Surf the Sky Islands

By: Roger Naylor

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October 2, 2016

Cochise County exists on the edge.

About the author

Roger Naylor

Roger Naylor

Roger Naylor is a travel writer who hates to travel. At least anywhere beyond his beloved Arizona. He specializes in lonely hiking trails, twisting back roads, diners with fresh burgers sizzling on the grill, small towns, ghost towns and pie. His work appears weekly in the Arizona Republic. He has contributed to Arizona Highways, USA Today, Western Art & Architecture, Go Escape, Route 66 Magazine and dozens more. He is the author of Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers and Arizona Kicks on Route 66. He lives in Cottonwood, Arizona and can be reached through his website, www.rogernaylor.com.

This is where the edge of the Sonoran Desert brushes up against the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. The southern fringe of the Rocky Mountains overlaps with the far northern fringe of the Sierra Madres. Bordered by New Mexico to the east and Old Mexico to the south, this wildly scenic country is the distant edge of Arizona.

Rolling grasslands overtake shaggy forests of mesquite trees and a feisty river slices the desert with a thin knife. Long valleys are dotted by small towns and the ghosts of the towns that didn’t make it. Not long ago, this was the raggedy edge of the frontier and that raw history still lingers close to the surface.

This is a land of “sky islands.” The forested mountaintop islands float above a vast sea of range and desert. They are a sudden lunge – abrupt vertical notes that tower over the terrain and break the backs of clouds. Sky islands are geographic outlaws, creating lush habitats where none should be.

Cochise Stronghold

I ponder all this while snoozing off and on beneath a piñon pine tree in the heart of Cochise Stronghold. A cool breeze brushes past and I finally sit up feeling refreshed. That’s the power of a trail snooze. I may be a fitful sleeper in my own bed, but I can sprawl across a shady rock beside a trail and instantly drop off into dreamland.

Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains is one of my favorite corners of Arizona – a quiet cranny far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I come here to hike and to savor the solitude in big gulps whenever I can.

This is also the raw heart of a sky island. I’m surrounded by a crescendo of granite – angled rock slabs and boulders stacked in curious jumbles. A hem of woodlands adds splashes of green amid the tawny stone. Pines, mesquites and oaks with piously bowed limbs mingle with yucca, agave and the occasional stubborn cactus.     

Dragoon Mountains

The Dragoons rise suddenly from the sagebrush plain. They’re a long narrow range, stretching for 25 miles south to north – a chaotic clutter of rough granite that changes color with the whim of the light. These ramparts once provided refuge to the Apache chief, Cochise. In the mountains, Cochise and his followers could find food, water and medicine, and had a commanding view of the valleys below.

A lone path threads its way up the eastern slope to the Stronghold and down the western side again. But this is so much more than just a hiking trail. I’m walking from one habitat to another, moving from one life zone to the next. These are places that should be great distances apart not just around a few bends of the trail.

Elevation changes everything. Higher in the mountains, temperatures are cooler, different plants thrive and wildlife is more varied, and it all occurs in a span of a mile or two. The Sky Island Alliance claims that this region harbors a diversity exceeding anywhere else in the United States and supports well over half the bird species in North America.

There’s magic afoot in surfing the sky islands that rise above Cochise County.

Cochise County Peaks

That same eye-popping, breath-stealing drama is found in the other isolated ranges that erupt from the lowlands, like the Chiricahua Mountains, Dos Cabezas Mountains, Whetstone Mountains and, especially, the mighty Huachuca Mountains.

With its broken horizon of crests and peaks, the Huachucas loom over the San Pedro Valley, culminating in the 9,466-foot summit of Miller Peak. Lush canyons carved from the east slope of the mountains offer access to high lonesome backcountry via hiking trails and scenic drives. This is a landscape that seduces, just as it has done for decades.

A Land of Legends

This is where Cochise and Geronimo rode. This is the home of the Buffalo Soldiers, where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday shot their way into the history books and where Clantons and McLaurys rest in cold graves on Boot Hill. This is where citizens gathered on hilltops to watch Pancho Villa in battle and where Texas John Slaughter finally restored the peace. When I’m exploring these sky islands I’m actually rambling across the rocky backbone of a land of legends.

So whether you come to savor the biological diversity, the scenic beauty or the rich history, Cochise County pulls you outdoors. This is an edgy, legendary land where adventure can always be found.

(Brought to you by the Cochise County Tourism Council, (520) 432-9215, www.explorecochise.com.)

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