beautiful setting and sheltered environment, Cochise Stronghold Campground invites tent, trailer and RV campers to enjoy an extended visit.
An extremely informative, 0.4-mile-long nature trail educates hikers of the flora to be found and how much the Apache people depended on these plants. Splitting from the nature trail, the main trail breaks south, soon joining an equestrian trail, the combined paths crossing a dry wash several times before climbing the canyon slopes leading toward Cochise Stronghold Divide, three miles distant.
Arizona oak, Emory oak, alligator bark juniper, sycamore and numerous other trees occupy this confined ravine, nourished by springs and seasonal snow and rain.
Soon the trail departs the trees’ protective canopy, climbing into an open area dominated by manzanita, agave, yucca, century plants and low brush. Beargrass and shindiggers closely line the trail. At one mile a spring is encountered, a seemingly insignificant amount of water seeping into the wash.
On this well-traveled, moderately-difficult trail, just 300 feet in elevation have been gained. A glorious silence is broken only by chirping birds and gentle breezes whispering through trees. Are Apache spirits welcoming visitors to their extraordinary, sacred land?
Angling west, Cochise Stronghold Trail continues its gradual climb, now wandering through a chaos of shack-, shed-, garage- and even house-sized boulders. Toward and reaching the top of northern slopes, pillars, posts, columns and boulder piled upon boulder offer exceptional views. Slopes to the south hold none of the boulders, rather an open area of low trees, brush and grasses swaying in the peaceful breeze.
It’s not difficult to imagine Apache sentries posted atop these immense rocky outcroppings, vigilantly watching for enemy invasion. Determining exactly where the Apache people were camped would be impossible from the canyon floor. Around the year 1860 there were close to 1,000; by 1869 Cochise told an Army officer, “I have not 100 Indians now.”
It was then that he realized for his people to exist, peace must be reached. A brief study of the history of this area absolutely enhances the experience. A strong appreciation of the Apache’s way of life will be gained.
Just beyond a two-mile marker, Half Moon Tank blocks water flow in the watershed, a small pond held behind a concrete dam, a wonderful spot for area wildlife to find nourishment.
Climbing to more level surroundings, Cochise Stronghold Trail remains on a westerly tack, the Divide now less than a mile away. Over this last stretch of trail, barely any elevation is gained, reaching the high point of the adventure at just under 6,000 feet in less than two hours.
Cochise Stronghold Trail descends west into the canyon, a much steeper and strenuous activity, reaching the desert floor after another 1.75 miles. Pausing in welcome shade of a large piñon tree to relax and replenish, soon a return to the east will be underway. Nuts from cones of these trees provided delicious nutriment to the Apache diet.
Looking down canyon, stunning spring green leaves adorn many trees in the drainage. Surprisingly, not a single cottonwood tree is seen. Also, at this altitude very few prickly pear and cholla cactus grow.
Schott’s yucca, often found in the company of oaks, are seen throughout the range. The Apache used the plant’s fiber for basket weaving, soapy root for bathing and the edible fruit for food. With beargrass also abundant, another source of basket-weaving material was readily available.
As the adventure comes to a close, views east of spectacular boulder upheaval are enjoyed. Created through volcanic activity 186 million years ago, the Dragoon Mountains are an excellent example of jointed granite intrusions, a body of igneous rock that has crystallized from molten magma. These mountains are named after the 3rd U.S. Calvary, know as the Dragoons, a military unit, carbine-armed and trained to fight as mounted cavalrymen.
A six-mile round trip concludes in four hours. Surveying license plates in the campground, visitors from both coasts, Florida and California, are represented. Utah, Colorado, Minnesota and Arizona also have guests camped on the tree-shaded grounds.
Getting there: East on I-10 to Dragoon Road, exit 318. After passing through tiny and unique Dragoon, 10 miles east, amid Pecan and Pistachio orchards, turn right on Cochise Stronghold Road. The five miles passed on this road are enhanced as views of the Dragoon Mountains are enjoyed; the magnificent boulder-strewn area becoming more evident as miles pass, building anticipation. A right turn on Ironwood Road leaves four miles of dirt road travel to trailhead parking
For more information, contact Coronado National Forest Tucson at 388-8300 or Douglas Ranger Station in Douglas, Ariz., at 520-364-3468. Day-use fee is $5.
Cochise: Arguably the Apache’s – and Arizona’s – greatest Chief
Believed by many to be the greatest Apache Chief ever, Cochise led his people through much of the 1800s. In Apache, his name was Cheis, translated to “having the quality or strength of oak.”
Born in the early 1800s, possibly 1810 or 1812, Cochise became Chief at a very young age. Though elected, the role of Chief could be challenged by other warriors. Cochise, unmatched with a lance, was never successfully challenged.
A large man for his time, Cochise stood nearly six feet tall and weighed close to 175 pounds. He had a commanding appearance with classic Roman features and long, black hair. Though paintings are believed to have been made of him, he was never photographed.
As Chief, Cochise was responsible for the safety, food, clothing, weapons and transportation of his people. He carried himself with great dignity and was always treated with utmost respect. He had a profound sense of honor, proud of making his word good.
Cochise was known for courage, integrity and military skill. He was never defeated in battle.
Married to Dos-Teh-Seh, he fathered two sons – Taza, born in 1842, and Naiche, born in 1856.
Until 1861, the Apache lived peacefully in the mountains of southeastern Arizona. It was then that a bungled attempt to capture Cochise changed everything. Duped into meeting with the United States government over a kidnapping the Apache were eventually proven innocent of, an attempt was made to arrest and imprison Cochise and others. Escaping quickly, he captured hostages of his own, attempting to negotiate for the release of his people. Ending tragically with the killing of nearly all hostages, including his brother and two nephews, the Apache Chief became enraged with a passionate hatred of Americans, attacking and killing hundreds over the next decade.
In 1863, the capture and murder of his father-in-law, Magnas Coloradas, further deepened his fury.
A peace was eventually reached in 1871 as a dramatic toll had been taken on the Apache. With their numbers reduced to less than 100, Cochise realized for them to continue as a people, peace must be achieved. Through his skill as a diplomat, the Apache leader’s request to continue living in the Dragoon Mountains was granted. Today, the area is known as Cochise Stronghold.
Cochise lived at peace until he died June 8, 1874, believed due to abdominal cancer.
Buried at a secret location with his horse, dog and weapons, all who knew the site took that knowledge to their graves. Under profound sadness, the most powerful Apache leader in history was gone.
Compiled by Rick Metcalf
“Cochise and the Bascom Affair” by Jay W. Shard