It is the place of the big rocks. A place once home to a vanished people, now turned playground for rock climbers and modern-day campers. Where the great Chief Cochise once sat, a family from Tucson now dines on take-out from their local deli, or a couple in love sips wine in the moonlight. It’s not quite the place it used to be, or is it?
Today, on the western face of the Dragoon Mountains, park-like meadows vaguely resembling African savannas suddenly give way to craggy cliffs of pink granite. Splashes of green lichen highlight the cliffs in complementary shades. At the base of the cliffs, boulder fields and rocky ridges extend like immense buttresses. During one of our famous Arizona sunsets, the colors reflected on the pink granite can range from a brilliant orange to a fleshy pastel peach. Tucked among the rocks and meadows are groves of mesquite and oak, with sycamore and scattered cottonwoods lining the washes.
The Dragoon Mountains are named for a carbine-armed unit of the U.S. Cavalry, used in many campaigns against the Apache. The Spaniards gave these mountains a more appropriate name, Sierra Peñascosa (Rocky Mountains), though they hardly resemble their great-divide counterparts.
To get to the big rocks, start in Tombstone, 70 miles southeast of Tucson via I-10 and State Route 80. About a mile before (north of) Tombstone, take the Middlemarch Road turnoff. Exactly ten miles from the highway, this well-maintained gravel road crosses one of many cattle guards...this one marks the boundary of the Coronado National Forest. Immediately after the cattle guard, take the left turn signed for the Western Stronghold, Forest Road 687. (The Middlemarch Road continues over the mountains through Middlemarch Pass and down into the Sulphur Springs Valley, meeting Route 191 at Pearce.)
FR 687 is a narrow, bumpy, twisting dirt road heading north, parallel to the western face of the mountains. Several side roads go off of it, some labeled with small signs shortly after the turnoff: 687C, 687D, 687E, etc., with the suffix letter getting larger as you go north. Most lead into picturesque campsites or simply in for a closer look at the boulder fields lining the base of the mountains. Take care as many of the side roads require high clearance. FR 687, with all its bumps and twists, is navigable by an adventurous if not careful driver of almost any vehicle, though a truck or SUV is recommended. Inclement weather requires 4-wheel drive.
Less than a mile off the Middlemarch Road, a well-used turnoff goes into several campsites often used by rock climbers. If you visit in the spring or fall, you might run into the Bean Fest, an informal gathering of local rock climbers. Looking at the mountains ahead, the attraction is obvious. Sheeps Head is the most prominent cliff face. Close by is an area dubbed “Isle of You” that is popular with sport climbers. Routes with names such as “Full Metal Hootgoat” and “Sheep Thrills” attest to the climbers’ brand of humor.
Along the side road to Sheep’s Head is Tennaco Well, a functioning windmill that pumps groundwater into a large metal tank. Emblazoned with spray paint on the side of the tank are the words “COWS OFF PUBLIC LAND.” Though the range land debate continues, it is the graffiti that seems out of place here rather than the well.
The next turnoff to check out is 687E, three miles from the Middlemarch Road. It loops around about a half-mile and rejoins 687 a quarter-mile ahead. Excellent campsites are to be found here. Some are among a grove of oaks and others among groves of 50-foot boulders.
A quarter-mile past 687E is, of course, 687F. For one of the best hikes in the Dragoons, start here. This is Slavin Gulch. The trail follows the route of an old mining road, going about four miles up to the side of a high ridge with fine westward views. Along the way are box canyons, hidden forests, and a stream with pools during wetter times. Most of the first mile is level, then the going gets steep and rough as the gulch cuts deeply through first one ridge and then another. A few easier sections and a few surprises make this the most interesting part of the trail. Beyond that, a level section gives a short break before making the haul up to the ridgeside.
The next stop is Council Rocks. The big rocks. Ten-year-olds, of all ages, love it here! The parking area is a short distance down side road 687K, six miles north of the Middlemarch Road. The trail begins to the right, beyond a wooden fence. Attached to the fence is an official notice in legalese that quickly interprets as an order of protection for the area. This is “pictures and footprints” territory.
Following the trail, one immediately clambers up a rocky chute. Eroded and oddly spaced footholds aren’t of much help. Within a few minutes the trail approaches a cluster of house-sized boulders, passing directly under and around two rock faces covered with pictographs, though many are so faint as to be indistinguishable from the colors of the rock itself. Among them are depictions of human stick figures, a spiral, a nearly invisible sunburst, and several zigzag lines. Pictographs, as opposed to petroglyphs, are figures that have been painted or drawn rather than carved. They are relatively rare in southern Arizona.
Continuing on, the trail leads past the pictographs about quarter-mile into an adjacent small rocky canyon that is considered to be a part of “Council Rocks.” A stone pillar rising from the cliffs on the south side evokes the image of a wise elder sitting in prayer. Near the head of the canyon, the trail gets lost in another maze of house-sized boulders. From here, the only way through is by rock hopping and bushwhacking.
An information sign at the site states that the Mogollon Indians drew the pictographs up to a thousand years ago, though the Apache may have added to them in more recent times. The Mogollon people lived mostly in the mountain areas straddling the borders of central and southern Arizona and New Mexico, including parts of northern Mexico. Over a period of 3,000 years, they evolved from a nomadic hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary agricultural subsistence. Grinding holes can be found in the natural shelters formed by the boulders, evidence that people probably lived in this very spot. Almost 700 years ago, the Mogollon culture disappeared, perhaps replaced by the Salado culture moving in from the west. Some of the Mogollon people joined Anasazi pueblos in northern New Mexico.
The most recent non-European inhabitants were the Apache Indians, most notably the bands of Cochise and Geronimo. The Apache migrated to Arizona from the Athabasca region of northern Canada more than 400 years ago, not long before the first Spaniards arrived. They lived a primarily nomadic existence, occasionally raiding others for their needs.
As one explores the boulder fields and canyons, it is easy to imagine the Apache eluding the U.S. Cavalry here. Chief Cochise and his band of Chiricahua Apache were able to hide out in these and the surrounding mountains for more than a decade. Their raiding parties attacked many of those who dared to cross their territory.
It was during this time that Thomas J. Jeffords, formerly a steamboat captain on the Great Lakes, opened a mail route between Tucson and Fort Bowie. Ironically, after 22 of his riders had been killed, he befriended Cochise by riding directly into the great chief’s camp, alone, on a friendly errand of good faith. Cochise admired and respected the man’s bravery and they formed a lifetime bond.
On October 13, 1872, Jeffords arranged a meeting between Cochise and General O. O. Howard, to finally make peace. It may have been atop the boulder with the pictographs that Chief Cochise and General Howard, with “Captain” Jeffords acting as interpreter, sat and discussed the terms of the treaty—thus the site’s original name of Treaty Rocks. Jeffords called it, “The Big Prayer Meeting on the Big Rocks.” As a condition of the treaty, the Apache were allowed to remain in the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains.
Cochise died in June 1874 and was buried in an undisclosed location in the Dragoon Mountains. Two years later, his people were sent to the San Carlos Reservation.
A mile north of Council Rocks is another noteworthy site, Whitehouse Ruin, consisting of a few crumbling adobe walls. It is reached by a short unmarked side road. An article in the October 1992 issue of Arizona Highways claimed this to have been the hideaway of a New York City boss, William Marcy Tweed. Gangsters, indeed! If only it were true.
Riva Dean, a reference librarian for the Arizona Historical Society, wrote to the magazine’s editor, “being suspicious of a ‘spacious desert hideaway’ in the Dragoon Mountains in the 1870s…checking three biographies of Tweed, I found no mention of him ever visiting Arizona, let alone building a house here.” Ms. Dean did find a reference to a “Billy” Tweed though he was more likely a rancher, not the infamous gangster. A 1904 map shows the “Packard” and “Tweed” ranches in the area. Ms. Dean speculates that Whitehouse Ruin is what remains of the Tweed ranch house. Today, graffiti scratched on the remains has taken its disenchanting toll.
Beyond Whitehouse Ruin, FR 687 turns into West Stronghold Canyon, going deep into the mountains. Here are more campsites and more forest. Whale’s Dome, a block of rock resembling the head of sperm whale, dominates the head of the canyon. Rock climbers here may be headed for a popular route known as “Moby Dick.”
Some ten miles from the Middlemarch Road, FR 687 deadends at the Cochise Saddle trailhead. It’s a five-mile jaunt over the saddle and down into the East Stronghold Canyon (officially known as “Cochise Stronghold”). From either side it is a terrific hike, featuring views of interior mountain canyons and the awesome Rockfellow Dome. The trail is a moderate workout on the west side, climbing 1,000 feet in two miles to the saddle. Be sure to continue past the saddle for about a third of a mile to where a short branch on the left breaks out onto an exposed ledge. It is a fine spot to eat lunch or just to enjoy the view while letting your mind wander in time.
The people may come and go, but the rocks aren’t going anywhere.
The only variable between these photos of Mount Glenn is a few moments of time. The rock in the Dragoon Mountains is called Cochise granite and is known for its pinkish hue.
The Dragoons were our favorite remote-observing site during the peak of the Leonid meteor shower several years ago. We slept under the stars with the alarm set for 2:00 a.m. All we had to do was open our eyes and enjoy the show all snuggled-warm in our double sleeping bag. (I had the camera on a short tripod next to my pillow.)