The southern portion of Arizona that lies just north of the border with Mexico holds diverse history spread across a remote landscape of desert terrain. Here, portions of the “wild west” literally came to life spinning tales of adventure, hardship, riches, and warfare. Mining was prevalent in this area of the state and was complicated by the remote location, sometimes harsh weather, and Apache attacks. Over a three-day weekend, a group of us set out to relive some of these past times by venturing to some of these places.
Our trek started in the town of Tombstone, home of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. This shootout is one of great legend, but lasted only half a minute between outlaws and lawmen, leaving three men dead. Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and brothers serving as lawmen exchanged gunfire with a group called the Cowboys with about 30 shots fired at close range. We made a short stop in Tombstone to see where the action happened and get a feel for what the town was like more than a century ago.
While much of Tombstone caters to tourists these days, it’s still fun to walk the dirt street and visit the historic sites where cattlemen, lawmen, and gunfighters all mingled. The area was originally named as Goose Glats, but in 1879 when a town was formed it was called Tombstone after the silver mine claim owned by founder Ed Schieffelin.
Our next stop was in the mining town of Bisbee. When army scouts visited the area in 1877 looking for renegade Apache, they stumbled across what seemed like valuable mineral deposits. From there, the town boomed and over the next century the ground would yield several prosperous metals to include 102 million ounces of silver, 2.8 million ounces of gold, and 8 billion pounds of copper. Following the town bust in 1974 as mining interests plummeted, the town has slowly revitalized and is now refashioned itself for tourism and simpler local living.
Leaving Bisbee, we hit dirt headed west into Coronado National Monument. We were close to the border enjoying awesome views of the Huachuca Mountains. U.S. Border Patrol presence is strong here watching for illegal immigrants and smugglers. We saw several surveillance trucks, roaming patrols, and an airborne blimp looking south over grasslands and scrub trees. We camped in the Coronado National Forest on an unseasonably cold evening, but the clear night and lack of urban lighting let us view some amazing stars.
In the morning, we packed our rigs and continued south and west near the border passing through the ghost communities of Lochiel, Washington Camp, Duquesne, Mowry, and Harshaw. Lochiel was a tiny border crossing until the 1980s, while all the others were mining communities. We passed old adobe brick building remains and scattered mining remnants, imagining what life must have been like in this rugged terrain over a century ago.
With the influx of miners came the proliferation of drinking establishments. Big Nose Kate was the companion of Doc Holliday and today this saloon bears her name. Built in 1880, this building was originally the site of the Grand Hotel in Tombstone. The luxurious hotel was destroyed by fire in 1882, but later rebuilt.
Following dirt to the highway, we emerged in the small town of Patagonia. Native Americans occupied this area as long as 12,000 years ago, and there were many clashes between neighboring tribes and with incoming settlers. Eventually, with the help of army troops, mining and ranching activities would prosper starting in the mid 1800s. We enjoyed a more comfortable night at a bit lower elevation at man-made Patagonia Lake.
Our third day led us northwest along Solero Canyon and Bull Springs Roads near the southern tip of the Santa Rita Mountains. We never saw another soul that day in this remote desert. We stopped at what remains of Alto, a small community that existed a hundred years ago. Again, old adobe walls stand as reminders of what was once a healthy gold mining community.
We made our way back to pavement in search of fuel and food for the trip home. We’d covered a lot of miles in three days and put a lot of dirt under our tires. We’d walked in the footsteps of explorers, miners, outlaws, and just ordinary people who tried to build a comfortable existence when life was harder on the western frontier.
Bisbee was another town built from precious metal mining and had its thriving heyday for nearly 100 years. The quaint town sits amongst the hills and is worthy of a visit to explore its history.
Just south of Bisbee, along Copper King Canyon, is the Lavender Open Pit Mine that operated from the early 1950s to 1974. It primarily produced copper, zinc, silver, and gold. It plunges over 750 feet deep in large 50-foot steps.
From Bisbee, we headed west along Montezuma Canyon Road into the Coronado National Monument. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who led an expedition from Mexico up into the United States in the 16th century in search of rumored treasures.
The Huachuca Mountains lie just north of the border in Arizona, and we were treated to awesome long-distance views. We traveled F.S. 61 to elevations nearing 6,600 feet, but Miller Peak, the highest point, reaches nearly 9,500 feet.
As we descended to the mountain foothills, the more rugged terrain turned to flatter grasslands and we turned onto F.S. 48 about 3 miles north of the border.
We set camp the first night in the National Forest just southwest of the Huachuca Mountains. This is also very near the Arizona National Scenic Trail, a non-motorized route that spans 800 miles across Arizona from Mexico to Utah.
On our second day out we visited Parker Canyon Lake. It’s a 132-acre body of water in the Canelo Hills within Coronado National Forest. It’s stocked for fishing and offers good hiking opportunities.
Moving further south and west, we followed dirt trails until we arrived at the tiny town of Lochiel. We got within a few hundred yards of the international border where there was once a crossing point, but this area is now closed private land.
We passed a monument dedicated to Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan missionary who came to Arizona in the 1500s. From Lochiel, we traveled through the ghost town of Duquesne and found a number of old, abandoned homes and buildings. The town grew from mining interests in the 1880s, but died out about 40 years later.
Along our route we spotted this interesting fence constructed from Manzanita tree limbs.
Since there has been so much mining activity in this area, it’s not unusual to spot random dig sites, tunnels, and ore tailings here.
Remains from an ore chute still stand along Duquesne Road. Washington Camp served several of the local mining towns with a mill, general store, and residence accommodations for mining families in the 1860s and onward.
We climbed above the ore chute, and found several mine digs and tunnels near a large ridgeline of mine tailings.
We passed the location of Mowry, the oldest community here, and then on to Harshaw. We spotted numerous aging adobe brick buildings. Most lie on private property and are posted, but many are viewable from the road.
Near the Harshaw town site we wheeled up a hillside trail exploring an old mine site. We found ore tailings and signs of smelting waste. Above the work areas we found these building remains. The structure had thick rock walls and there were signs a heavy door once closed the entrance. We guessed it might have been an assayers office or similar.
Our second night took us to Patagonia Lake, which was formed when Sonoita Creek was dammed in the 1960s. We did a little sunset kayaking after a dusty day running trails.
On our third day, we attempted to explore Gardner Canyon just east of the Santa Rita Mountains, but a forest fire closure stopped our progress. Signs here warn of potential smuggling and illegal immigration problems in the area.
With our way blocked to Gardner Canyon, we rerouted south of Patagonia to run Bull Springs Road south of the mountain range. Much of the area was dry, but we found a few small water crossings.
We followed Solero Canyon Road through the high desert and enjoyed great views along the way.
The trail was pretty mild so we made good progress and covered ground quickly. During rainy season this area could easily experience flash flooding in the wash crossings.
We found more remains of a large adobe structure at the Alto ghost town site. This was once the Bond House, which also served as a post office from 1907 to 1933. Low stone walls also ringed this site.
We left the Alto site continuing west and north, alternating traveling across accessible private and forest service lands.
Prickly pear was thriving here and spring blooms were beginning to pop up on the tops of the cacti.
We followed Bull Springs Road until it merged onto Mt. Hopkins Road and made our way back to pavement. We’d covered a lot of miles of interesting terrain and gotten a good glimpse into the history of this area.