Sunday, February 4, 2024

Rambling Around the East Flank of Turquoise Ridge, Dragoon Mountains


After a leisurely morning beginning with the $5.99 breakfast special at Sandy's (opt for the side of hash brown casserole; it's damned tasty) and a drive along Turkey Creek near Johnny Ringo's death site, we took Courtland Road back as we neared home. We diverted north onto the Pierce Road and stopped by some lovely stone ruins of what had once been a grand old building. Just west of it is the east flank of Turquoise Ridge, not far from the ghost towns of Courtland or, nearer to home and to the south, Gleeson. 

These are the mountains I look out upon as I sit here at the computer. I see the south face of them, and the traces and slag from the old copper mines at Gleeson. Turquoise Mountain, though, is (shockingly enough) more known for its turquoise mining. 

Today I wanted to see how close I could get to a specific gorge in the mountains, just below the ridge (see the dark "v" almost dead center in the photo above, taken from the ruins). Having not much time to hike back and still get home to give my special pup his meds on time, I figured I'd get as close as I could and then return with more time, a day pack with a sandwich, and my GPS to mark the site. 

My other half, maintaining a comfortable distance as we hiked "together."

Near here, along what was once the stage route that conveyed travelers to Tombstone starting in 1890, was the settlement of Turquois (as they then spelled it) and its multiple saloons, hotels, eating places, and store. There is no "first jail" where one can visit ruins; the "jail" was, in the 1890s, a live-oak tree to which offenders would be shackled by the ankle, as many as three transgressors at a time. Miners produced silver ore from the area (the Turquois Mining District) and freighted it to mills at Soldier's Hole in the valley below and to the east. The glory days didn't last long: In 1894 the demonetization of silver closed the enterprises. Miners abandoned the camp. Just two remained behind to dig for the semi-precious turquoise prevalent in the area that had long been mined by native people. Those two, Silas Bryant and N. C. Rascal, eventually deeded most of their claims to a New Yorker, G. Armeny. Armeny had the enviable fortune of contracting with Tiffany & Co. to provide the turquoise they sold. Despite turquoise selling for less per ounce than gold, Armeny made a greater profit than those digging the precious metal: he sent shipments of the blue-green rocks to New York for up to $500 a pound. Under various owners, the hills produced a great deal of turquoise up through 1936 when the claims, largely exhausted, were sold to Indian traders in New Mexico for jewelry crafting. (Source: The Dragoon Mountains, by Lynn Bailey.)

Some pretty rocks still remain in the Dragoons

But back to the hike. We poked around some mining slag heaps and what appeared to be long-abandoned sites where ore was washed, then headed cross-country up the hillside to the small gorge that incited my curiosity. This time of year, there's not much greenery, but there - in the v of the mountainside - are green trees, what appears to be a small cave, and a field of ocotillo on the slopes. Often, ocotillo-covered slopes are a "tell" of underground caverns. The trees make me think there's a spring there.

Ruins near the slag heap. Note the horizontal pipe extending from the right side. 

There is a mining road, parts of which have long since seen any use, proceeding up to Turquoise Ridge, but the switchbacks built in for the safety of hauling ore make it more direct to just forge through the nasty-ass mesquite and up and down a few steep ravines. The terrain is rough and the loose rocks made my bad ankle turn on a few occasions, but with the assistance of a sotol shaft as a makeshift walking stick, I survived. 

The intended destination. I got this close!

We got as close to the little gorge in the hillside as possible before I decided to head back. So close! Within reach, but not today. Not the ocotillo in the lower right foreground and the vertical sotol shafts scattered across the slope in front of the gorge. 

And so we turned back into the mesquite and the loose rock and made our way to the Jeep by the ruins.
The hike back on a stretch of old mining road. Note the two structures in the distance: That's where we parked. The Swisshelm Mountains are in the background, with the snow-covered Chiricahuas at left. 

The ocotillo faded away as we hiked, as did the sotol, leaving red rock, grass, and that blasted nasty-ass thorny mesquite. Plenty of lovely purple-hued antique glass dots various sites along the hike, along with rusted fragments of cans and plenty of cow chips from the herds that still roam the ranches here. 

The path turned the prettiest color of rust for part of the hike. The Chiricahuas are at background right.

We knew we were close to the Jeep when we hit this fork in the road.

These mountains - the Dragoons - are filled with fabulous ruins, be they of stone-built buildings or concrete mining structures. I have to laugh reading Yelp reviews of the ghost towns here; a lot of readers are distinctly unimpressed because the ghost towns are "nothing but ruins." Some even put "ghost towns" in scare quotes to drive home the point they doubt that such remnants of the past are, in fact, ghost towns. Dear Reader, please note that a ghost town is, de facto, ruins and remnants and tattered, wind-eaten walls. You will not find cute boutiques here with T-shirts and scorpion-filled resin keychains. You're only 15 miles from Tombstone, though, so have at it. Here, you'll be able to visit the wonderful "living" ghost town at Pierce, the many ruins along the Ghost Town Trail (including at Gleeson, a mile from my home),  and a shop at the privately-owned town of Turquoise, where you can even buy some turquoise. There's plenty to look at if you get out of your car and walk around those crumbling stone walls along the way.

Yours truly, old dog-eared ruins among the ruins.

If you go: I'd call this a moderate hike; short, but with plenty of slope, rough terrain, and the nasty-ass mesquite. During warmer months you'll need water and to be very aware of the rattlesnakes. There are open mines, shafts, and pits throughout these mountains, so watch where your feet will fall at every step. The ravines are steep and slippery. There's often no one around, so be aware and be self-sufficient. No bathrooms. No trail guide. No signs. The way life ought to be. And if you pack it in, pack it out.

For further reading: I love this book by Lynn Bailey that I sourced above. If you buy it through this affiliate link, I thank you for your purchase as I may receive a commission. The Dragoon Mountains

Copyright (c) 2024 by Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express written or electronic permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, forwarding, citing, or otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thank you for stopping by and taking a moment to appreciate this amazing state of Arizona.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Chiricahua's "Wonderland of Rocks" Scenic Drive


Some places I crave the same way I crave a good steak or a hot cup of morning coffee. Lately I've been craving another plate of Chiricahua Mountains. Down in the San Pedro valley, the trees are changing color; I figured the sycamores in the Chiricahua Monument would be strutting their fall stuff. The windy season is back upon us here in the Dragoon foothills outside of Tombstone, so it's the perfect day for a scenic drive to the monument. 

View from Massai Point

And so off we went to seek autumn and sanity. The brief drive up Bonita Canyon Drive packs a lot of punch for its length, with some of the most breathtaking and unique views in Arizona. Starting with tree-canopied roads, the route climbs into the rock-spired heart of the Chiricahuas.

Bonita Canyon 

To the north, the drive overlooks Bonita Canyon with its layers of mountains folded against each other. Trailheads mark the roadsides, varying from easy trails at the start near the historic Faraway Ranch house and at the end with the Massai Nature Trail to the most challenging, Heart of Rocks Loop, buried among the vast expanse of rock spires. 

Rock Spires at Massai Point

Today, we hiked just the easy nature trail at Massai Point and, quite literally hanging onto our hats against the fierce wind, just a brief foray along Sugarloaf Trail.

Manzanita along Sugarloaf Trail

Spires as seen from Sugarloaf Trail

The spires - an army of thousands of lichen-covered rock spires - can hardly fail to astonish with their other-worldliness and drama. Some are famous for their shapes or physics-defying appearances, with some of the most distinctive given names such as "Sea Captain," or "China Boy." Within the Heart of Rocks Loop a hiker will see Punch and Judy, Duck on a Rock, or Pinnacle Balanced Rock. I remember seeing these images in the pages of the 1970s Arizona Highways Magazines long before I ever ventured into the Chiricahuas in person during college. 

Spires and spires and more spires

In these mountains named for the Chiricahua Apache people whose great Chief, Cochise, gave his name to our county, it's appropriate one of the formations bears a likeness to the prone profile of Cochise. It is known, appropriately, as Cochise Head. 

Not the best angle, but you can still make out the profile of Cochise among the crags in the background.

At top of Sugarloaf Mountain (at 7310 feet) and at the end of the .9 mile trail is a historic fire tower.  Burnt-out landscapes from a massive fire several years ago bear witness to the need for such towers. The mountains are recovering, but burned skeletons of trees are still prevalent, and flash-flooding remains a hazard during the rainy seasons. 

To left, the ramada atop Sugarloaf. 

Dotting these hills viewed from Massai Point are the burned remains of trees damaged in a fire several years ago.

We opted to save the "real" hike for future trips when the wind is less of an impediment, but expect to return when the snow hits for some more eye feasts. On our list for warmer weather (many of the area roads and trails are closed during winter) are hikes along the trails, one at a time, farther into the wilderness area. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the Natural Bridge from the 2.4 mile Natural bridge Trail (4.8 mile total - it's not a loop) and, of course, the Heart of Rocks Loop (a 1.1 mile loop over challenging terrain after you've hiked in on longer, but more moderate, trails.) 

Husband Person looking perfectly comfortable in the chilly, windy weather along Sugarloaf Trail. 

As for the autumn color extravaganza? Once we were in the pines and oak, we had lush greens but little in the way of oranges and yellows. The lower parts of the roads and the basins along the creeks were lined with tall trees, some of which were exquisite this time of year (November). 

Wildlife was scarce this morning as well, but you might be able to spot the three critters well-camouflaged in the photo below. On hikes, you're sure to see plenty others, including coatimundi, javelina, deer, birds you won't find farther north in the state, rattlesnakes, and (being so close to the border), illegal border crossers and drug smugglers - so be cautious and don't hike alone.

If you go: Take 191 from either I-10 between Benson and Willcox or from Elfrida and turn onto 181 when you're at Sunizona / Mustang Mall. Stop in at Sandy's for a great lunch or breakfast! Follow 181 east to 186 (there are signs to help you navigate to the monument) and continue to the visitor's center. Stop in for some shopping - I can never avoid picking up an embroidered cap, books, and postcards - and for your free map. Remember to take jackets and water. It can be surprisingly cold in the mountains even when the weather is hot in surrounding areas, and the altitude will help dehydrate you. 

For further reading: One of several books I picked up at the visitor center (and read much of on the drive home) is an excellent overview of the history of the Chiricahua pioneers and wittily named "A Portal to Paradise" (one town on the east side of the mountains is Portal, and another within the mountains themselves is called Paradise - and both have colorful histories).  It's beautifully written and features some historic photos I hadn't seen before. You can buy a copy here (I may receive commissions from items purchased through this link, so thank you!): A Portal to Paradise

So get out there either on foot, on horseback, or in your car and enjoy these stunning mountains - or do some armchair traveling with A Portal to Paradise! Thank you for stopping by.

Copyright (c) 2023 by Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be used with out the express written permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared, and are appreciated * Thank you for reading, sharing, liking, and otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thanks for sharing my love of this great state!

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Visiting Historic Camp Rucker, Cochise County, Arizona


Nestled in one of the most idyllic of locations - the Chiricahua Mountains of Cochise County - are the quiet ruins of one of the lesser-known Cavalry camps of Arizona Territory. It is a ghost fort of many names: Formally known as Camp John A. Rucker, and sometimes referred to as Fort Rucker, the site was originally known as Camp Supply (as were several other Cavalry camps) before being renamed Camp Powers. At first Camp Supply stood near a tributary of the White River, but it was relocated closer to the White River headwaters near the South Fork branch of the river. The original location was established on April 29, 1878, but by the time it was moved to the South Fork site, a double tragedy had occurred. A much-loved and respected officer, Lt. John A. Rucker, had drowned while attempting in vain to save his friend and fellow officer, Lt. Austin Henely, who'd been caught in the floodwaters of one of the desert's fierce summer monsoons on July 11, 1878. Both men had been West Point attendees, although only Henely had graduated from the academy. In honor of Rucker and the affection his men had for him, the camp was renamed in his honor, as was Rucker Canyon and the oft-dry Rucker Lake. 

Lt. John A. Rucker of the 12th Infantry

The little camp is, today, a serene gem far less known or trodden than Fort Bowie, its counterpart on the northern end of the Chiricahuas. Located near quiet campgrounds, it is accessed by taking E. Rucker Canyon Road east from US Highway 191 north of Elfrida. As you pass Devil's Canyon, you'll soon hit a fork in the road: Camp Rucker  Campgrounds are off the branch to the left, and the branch to the right is marked "N. Tex Canyon Road." That's the road that actually brings you to Camp Rucker itself. 

You'll likely be greeted by the local church ladies: fat Angus cows pastured adjacent to the ruins of the camp, watchful for ranchers bringing cake. Forge onward and you'll find the cavernous barn from the site's days as Old Camp Rucker Ranch, after it had been repurposed by area ranchers. (I will add a separate blog entry dealing solely with the camp's second life as a ranch, as it well deserves its own more-detailed treatment.)

Old Camp Rucker Ranch Barn

Surrounding the barn are oak trees, pine, and the stunning backdrop of the Chiricahua cliffs and outcroppings. This time of year - late October - the colors have just begun to turn. 

Beyond the barn is a surprisingly-well preserved adobe structure shaded by oak trees. The roof is new to preserve the building, but the walls are the original adobe. This was the Officers Quarters, likely built in the 1880s. 

The Officers Quarters

Unlike so many of Arizona's historic sites, the buildings at Camp Rucker are accessible: You can walk inside and admire the dappling of the sunlight through the porous rooftops, and sense the scale and feel of them. Inside the Officers Quarters is a surprisingly decorated ceiling, painted by one of the ranch wives after a marital occupation replaced the martial occupation.

Arizona Sistine: The Painted Ceilings of the One-Time Officers Quarters

Beyond the Officers Quarters, to the northwest, stands another well-preserved adobe. Adobe, formed of mud amended with straw and other organic matter, is susceptible to the ravages of wind and rain unless coated with a protective stucco surface. The adobe buildings at Camp Rucker remain uncoated, which offers a good opportunity to see the native material - but will ultimately result in their return to the soil from whence they were created. This adobe building was the camp bakery. 

Camp Rucker Bakery

Inside the bakery is the outline of the oven, a ghost hearth of sorts, reminiscent of the large medieval hearths that both warmed homes and provided cook space. 

Outline of the oven at the Camp Rucker Bakery

The roof and ceiling of the bakery have not been replaced with steel, and still feature the original wood shake shingles; the sunlight (and, on less perfect days, the rain) comes in easily. The sunlight today dropped like so many stars on the walls and floor in a dazzling feat of natural beauty. 

Yards from the bakery are the haunting remains of the original Commissary. The foundation and one corner of the walls are all that remain, a mournful footprint, since the building burned in 1921. 

The final building you will find at the old camp / ranch site is the ranch house of those who followed the military - the Hampes, the Raks, and Mrs. Dana - and despite the toll the years and elements have taken, you can still imagine the cozy loveliness of it. Again, I'll go into the ranch owners separately, but include a couple of photos here in keeping with the "as it stands" theme.

Again, we're fortunate to be able to walk through these doors, just as the ranchers did, and see the view through the windows they once looked from. The ranch house was reinforced by the adobe bricks salvaged from the ruins of the Commissary, used to fortify the occupants from the cold winters in the mountains.

 Although it is a weekend, we encountered only one other group of visitors during our time at Rucker today; a family on foot from the nearby campgrounds. Even the children toted rifles; it is hunting season, after all.

Never tiring of the vast vistas as you drop down from the mountains, we opted to leave via Tex Canyon Road east to US Highway 80, a sixteen-mile trek on dirt roads. Despite the warning about risking tire damage posted as we embarked, the road was easily passable - rough in spots with loose rocks, but otherwise in fine shape. I'm not sure I'd want to take it during a monsoon, but other than the knuckleheads who set camp ON the road itself, it was an easy route that brought us onto the road to either Douglas or Apache. Below are photos of selected parts of Tex Canyon Road as you enter the San Simon Valley and back onto paved roads.

If you go: Take water and weather-appropriate clothing, including a jacket, in case of emergency. There are no facilities at Camp Rucker or along the road to Hwy 80, and you will not have reliable cell phone service or Onstar. There is, however, a ranger station and campground on Rucker Canyon Road north and west of Camp Rucker historic site; to access it, backtrack along Tex Canyon Road and proceed north. 

Copyright (c) 2023 Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be shared without the express written permission of the author * Sharing the links to this page, however, would be greatly appreciated * Thank you for stopping by!