Driving east across Arizona, the long, straight stretch of I-10 through the Sonoran Desert seems endless. Then, about 150 miles from New Mexico, the Sky Islands mountain ranges sprout from the valley floor, growing into massive peaks and ranges as you zoom toward them at 75 miles per hour.
Ecologically isolated peaks nearing 10,000 feet, the Sky Islands poke through the mist on cloudy days and make a U-bend around southeastern Arizona to frame Cochise County. Somehow, the northward-flowing San Pedro River found its way around the mountains, creating a roadmap for migratory birds.
In centuries past, the Sky Islands provided excellent hidey-holes for outlaws and Apaches, vantage points for the U.S. Army, and cool retreats for city folk seeking to beat the heat of the valley floor. Geronimo, General Pershing, Johnny Ringo, and the Earp brothers roamed the area, leaving indelible legends in the wind. In later years, the Sky Islands starred in feature films alongside Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott and Nicolas Cage.
Still a backdrop for filmmakers (and a respite from the summer’s heat), the Sky Islands are earning a well-deserved reputation among adventurers.
The southeastern Arizona Sky Islands, partly made up of the Mule, Chiricahua, and Huachuca mountains, are criss-crossed with trails that beckon hikers and mountain bikers. Vertical monoliths challenge rock climbers. And cool, damp canyons create some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Here, vintners grow award-wining wine grapes alongside spicy chiltepin peppers and sweet pistachios. Jaguar, white-nosed coati, and javelina wander under forest canopies, while elegant trogon and myriad hummingbirds zip across blue skies. In fall, butterflies abound.
Montezuma Pass in the Huachucas, just south of Sierra Vista, marks the start of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile hiking trail that stretches from the Arizona/Mexico border to Utah. Dozens of other trails join up with the AZT for challenging hikes or woodsy walks, and jaw-dropping views of Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico. Mountain bikers take to the trails for single track rides; maps are available at Sierra Vista bike shops.
Head east to Cochise Stronghold near Willcox. The Stronghold is strewn with massive boulders amid a maze-like terrain. Mountain bikers, hikers, and rock climbers head to these rugged canyons and craggy hoodoos for classic climbs and outstanding trails. Go a little further east to Chiricahua National Monument where towering rhyolite pinnacles and balancing spires stand alongside the 17 miles of trails. (If you have time, make a side trip down Turkey Track Trail for a gander at Johnny Ringo’s grave, the Old West outlaw and gunfighter made famous by Hollywood writers.)
After hiking around Chiricahua National Monument, head east for 25 miles, via dirt road, toward the Yosemite of Arizona—Cave Creek Canyon. Accessed through the town of Portal, the canyon is described as a birder’s paradise for five months of the year. And, the rest of the time, it’s just paradise. Spend some time communing with nature, and when your ready to rest and eat, head to the Portal Peak Lodge or if you prefer to camp, the Stewart Campground or Sunny Flat Campground are the closest to the canyon
The Mule Mountains Trail is accessed from Highway 80, following a now-abandoned road along Mule Pass for birds-eye views of Bisbee, a reimagined former mining town named by Frommer’s as one of the 18 best places to go. The trail drops onto Old Bisbee’s main thoroughfare, dotted with local restaurants and bars for a nibble and libation.
The lower loop of the Sky Islands cuddles Douglas, a border and former copper-mining town with a rich history. Home to the first international airport in the U.S., this community is anchored by the stately Gadsden Hotel, built in 1907 for visiting mining company executives, and fronted with a massive stained glass window—the only southwestern scene Tiffany ever created. Legend says that the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa rode his horse up the sweeping marble staircase in the early 1900s. Two decades later, a speakeasy opened in the basement and nine decades later the same speakeasy will open again. And yes, it’s said to be haunted.
But aside from the surprising architecture and historic tidbits, this community is home to the San Bernadino National Wildlife Refuge, which shares its conservation efforts with compañeros across the border. The Refuge provides year ‘round habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and offers world-class bird and wildlife watching.
The Refuge is part of a migration superhighway through Cochise County. With near tropical climates in the Sky Islands, Cochise County welcomes an incredible variety of birds that make season-long stops in the Huachucas and along the riparian area. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve, just minutes from downtown Sierra Vista, is one of the country’s top birding spots.
In addition to mining, southeastern Arizona is also known for ranching. Many of the mines are gone, but the ranches remain, run by the descendants of the original families. The Slaughter Ranch, (about a 20-mile drive on the Geronimo Trail outside Douglas), no longer a working ranch, gives visitors a glimpse into the life John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff. He bought the property in 1884 and spent the remainder of his life developing it into a thriving southwestern cattle ranch, despite the harassment from Geronimo and his band as they crossed into Mexico.
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Learn more about legendary Cochise County at www.ExploreCochise.com.