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In the Dragoon Mountains at Cochise Stronghold, Arizona

Pulling into City Of Rocks
Photo credit: —Photos by Barb Belknap

Drive around

—Ty and Barb Belknap

Last month we headed for Cochise Stronghold, in Arizona, stopping first at the library to pick up a couple of biographies on the great Apache chief Cochise. A fast-moving cold front brought nasty weather all the way to Socorro where the rain quit, but the wind kept blowing. We were glad that last month we had left our travel trailer in storage at Elephant Butte, because even though it weighs just 1,500 pounds, it’s tough to pull uphill into a headwind with our four-cylinder Subaru.

Instead of staying the first night at our favorite campsite at the Butte, we drove another thirty miles to Caballo Lake State Park in hopes of finding shelter from the wind. The road led to a pristine campground on the Rio Grande, right below the dam, tucked behind a ridge, wooded with sycamore, cottonwood, and salt cedar.

We had a month left on a well-used one-hundred-dollar (senior rate) annual camping pass that entitled us to a developed campsite with picnic table and shelter, flush toilets, hot showers, and Wi-Fi. It’s a good deal, made even better by the caring campground hosts, volunteers, and rangers who keep New Mexico parks clean.

The front had passed through by morning, so we moved on down the interstates through Hatch, Deming, Lordsburg, and then on through Wilcox, Arizona. Just outside town of Sunsites, we took FR 84 into the Coronado National Forest and occupied the last available of only twelve developed campsites at Cochise Stronghold. The campground is nestled in an oak grove beneath radiant green-and-yellow granite domes and sheer cliffs—the long-time refuge of the great Chief Cochise and up to a thousand Chiricahua.

There was no potable water and no amenities, other than a rather fragrant vault toilet. The sun disappears behind the mountains early this time of year, so there was barely time to hike the half mile, self-interpretive nature trail that loops through a rich profusion of vegetation common to this upper Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert and riparian area. Signs along a short history trail tell a fascinating story of the Stronghold and its people.

The next day, we hiked the Cochise Trail that winds through incredible granite formations across the Dragoons to the Council Rocks historic area. Taking our time (and lots of photos), having it all to ourselves, we both agreed that this was a beautiful trail worth revisiting over the next couple of days.

Back at camp that night, three awkwardly congenial guys from an expeditionary social club in Tucson joined us around the campfire. A hunter with stories to tell dragged a big buck into camp around eight, and, at nine, a bus dropped fifty disadvantaged church-school kids at the group site. Their headlamps lit up the forest like fireflies. We retreated to the invisible cloak of our camper.

Maybe it was a mistake to drive 450 miles to such a small campground or maybe we should have looked for dispersed camping. Maybe summers are so hot in Arizona that the outdoor recreation season is just getting started. The Stronghold was already swarming in the morning when hoards of rock climbers began to stream in. Turns out that it was the weekend of the annual Bean Fest climbing festival.

We surrendered our site and five gallons of water to a couple of grateful Germans and started the drive back home to New Mexico.

And it was good to be back even though driving into a stiff eastern wind on I-40.

At Deming, we took US 180 north for 22 miles and turned onto SR 61 for a quick tour of the fabled Faywood Hot Springs. It costs a mere $31 a day for a couple to park their RV at the historic hot springs, walk around naked, soak, and spend the night. But unfortunately, we’d had enough company at Cochise to last a while, so continued a few miles down the road to City of Rocks State Park for free camping and more elbow room. With seven miles of hiking and biking trails that loop around and through the rocks, there was plenty to do.

Our campsite at the Rocks was in the lee of the largest clump of columnar pinnacles and boulders produced by volcanic activity 35 million years ago. It was on the western edge of the park and had an unobstructed view of vast open desert and the evening’s sunset. It’s also a great place for stargazing. We witnessed a bizarre phenomenon when a fist-sized light suddenly blared amid the stars. It lingered and then puffed out into a huge corona that fizzled away over the next ten minutes.

NM 61 continued north through grassy hillsides through the Mimbres River valley. Its bosque was decked out in brilliant autumn colors. The road forked at NM 152 and climbed into the mountains of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness where all the National Forest campgrounds were closed due to a major forest fire from two years ago that resulted in flash flooding. NM 152 led straight back to Caballo Lake where we spent one last night.

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