It was summer time, and once again, that meant it was time for our annual summer off-road trip somewhere in Arizona. After following a rough north-south-north pattern, it was only logical for us to set our sights once again on Southern Arizona. This time however, we wanted to traverse far Southeastern Arizona, an area we haven’t covered much in our off-road travels. Our target area would be south of I-10 and east of I-19 in the very southeasternmost corner of the state. Our 500 mile, 5-day journey began in Green Valley – just a little ways south of Tucson.
After the Jeep was aired down and ready, we headed east from the paved road just outside of Green Valley. Our first obstacle was right in front of us. The Santa Rita Mountains rise up to over 9500 feet at their tallest and also contain the scenic Madera Canyon, just a few miles to the south of our current location. Our route would be taking us through the scenic Box Canyon stretch in the northern end of the range. This part of Arizona is known for its scenic “Sky Islands” or large mountain ranges jutting out of the otherwise flat desert floor. The rapid elevation change creates a unique and diverse ecosystem.
The trail slowly climbed as we headed east through the range. Within just a few miles we had passed some small ranches and entered into the narrow box section. Here, the trail remained decently wide however we were met with a shear rock wall on the left and a big drop-off on the right.
After about 10 miles, we had cleared the narrow section and the trail once again opened up as we continued through the grassy plains on the east side of the Santa Rita’s. The views were really something as we were treated to an expansive view of the surrounding valley. We made a hard right turn onto Greaterville Road to head south. From here on out, the trail would get rougher and narrower until we reached our overnight stop for the night: Kentucky Camp, a ghost town in the historic Greaterville mining district. By 4:00 PM we had cleared some of the rougher stuff and turned back east to reach the Kentucky Camp turnoff. We made another hard right turn, passed through a gate, and dropped down into Kentucky Camp.
Kentucky Camp sits in the appropriately named Kentucky Gulch of the Coronado National Forest. Today, numerous adobe buildings in varying states of decay remain. Most present day visitors tour through the main headquarters building and walk the grounds of the historic mining camp. We were lucky enough to be staying the night on the property, as the smaller building can actually be reserved for the night. We quickly walked through the property, checking out the old buildings before opening up the cabin and unloading all of our gear for the night. The cabin is definitely rustic but had what we needed for the night – beds, electricity, bathrooms, and an extremely basic kitchen setup. With some daylight remaining, we grabbed a quick snack, drink, and decided to tour the camp a little more.
The history of Kentucky Camp begins back in 1874 when gold was first discovered here in the Santa Rita’s. Early mining success was primarily through placer deposits, meaning there weren’t many big, deep mines, but mostly surface deposits. Miners from all over came to the area to get in on the riches. People from back east flooded the area and named the nearby Boston and Kentucky Gulches after their hometowns. The area quickly swelled to over 500 people. By the late 1880s, most of the surface deposits had been played out and the population dropped.
By 1902 the Santa Rita Water & Mining Company was founded in an attempt to revitalize the area and in 1904, the current buildings were constructed at Kentucky Camp to serve as the headquarters. Mining engineer James Stetson backed by George McAneny started hydraulic mining in the area. Hydraulic mining consists of blasting high-pressure water at the surface to blast away debris and expose rich minerals. The water at Kentucky Camp was piped 8 miles through the high-desert. Success was short lived when Steson died after falling out of a window of a Tucson Hotel in 1905. McAneny later died in 1909 and with it, so did Kentucky Camp’s success. The mining camp was sold for back taxes and became part of a ranch owned by Tucson Attorney Louis Hummel. The buildings were used as a ranch headquarters before being abandoned. The property was later acquired by the forest service and preservation efforts were made by the Friends of Kentucky Camp to restore the buildings to where they are today.
After walking around the old townsite, the light was beginning to fade and it was time to start working on dinner. Tonight would be a little bit of a cheater night. Because Kentucky Camp only has a microwave and hotplate, we decided to bring some pulled-pork leftovers from home for dinner. With a simple nuke in the microwave, we were enjoying some delicious homemade food in minutes, and paired with a pickle spear and corn on the cob, it was really good for a re-heated meal. While today wasn’t an overly long and difficult day, we still decided to turn in early. Tomorrow would be a busy day covering over 100 miles of trail along the Mexico border.
Since today was going to be a busy day, we were up somewhat early. It was about 7 AM when we made it out of the cabin and took one final look around. We grabbed a light breakfast of donuts before we got to packing up the Jeep and cleaning up the cabin. If everything went well, our plan was to grab a late brunch in the town of Patagonia before heading back offroad.
We left behind Kentucky Camp, climbed up the hill, through the gate, and proceeded to head east towards Highway 83. We were treated to ever-improving views as we headed east through the rolling hills. We reached Highway 83 and aired up before heading south. Within minutes of being on the highway, we reached Sonoita, where we topped off on gas and ice before continuing west on Highway 82 towards Patagonia. Another 20 minutes later and we had arrived in Patagonia by about 10:00. Since we were doing well on time, we stopped at the Wagon Wheel for a quick bite to eat.
After refueling our food tanks we continued south on Harshaw Road. The trail climbed into the Patagonia Mountains and eventually turned to dirt at the Harshaw Townsite. We took the opportunity to air down again and explore what was left over from a once bustling community. Not much remains today of the town of Harshaw – a couple of old buildings near the road and a cemetery on the west side of the road are all that remain. The cemetery has old graves dating to the late-1800s. The town of Harshaw was established in the 1870s and was a large producer of silver. It boasted 2,000 residents by 1880 and produced a whopping $365,000 worth of valuable ore, making it one of the area’s major producers. Most of the buildings however are on private property so we were forced to continue south.
The trail continued to climb, becoming more scenic as we headed south. After 9 additional miles, we reached the twin mining camps of Washington Camp and Duquesene. Not much remains at Washington Camp today other than numerous foundations, a couple mines, and a large hopper dating to the 1880s. It makes for a nice quick stop along the route. After back-tracking slightly to see Washington Camp, we headed downhill towards Duquesne. The town of Duquesne was established in 1890 by the Duquesne Mining and Reduction Company from Pittsburgh. Duquesne and Washington Camp were one in the same while the former was home to mining offices, bunkhouses, and a school. The prosperity in these twin camps was short lived and they petered out with the mines after 1900. A few residents remain today in Duquesne.
After passing through Duquesne we continued further south. 5 miles later we dropped out of the Patagonia Mountains and ran out of United States. We had arrived in the border town of Lochiel. The town was a former ranching community that was split in half by border surveys and later was home to a customs station. More importantly however was a large cross and monument on the side of the road. It is here where it is thought that Fray Marcos de Niza crossed through this area in April of 1539. This made him the first European in America west of the Rockies. De Niza was a Spanish Missionary and Franciscan Friar who left Mexico and entered into Arizona while looking for the infamous “Seven Cities of Gold”.
We continued east as we paralleled the international boundary. The fence was just a hundred yards off to the right at some points, and large rolling plains of grass were off to our left. We were now in the scenic San Rafael Valley in between the Patagonia and Huachuca Mountains. The trail remained wide and fairly smooth as we snaked across the valley floor. We passed a few ranches as we crossed into Cochise County. In the distance over the mountains we saw some smoke clouds. We weren’t quite sure what is was, but weren’t too concerned at this point.
After the 30 mile mark we began to climb as we approached the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains. The trail became rougher but significantly more scenic. Another 10 miles later and we had cleared Montezuma Pass and arrived at a scenic overlook at over 6500 feet up. It is from here in Coronado National Memorial where there is a commanding view of the surrounding terrain, including the San Rafael Valley to the west, and the San Pedro Valley to the east. A solid black line bisects the landscape far below, marking the northernmost portion of Sonora, Mexico and the southernmost portion of Arizona.
Coronado National Memorial was established to help preserve and interpret the conquistador Coronado and his expedition through the San Pedro back in the 1540s. Coronado received earlier reports from Marcos de Niza and set out with a large party of over 1000 people to search for riches and wealth associated with the “Seven Cities of Gold”. Coronado’s party made it as far north as modern day Kansas, but false report after false report forced him to turn around and head back to Mexico empty handed.
After taking in the tremendous view we aired up before heading down the mountain. We continued east as the road became pavement and reached Highway 92. There was a problem however. Ahead – emergency lights blocked the way and thick, billowing smoke blocked the horizon. We were just 20 miles west of Bisbee and our overnight stop for the night, but an active brushfire shutting down the road would force us to take a detour to the north.
After a quick detour through Herford, we arrived in Bisbee by about 5:30. Bisbee sits in the Mule Mountains and serves as the county seat of Cochise County since 1929. It was in 1880 when copper, gold, and silver, and other minerals, were discovered in Bisbee. The town was founded in 1902 and quickly boomed to nearly 10,000 people. By the 1920s open pit mining took precedence and dominated the landscape. We stopped off to get a quick view of the massive Lavender Pit in the south part of Bisbee. The Lavender Pit reaches down nearly 4,000 feet into the earth.
It was getting late in the day and we headed north out of Bisbee, through the historic Mule Pass Tunnel and up to Juniper Flats. We made camp up around 6500 feet and watched the sun dive below the horizon. We promptly got on tonight’s dinner which was burgers, sautéed veggies, and instant mashed potatoes. It was fantastic. After we ate it wasn’t long before we turned in for the night. Today had been a fun but busy day hitting numerous historic sites along the border.
After a restful night, we were up at nearly the crack of dawn. We had an early morning tour scheduled today in Bisbee so we had to get up and get moving. We heated some water for a quick oatmeal breakfast before breaking down camp and packing things up. By 8:00 we were moving on the trail and dropped back down into Bisbee. We cruised through historic downtown Bisbee before arriving at the Copper Queen Mine. The Queen Mine, or Copper Queen, was the most productive mine in Bisbee’s long history. Tours travel via mine train into the mountain. Donned with our hard hats, lights, and bright yellow vests, we were ready for the adventure.
The train roared to life as we plunged into the dark depths of the Queen Mine. Our tour guides, Dave and Steve would be there to explain some of the interesting tidbits and sections of the mine. The Queen Mine was discovered by Jack Dunn, an Army Scout who patrolled the area for Apache Warriors and backed by John Rucker and George Warren. The copper ore in the Queen Mine assayed at 23% -- so high it was considered a literal “bonanza”. Gold and silver, among other minerals were also found as byproducts of the mining process. Production rapidly increased as the area boomed with investors and miners from all over.
Work in the mine was dangerous and brutal. Miners earned a decent wage, but often worked 10-12 hour shifts in the candlelight in the dusty conditions. Mules were used to haul ore out to the surface initially. The mules lived underground 24/7 for a couple years at a time as the tunnel workings were so extensive. Later, engines hauled the ore out of the mine. The rail system utilized a 2% downgrade to bring the ore to the mouth of the mine.
We continued deeper into the mine on the trolley as we learned about drilling and blasting techniques used in this and other mines at the time. Drilling was a dangerous job that consisted of 1-2 people per team. The Copper Queen Mine suffered numerous casualties during its operational period. Blasting took place toward the end of shift, but was completed with workers still in the mine.
We concluded the tour with a stop at the ore cart hoist and loading station. Complete with graffiti from the 1920s and a classic, two-seater pooper car we wrapped up our tour and headed back to the surface. While this tour only begins to scratch the surface of such a large and productive group of mines, we still enjoyed ourselves and enjoyed looking into one of the most productive mines in Arizona.
The Good Enough Mine was just that. “Good enough” ore to pursue and make a profit. This however was primarily a silver mine. The mines in Tombstone would collectively produce 32 million ounces of silver. Eventually, hitting the water table in the deeper levels of the mine would lead to the downfall of the mines and the eventual decline of the town in the 1910s. Our tour was led by our guide Sam, and while shorter and less extensive than the Copper Queen, we still enjoyed seeing some of the original workings, artifacts, and hearing stories of conditions in the mines and in the town.
Back at the surface, we grabbed some food and drinks at one of the oldest saloons in town – the Crystal Palace. The ornate bar and impressive paintings made it real easy to imagine this place serving ranch hands, county sheriffs, and everything in between. However, probably the most notable event in Tombstone history can’t be glossed over. And it seemed as if something was starting in the streets. It was near the OK Corral on October 26, 1881 when the Earps and Doc Holliday clashed with the Clanton’s and McLaury’s over a political, personal, and family feud that left three dead on the streets of Tombstone. Those three that died are buried today in the nearby Boothill Graveyard along with plenty of other innocent and guilty citizens alike who were laid to rest for numerous -- and often interesting -- other reasons.
Nevertheless, it was nearly 4:00 and we still had 30 miles of dirt to cover before our overnight stop. We departed Tombstone and aired down as we set our sights east on Middlemarch Road. This historic trail once connected Ft. Bowie and Ft. Huachuca and passes through the scenic Dragoon Mountains. After about 10 miles of trail, we began to climb. The scenery immediately improved. Eventually we reached the nearly 6,000 foot Middlemarch Pass and began to head down. The trail got rougher and narrower. A short while later we decided to take a detour, off the main road to see if we could find an old mine up the wash. After about a mile of driving on some off-camber washouts and larger rocks, we arrived at the ruins of yet another mining camp. Not much is known about this site deep in the Dragoons, unfortunately. We retraced our route and continued east into the Sulphur Springs Valley.
We had made it to the east side of the Dragoons and began to head north towards Cochise Stronghold. Just a few miles later we had reached our overnight stop and last cabin of the trip – Half Moon Ranch. Nestled in the shadow of the towering walls of Cochise Stronghold, this old ranch house was plenty big enough for the two us. This would be our base for the night and allow us to get a good night’s rest and a shower. We were quite impressed with the cabin’s amenities which even included its own windmill. Darkness quickly descended and we made a quick dinner. We would be doing burgers one more time in an effort to not waste the food we brought. We turned in early yet again.
After sleeping in a little, we woke up around 7:30. Upon stepping outside, we were surprised with one hell of a view. The towering rocks of Cochise Stronghold dwarfed our seemingly small cabin. This area was known to be a hideout for the legendary and fearless Apache leader, Cochise himself. The stark beauty clashed with the rugged terrain and showed why this area of the Dragoons would provide a formidable defense position for Cochise band of Chiricahua Apaches, and why the US has such trouble tracking down these small bands.
After considerable time enjoying the outside, we grabbed a quick bite and set out on the long process of packing up our gear and loading up the Jeep once again. Upon leaving here we would be heading northeast on paved roads before reaching another terrain change. We aired up before leaving the cabin, and by 10:00 AM, we were rolling of the gate with the cabin and Cochise Stronghold in our rearview mirror. This had proved to be a great overnight stop and we were glad to have been able to grab a shower and a good night’s rest.
A short stint on Highway 191 northbound and we were faced with our next obstacle. We turned off the paved road and headed east into new territory. This was Wilcox Playa. This dry lake bed spans over 80 square miles. And only about 15,000 years ago, this lake had a depth of around 45 feet. Since then however, the lake has become a barren wasteland home to an annual migration of birds, vehicle tracks, and an active rail line that splits the playa in two. We drove out into the eerie surface and stopped to take it all in. The surface is somewhat soft and malleable, giving way underfoot and under vehicle load. At one point, the southern part of the Playa was used for bombing practice during WWII by the nearby Davis-Mothan AFB. At this time of year, not much greets you other than the occasional dust devil and trains passing by.
We set out eastbound on the playa and were actually able to cover the ground pretty quick. The Jeep didn’t struggle as we trucked along the strange terrain. Before we knew it we had reached the end of the playa and continued onto unimproved roads. Eventually we reached the town of Wilcox. We took this opportunity to refuel the gas tanks and the food tanks before jumping back on the interstate. A thick dust cloud rose from the playa behind us. We would be following I-10 east an additional 25 miles to the Bowie turnoff.
In the sleepy town of Bowie we got off the interstate and headed south towards Fort Bowie. The thin ribbon of asphalt meandered south past the Dos Cabezas Mountains. After about 10 miles it turned to dirt, and not long after, we arrived at the Fort Bowie trailhead.
To see Fort Bowie, we would have to hike an additional 1.5 miles south into the mountains to view the ruins. The first of three main stops on the hike is the old Apache Stage Station. This structure was used on the short-lived Butterfield Stagecoach Route from St. Louis to San Francisco. This and other stations in southern Arizona resupplied the coaches as they made their journey west. The station was originally given supplies by Cochise and other Apaches but following the Bascom Affair in 1861, hostilities were on the rise and this station near Apache Pass was one of the most dangerous. Further south is the Post Cemetery. Numerous soldiers from the Fort are buried on site as well as other notables. A Medal of Honor Recipient as well as Geronimo’s son are laid to rest here.
Even further south are the ruins of the main fort, which during its heyday was actually an impressive collection of 38 buildings. Built in 1868, this fort stood guard until 1894, playing a role in numerous important events and meetings. Most of the buildings are severely deteriorated but most of the original foundations remain. Notable buildings on site include the barracks, officers’ quarters, commanding officers quarters, hospital, school, supply store, and powder magazine. Nevertheless, it was nearly 3:00 and it was time to get back to the Jeep.
Once back at the Jeep we continued west up and over Apache Pass. The road back to Highway 186 was fast and quick moving. Just a few miles of highway were followed by the drive towards the Chiricahua Mountains and Chiricahua National Monument. We were going to visit the monument, however, it was closed at the time. A recent fire burned in the south part of the park and charred the surrounding mountain. Apparently, we had just missed the Pinery Canyon Fire, and the evidence of fire retardant and charred ground remained.
We aired down for the last time and continued to climb into the mountains on Forest Road 42 in Pinery Canyon. The road climbed a lot. Things remained in fairly good shape and the views were constantly improving. Eventually we reached Onion Saddle and continued south as we approached our campsite. Up here, the elevation was around 8,000 feet, which wasn’t a problem. What was a problem however, was the wind. Even at 5:00, the strong wind gusts made the mountain air quite chilly and we were concerned about staying warm for the night. Strict fire restrictions were in place at this point across much of the National Forests, so we needed to find another way to stay warm. We drove around a little bit, looking at different camping options around the scenic Rustler Park area, before settling on a place in the shadow of Barfoot Lookout.
We set up camp as the sun dropped below the horizon. We kept things close to the Jeep so we wouldn’t have to worry about anything blowing away. Tonight’s dinner plans called for chili and cornbread yet again – a meal we are always trying to re-do after the El Camino disaster – however early fire restrictions throughout the state and recent evidence of fire forced us to revise our plans. We ended up falling back on an old classic – kielbasa and glorious cheese whiz. And oh boy, was it good once again.
The temps dipped into the high-40s that night and we enjoyed a pretty decent night high up in the Chiricahua’s. We awoke to beautiful weather, and some beautiful views in this heavily forested area near Barfoot Park. High up on the mountain peak above us were the remains of Barfoot Lookout, a fire tower built in 1935 and ironically burned in the 2011 Horseshoe 2 fire that consumed much of the area. After a simple breakfast of oatmeal and spam, we loaded up the Jeep one last time. We retraced our route back to Onion Saddle and headed east down the mountain.
The trail dropped quickly. Within minutes we had traversed the narrow and winding mountain road, and the temperature was already beginning to warm up. After a few miles we had bottomed out and turned left into Cave Creek Canyon. This scenic road, connecting to Portal, Arizona has been called the “Yosemite of Arizona”, and it was pretty clear to see why. Before we knew it we had arrived in the tiny community of Portal. We headed west for one final stint on dirt roads.
Special Thanks to:
Bureau of Land Management & Coronado National Forest
Queen Mine Tour & Good Enough Mine Tour
All our family and friends for the continued support.
Back on the surface, we hopped back in the Jeep. We decided to immediately head north to our next destination and another popular mining town: Tombstone. We proceeded north on Highway 80, through Mule Pass Tunnel and down towards ‘the town too tough to die’. Tombstone is another one of those iconic towns where if you’ve been to, you know how awesome it is. While it isn’t a big “off-road destination”, we couldn’t help but stop here on our trip.
The second you enter Tombstone, you take a step back in time. Cowboys wander the streets and stagecoaches roll down main street. Old buildings and saloons remain in place where they stood back in the days when Earp’s and Clanton’s wandered these same streets. We parked the Jeep and hopped out on foot to get a lay of the land. We had a few hours to kill before having to head back off-road to get to our overnight stop 30 miles away.
The first thing we opted for was another mine tour. This time, we’d be heading underground to explore the Good Enough Mine, discovered by Ed Schefflin himself. Ed Shefflin was a prospector who was exploring the area in 1879 and told by soldiers at the nearby Fort Huachuca that “the only valuable stone he would find in these hostile parts would be his own tombstone”. And that’s exactly what he found – the mines that would lead to his success and the boom of Tombstone. The town grew from 100 to 14,000 and was home to 110 different saloons.
We traveled 5 miles west, passing through the near ghost-town of Paradise at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains. Paradise was once an active mining town developed Chiricahua Development Company in 1901. The town held saloons, stores, and even a jail until it was abandoned in 1943. All of 5 residents remain today in a town that doesn’t have much more than a few buildings and a pretty empty cemetery. We continued north finishing up the last few miles of our journey before hitting the blacktop the rest of the way home.
We aired up and bid farewell to the Chiricahua’s and what was an epic trip across southeastern Arizona. Our total adventure had covered about 500 miles of varying terrain, up steep mountains and across wide valleys along the Mexican border. We visited ghost towns, both completely abandoned and full of tourists on our incredible journey. Thanks for tuning into our latest adventure. Be sure to check out the videos of this trip over on our Youtube. Until next year’s big special – we’ll see you guys on the trails!
An overview of our route. (Click to enlarge photos)