Cowboys and Indians. Miners and ranchers. Army troops and outlaws. Southeast Arizona was overrun with all of these types, and more, in the latter part of the 19th century. Their actions, of either keeping the peace or disturbing it, are all still evident more than a hundred years later.
I began my tour of Arizona’s Wild West at Willcox, Arizona, originally a giant cattle ranch just 50 miles west of the New Mexico state line. A scenic two-lane road of sweeping curves took me to Chiricahua National Monument. This small park preserves some spectacular rock formations in the “sky island” of the Chiricahua Mountains. Homesteaders Neil and Emma Erickson built a house near the rocks in 1887, and Neil went on to become the first ranger for the forest preserve. During the hour I spent walking on one of the trails, I saw lizards, a rattlesnake and several species of birds.
On the opposite side of the Willcox Playa (dry lake), near Sunsites, a gravel spur road leads west five miles to reach Cochise Stronghold. This beautiful wooded area, administered by Coronado National Forest, has a horse corral, a primitive campground, a seasonal creek and a nature trail. The campground is rarely ever full, but beware: drinking water may not be available.
Cochise Stronghold was named after the chief of the Chiricahua band of Apache Indians, who holed up in this natural fortress in the 1870s and successfully fought off invaders for 15 years. Though he was captured twice, Chief Cochise escaped both times and lived out his life in freedom.
A back road north of Cochise Stronghold took me through a gap in the Dragoon Mountains and emerged on Interstate 10 just east of Benson. For the next leg of my ride, I turned south onto State Route 80 and proceeded to the famous Tombstone—the “Town Too Tough To Die.” There, I parked among many other motorcycles and joined a throng of tourists trooping up and down the town’s wooden boardwalks.
Souvenirs, cold beer and hyperbole were all in plentiful supply. Actors costumed in 1880s garb called out to visitors to attend one of three daily “shoot-outs” staged around town. A real fake gunfight featuring Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday seemed intriguing, until I found out it cost $8 to get in. Instead, I bought an ice cream and sat in the shade, listening to black powder guns firing. Visitors appeared to enjoy the corny re-enactments of outlaw drama, but to me the place screamed “tourist trap,” so I decided to move on.
Continuing south, I rode over 6,030-foot Mule Pass and coasted into Bisbee, the site of the rich Queen Mine. Bisbee prospered as a mining town for nearly a hundred years. When the copper mine finally closed in 1975, Bisbee reinvented itself as a tourist attraction. Old brick buildings along the main streets were converted into art galleries, antique stores, restaurants and bookstores. After devouring a delicious sandwich at the Bisbee Coffee Company, I looked at a rack where handbills advertised mine tours, ghost tours, live music in the bars, massage therapy and art gallery openings. From its humble working-town origins, Bisbee has successfully morphed into a genuine resort destination.
Out of Bisbee, State Route 92 parallels the Mexican border for a few miles before reaching Sierra Vista, a town that serves the military population of Fort Huachuca. Strange noises emanating from my motorcycle caused me to venture into town to locate a motorcycle shop. I purchased some chain lube and applied it in the parking lot outside. Voila! The clunking noises stopped, and I continued on more quietly with my tour.
Next I headed to Fort Huachuca, lured by a brown sign that indicated a National Historic Landmark. I rode all over the sprawling base, getting lost several times, before I located a museum (closed) and a slew of historic buildings. The pamphlet I picked up explained that the buildings surrounding the central parade ground at Fort Huachuca have retained their original vintage 1880s exterior appearance.
Heading back out toward Benson on State Route 90, I made a detour through a wide sea of thorny desert brush to reach a hidden woodland oasis. Known as the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, this thin ribbon of green provides a rare year-round water source.
Ancient Native American tribes, followed by the Sobaipuri culture in the 1600s, first occupied the San Pedro River corridor. Chiricahua Apache defeated a Spanish attempt at colonization in the 1770s. The silver strike near Tombstone in 1877 led to another wave of settlement by white people. The Fairbank ghost town is all that remains of this era. A short path from the ghost town led down to the river. I enjoyed a much-needed break amidst cool rushing water, lush greenery and towering cottonwood trees.
My last stop on this scenic ride was at Kartchner Caverns State Park. The extensive limestone cave system was discovered in 1974, but its existence was not made public for some 14 years while it was carefully explored and mapped. The result is a display of pristine formations, including huge stalactites and columns, which can only be viewed via organized tour. Cameras and backpacks are not allowed inside the cave, but the tour is well worth the $23 fee.
On the state park grounds, a large campground provided a convenient place to stay. The hot showers in the bathroom worked great, and a nearby nature trail provided an opportunity for an early morning walk. Refreshed and clean, I ventured into the cave’s Big Room to gawk at its wonders with about 15 other people. Emerging from the darkness after the tour into blinding sunlight and warm spring weather, I was pleased to have found so many interesting places to stop along this 250-mile tour of Arizona’s Wild West.