Cochise Strongholds & Council Rocks ~ Arizona

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Benson, AZ


1a-dragoon-mountains.jpgAs I write, my view from our RV windows here in Benson is to the east.  On the horizon, the Dragoon Mountains form a natural barrier, about five miles wide, and 30 miles long, from north to south across the desert.  Midway, rocky canyons on both east and west sides of the mountain range come together at a pass through the Dragoons.  This natural fortress was, for many years the home base, or stronghold, of the Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise (1815-1874) and his followers. An ideal place, since a  year round stream, springs, natural foods and game provided all their needs.  Sentinels posted on higher peaks could spot intruders from many miles away.  And, the canyon’s east and west openings offered escape routes on either end.

I wrote about our visits to both the east and west ends of the stronghold in my third book, SOUTHWEST ADVENTURES.  To reach the East Stronghold:  “We drove east of Benson on I-10, turning south at exit 331 onto Highway #191.After about 17 miles, a gravel road turns west. Another 10 miles took us to the entrance of the stronghold.  The road ends at a lovely campground at the base of the mountains. This is where the main base of the Apache stronghold was located.  A hiking trail starts here and leads over the pass and down to the west side of the stronghold.”

On our first visit to the West  Stronghold, we rode our mountain bikes in on a dirt track from St. David (7 miles south of Benson.)  Unfortunately, this road now stops at a locked gate leading to an exclusive neighborhood of country estates, closing it to the public.

Our oldest son, drove out from Texas to visit us in January, 2007.  Eager to share some of the historic sites in Cochise County, we decided to take him to West Cochise Stronghold.  Today, the only public access involves driving south of Benson on Highway #80.  About a mile north of Tombstone, we turned east on Middle March Road…gravel and “washboard”.  This road continues over Middle March Pass and comes out at the community of Pearce in Sulpher Spring Valley.  However, after about 10 miles, we turned north on another dirt road (FR687) leading into the Coronado National Forest, and the south end of the Dragoon Mountains.

1b-stronghold-canyon.jpgFrom my book: “The scenery was breathtaking.  Tall yellow grasslands at the foot of the mountains were dotted here and there with oak and mesquite trees.  The mountains were made up of huge bare granite monoliths.  Camping is permitted in the National Forest, and primitive campsites were scattered along the sides of the roads.  The road was narrow and rutted, winding up and down, crossing two streams.  After about 10 miles we arrived at the entrance to Stronghold Canyon.”  Turning east, the canyon here is narrow, following a shallow stream, with oak, juniper and sycamore trees lining its shores.  This peaceful setting is surrounded by awesome pinnacles of granite rocks in all shapes and sizes.  On this day, we drove in for about two miles, until the road narrowed to a mere track.  Then we stopped to eat our picnic lunch and  paused to enjoy the incredibly lovely surrounding scenery.


1-council-rocks.jpgI had vaguely heard about “Council Rocks”,  and knew the site was in this general area, but it was after completing SOUTHWEST ADVENTURES before I learned its exact location. Now, with Brad along, seemed the perfect time to see if we could locate it.

It was at Council Rocks where, in 1872, Cochise signed the Broken Arrow Peace Treaty, agreeing to cease waring attacks.  In return, the government granted to the Apaches a vast reservation, including the southeast corner of Arizona, including the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains near the Mexican border.  However, in 1876, two years after Cochise died, the government broke its promise and moved the Chiricahua Apaches 100 miles north to the San Carlos Reservation on the Gila River.

2-council-rocks-pictographs.jpgAfter visiting West Cochise Stronghold, we turned back to the south.  Locating FR #687K we turned east, where the road ended at a parking area. A broken down gate and old sign led to a path across the grasslands, ending up at a jumble of huge boulders.  Here, a short but very steep trail leads up to an area of house sized boulders and giant tipped rocks forming shallow caves. Obviously it was the site of a former Apache summer camp, being cooler than in the narrow canyon.   Blackened areas were 4-mortars-council-rocks.jpgevidence of former fire pits, and we found large, deep mortars on the surrounding flat rocks.  Then our son shouted out “I’ve found something really neat!”  And, indeed it was!  Under an overhanging ledge of rock he had discovered an entire rock wall of ancient,  red/ocre paintings!….(pictographs)  A sign at the site stated that archaeologists believe the original pictographs were created by Mogollon Indians who lived in the area as long as 1,000 years ago…but may have been added to by the more recent Apache tribes.

5-elaine-council-rocks.jpgAlthough we have come across many ancient Indian camps during our explorations, this one seemed  special.  Petroglyphs (etchings on rock) are more common.  Pictographs are rare and usually faded beyond recognition. While these were faded, being beneath the rock overhang, they had been preserved amazingly well.

It had been a cool sunny Arizona winter day.  We considered ourselves most fortunate to have shared the beauty of West Cochise Stronghold with our son, and finding Council Rocks was definitely an added adventure!

(click on pictures to enlarge)

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