The enchanting Dragoon Mountains, located in southeastern Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, is a land of startling contrasts and variety. It’s one of 12 scattered ranges, known as sky islands, that rise dramatically from the desert floor. A visitor may have the opportunity to experience all four seasons in a single day’s journey, from a hot desert dotted with saguaro cacti to mountain pine trees dusted with snow.
The national forest’s 1,780,000 acres, which range from 3,000 to 10,720 in elevation, nurture biologically diverse plant communities. Some species in this region might also be found in Mexico; others in Canada.
Spanish explorer Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition were the first nonnative people to explore the region. They were searching for the legendary Seven Golden Cities; instead, they discovered a vast, empty country of grassy hills and rugged mountains.
Arizona’s Natural Beauty
The Dragoon Mountains are located just east of Tombstone, Arizona. We embarked on this trip with our living-quarters trailer and our two smooth-gaited horses: Kent’s horse, Cody, and Charlene’s horse, Jake. We were looking forward to riding and camping in the Dragoons with our friends Arlo and Michelle Slack.
From Benson, travel south on Arizona State Route 80. Just before Tombstone, turn left (east) on the Middlemarch Rd. Follow the fairly good gravel road for 10 miles to the Forest Service boundary, where the road forks. Take the left fork, and travel 2.4 miles to the camping areas. The last 2.4 miles goes over a slow, single-track road, but our living-quarters trailer had no problem navigating this stretch.
At this point, you’ll see several camping areas scattered among boulder formations festooned with patches of cottonwood and oak trees. It’s a picturesque setting—a large bowl wrapped with boulders and capped with the jagged Dragoons looming to the east. Traveling past here with a living-quarters trailer isn’t recommended; the road is rocky, rutted, and not maintained.
Nearby is a seasonal stream, but it was dry on our visit. If you visit, be sure to bring enough water for you and your equine friends. There are no facilities at these camps, just the natural beauty of the area.
Our friends Arlo and Michelle are equine enthusiasts. When Arlo was a young boy, he was exposed to the useful side of horses. His grandfather had a team of workhorses that he used in harvesting crops. As a child, Arlo clambered on them and gained an appreciation for their strength and patience. Years flew by, and once again, Arlo was drawn to horses, but this time it was because of a certain gal who loved
Michelle began riding when she was 6 years old and spent three years trying to ride a burro bareback. When she was 10 years old, she got an 18-year-old horse. Two years later, her dad sold her trustworthy horse and gave her an unbroken 3-year-old Arabian-Quarter Horse cross named Redwing.
What’s a 12-year-old girl to do with a green, spirited horse, no corral, and left to her own devices? If you’re Michelle, you get a book on horse training and get to work. She worked very hard on training Redwing and figured out ways around obstacles that would have deterred many adults. For the next 25 years, Redwing was her beloved equine partner.
Council Rocks Ride
Dawn brought the morning sun’s golden glow cascading down the boulder mountains, filling our camp with a cozy warmth. There are three rides from this camp, and the horses were eager to get started. We decided to first ride to the historic site of Council Rocks.
In 1872, the Apache chief Cochise signed a peace treaty here with General O.O. Howard. The Dragoons were Cochise’s homeland and stronghold for many years. This site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
This ride is a visual delight through varied terrain of open country, forests, valleys, and rock formations. Arlo and Michelle had been to this area on previous rides. They led out on their trusty Rocky Mountain Horses, leading us on a beautiful journey back in time.
From camp, ride west on the road about one-half mile to the Slavin Gulch Trailhead. Go through the gate on this trail. In short order, take the next unmarked trail to the left. This trail goes up over a pass that wends through a puzzle of boulders, rock formations, and balanced rocks punctuated with scrub oak.
After this pass, the trail takes you onto a flat, with vast valley views to the left and a view of huge boulder mountains to the right. Continue riding until you come up to a dirt road. Turn right on the road, and ride about a mile to a cattle guard and gate. Go through this gate; immediately, the road forks. Go right, and then take the first trail to
Follow this trail into an open flat, and then bear right across the flat to trees and a fence line. A rock-climbing school sometimes camps in this area; participants climb the incredible boulder mountains you see to the right.
Go through the green gate in the fence, and ride the trail straight out and slightly left to a parking lot. This is the parking lot for Council Rocks. To the right, there’s a flat area with trees where you can tie your horse. Follow the trail uphill about 100 feet to Council Rocks, a wonderland of geology and history.
Council Rocks is actually a gigantic boulder pile that’s so large, a room is formed beneath the rocks. We entered the room and saw grinding mortars on the floor where, hundreds of years ago, people ground grain with rock pestles. On the outside walls are pictographs, some drawn perhaps a thousand years ago.
Slavin Gulch Ride
For a different route back, return to the green gate and then take a trail veering left across the flat. This trail follows the boulder mountain on the left and eventually comes to a small, boulder-strewn pass. The trail goes down the other side and partly into a wash with mountains on either side and larger scrub oak dotting the valley. Eventually, the trail comes to the Slavin Gulch Trail, where you turn right and return
Our second ride was up Slavin Gulch; parts of this ride are difficult. We encountered boulders and rocky sections that became more abundant the farther up we went. Our goal was to check out the area below the Abril Mine farther up the gulch.
Begin riding at Slavin Gulch trailhead, and follow it up the valley instead of turning left to Council Rocks. This is a beautiful valley with a good trail up to a wire gate. After the gate, the trail struggles uphill through rocky, boulder-strewn sections. Our horses picked their way up and through boulders.
On one particularly tough batch of rocks, Charlene’s horse lurched to the side and passed under a clutching branch that began sweeping her off her horse onto the boulders. Fortunately, she stopped her horse just before departing her seat.
After a while, the trail comes out into a fairly wide valley with good views all around. You’ll gain quite a bit of elevation as you ride up into pine-covered mountains. It’ll be hard to believe you’re in southern Arizona. You’ll ride through a forest of oak, juniper, and pinyon pines. We saw pinyon jays and northern flickers skirting among the pines.
Eventually, you’ll come to the tailings and remains of what was probably a loading dock. The batteries in our GPS died, so we’re guessing that this is about 5 miles up. This is where zinc and copper ore came down a chute from the Abril Mine and was loaded up to be taken out. The mine itself is located farther up the mountain. Two Abril brothers started this mine around 1915. It’s hard to imagine mule-drawn wagons struggling up and down this route.
Arizona’s Easy Terrain
The third ride from camp was a welcome, easy ride after the previous leg stretcher. From camp, follow the ridge on the north side of the valley and east along the boulder mountain. Instead of going to the right along the mountain, drop into a valley with trees to the left. Continue east up this valley to a fence with a gate. Go through this gate and follow the trail southeast between two boulder mountain ranges.
This is a tranquil valley with juniper, oak, and grasslands with intermittent pockets of silver shrubs and boulder formations.
The trail gradually gains a small amount of elevation and comes to a pass. From here, you can see points to the south and east, and all the way to Tombstone. Much of this is over easy terrain with ample opportunities for loping or gaiting.
You may continue riding east, follow old roads, or go cross-country and make up your own route. You can return the same way or turn right, cross the road you drove in on, and return to camp on the other side of the road, making a loop.
No trip to the Dragoons would be complete without riding the most famous trail in the mountain range—the Cochise Stronghold trail on the other side of the Dragoon range.
To locate the trailhead, load up your horses, and drive around the mountain. Return to State Route 80, turn right to Benson, and take Interstate 10 east. Take the Dragoon Exit 318, and drive east onto Cochise Stronghold Rd., which leads to the stronghold.
This is the area where the famed Apache Chief Cochise was born, lived, and is secretly buried. It’s easy to see why it’s called a stronghold. You can’t see the hidden valley circled by pine-covered mountains until you are almost there.
At the end of the road, there’s a Forest Service campground where horses aren’t allowed. Before the road ends, turn left at the trailhead, where a fence and the ruins of an old building lie like a forgotten skeleton among trees. You may camp here, but there are no facilities.
Another option is to stay at the Lazy Horse Ranch (lazyhorseranch.com) in nearby Pearce, Arizona. This is a full-service horse RV park. They even have a trailer you can use to haul your horse to riding locations so you can leave your living-quarters trailer in camp. Friendly personnel will give you valuable information on riding the Cochise Stronghold, as well as in the Chiricahua National Monument (nps.gov/chir) to the east.
Accompanying us on our ride in the Cochise Stronghold were our good friends Cole and Ann Younger, who traveled from Montana to ride in Arizona (and points in between) with their matched black-and-white Missouri Fox Trotters.
Ride out of the parking area, turn right, and follow the fence line past a trail coming from the campground. After about 1.5 miles, there’s a trail to the left. Take the right trail and continue up the mountain valley. The trail follows a stunning route through a forested valley into an area of blocky boulder rock formations and views out to the distant valleys below.
When we were riding here a few years ago, we heard a cracking explosion, then saw a dust column swirling skyward. As we rounded the corner, we saw that a house-sized boulder had lost its grip on the mountain and crashed down into the valley. A thought-provoking moment!
After several miles, you come to Halfmoon Tank. In the 1930s, cattlemen built a dam here to hold water for cattle. This is a good place to tie your horse, find a “soft” rock to sit on, and have lunch while enjoying the picturesque pond. After Halfmoon Tank, the trail climbs, and then crosses a fairly level area to a fence and gate. Here, you’ve actually crossed to the other side of the Dragoon Mountains. Through the gate, you’ll see that the trail descends to the areas you explored on the first three rides (a descent of more than 1,000 feet). This is a good turnaround point.
Tombstone Monument Ranch
For a more in-depth exploration, check out the Tombstone Monument Ranch & Cattle Company (tombstonemonumentranch.com), located on the edge of the historic town of Tombstone. Here, you’ll have an opportunity to get a little pampering and go on a wide variety of rides.
This isn’t a typical guest ranch; everything is your choice. You decide how long you want to stay and how many meals you want each day. Chances are, all your initial choices will expand after you have an opportunity to explore the ranch and see the many opportunities that await.
Enjoy a cowboy breakfast, work cattle, then set off on a ride to view ancient petroglyphs or historic mines.
If you can imagine pickaxes clanking and steam engines echoing in the hills, and muffled horse hooves clopping in the sand, then many of the ranch’s rides are right up your alley. Wranglers will guide you into history as you ride alongside abandoned railway grades that once hauled mining ore, supplies, and passengers.
Abandoned mines, broken-down mining shacks, and rusty mining tools are all remnants of dashed hopes and broken dreams.
Countless riding adventures await you and your equine companion in the Coronado National Forest. Saddle up, because daylight’s burning!