With numerous superlative natural wonders strewn across the northern and western parts of Arizona — the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument come to mind — it is no wonder that the southeastern corner of this diverse state receives fewer tourists.
While locals value the lush forests covering rugged mountains that float like green islands above a stunning desert sea, the majority of visitors are unaware of the remote beauty, quirky towns and border flavor that this part of Arizona has to offer.
I was on my way to a camping spot in Carr Canyon, possibly my favorite spot in the entire country and one of a dozen canyons that slice through the jagged Huachuca Mountains, which rise to nearly 10,000 feet at Miller Peak. A number of steep dirt roads offer access to this section of the Coronado National Forest, including miles and miles of hiking trails. Here forests of pines and firs cover steep slopes, looming above grasslands in the foothills and the Sonoran Desert several thousand feet below.
I was one of the crazies, driving a Grand Marquis of all models, and hoping I wouldn’t leave the entire undercarriage on the mountain.
Albeit slowly, I was making progress. After a rough section of rock and gravel, I found myself inching the car along the reef, a 1000-foot vertical band of rock blocking access to the mountains. Impossibly, a deranged engineer had decided that a gravel road zigzagging in ever-tightening hairpin turns would allow vehicles to crawl to high elevation. Coming across abandoned mining gear in the mountains reveals why the roads were built in the first place. Hundreds of drivers have followed, mainly in appropriate trucks and jeeps, with a few crazies in sedans.
I was one of the crazies, driving a Grand Marquis of all models, and hoping I wouldn't leave the entire undercarriage on the mountain. Fortunately it hadn't rained in many days, leaving the track barely passable, as if turning around on an eight foot strip of horizontal with hundred foot drop offs to the left and vertical walls to the right would have been an option.
Eventually, I reached the end of the steepest section, with the setting sun just throwing its last golden splendor across the town of Sierra Vista far below. I sped up to 5 mph to reach camp. A black bear ambled across the road and slowed me down once more before I pulled into the campground. The road ends here for good with designated wilderness beginning just 100 yards down the trail.
To hike or not to hike
During weekdays, the agglomeration of flat spots and picnic tables at Ramsey Vista Campground lies mainly abandoned and there is just a whisper of wind in the scattered pines and birds voice their final concerns before going to roost. After pitching camp, I threw a few essentials into a backpack for an early start the following morning.
A predawn start allowed me to cover more than a dozen miles the next day. An extensive trail system winds through stands of towering firs, past cool streams and across grassy meadows flooded with yellows, blues and reds of wildflowers during late summer. The forests have experienced numerous wildfires during the past decades, but the open areas offer magnificent views and the chance for flowers to thrive. After several miles, I found myself traversing the drier western ridge with its endless views of the San Rafael Valley below stretching all the way into Mexico.
Biologically, it is like taking a trip across the border without passports or checkpoints.
If a long hike is not to one's taste, the nearby Ramsey Canyon Preserve or Beatty's Guest Ranch, have good access roads, the latter offering accommodation high in the mountains set amidst apple orchards. Both places allow for easy meandering in the cool mountain forests without having to put on serious hiking boots. Each of the numerous canyons, Ramsey, Carr, Miller and Ash offer slightly different views and trails and if time permits all should be visited.
Do not be surprised to run into dozens of nature enthusiasts, who migrate here during spring and summer to watch the dozen or so species of hummingbirds. They bustle around the busy hummingbird feeder like the sugar-crazed birds themselves. It just so happens that southeastern Arizona is a naturalist's paradise, with much of its flora and fauna exhibiting strong ties to the Sierra Madre and subtropics in Mexico. Biologically, it is like taking a trip across the border without passports or checkpoints.
Further east lie the Chiricahuas, once the haunt of Apaches, which is by far the most extensive mountain range in southeastern Arizona. The Chiricahua National Monument protects significant and beautiful geologic formation. Here, trails wind past rhyolite tuff and overlooks offer the chance to appreciate the hoodoos formed by millions of years of erosion. The road into the monument offers the first glimpses of what is to come. Large columns of rock tower above, seemingly scattered at random along the steep slopes of the canyon. Rocks balance precariously on pinnacles and spires that glow deep red in the setting sun. A visitor center provides maps and information on the local geology, flora and fauna.
You can reconnect with civilization after two or three days on wilderness trails at nearby Patagonia.
Beyond the monument, a good gravel road crosses the mountains, offering access to the cooler high elevations. There are many places to pitch a tent or just picnic for the day, before reaching the tiny town of Portal. Beyond Portal lies the desert and New Mexico.
You can reconnect with civilization after two or three days on wilderness trails at nearby Patagonia, which offers the right mix of quirky restaurants, interesting galleries and quality wineries to suit nearly every taste.
Close to town lies Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy. This stretch of land protects one of the last intact riparian stream systems in Arizona and offers the chance for a quick walk beneath shady willows lining the gurgling waters of Sonoita Creek. Less than an hour down the road, Patagonia Lake State Park harbors a lake that allows for water sports and fishing, making this area an excellent base for a diversity of outdoor activities.