Just north of the legendary tourist trap of Tombstone, Arizona, the Dragoon Mountains are a scenic and historically significant spot worth the effort it takes to reach them.
Beautiful and imposing, they look like a giant took a handful of liquid rock and created a series of tall piles like kids sometimes do with wet sand on a beach.
These mountains once served as a base of operations for Cochise, a Chiricahua Apache leader who used the area as a natural fortification against Mexican and United States forces encroaching on their lands.
The Dragoon Mountains take their name from the 3rd U.S. Cavalry Dragoons, who fought against the Chiricahua Apache in the Apache Wars¹.
The allure of escaping crowds drew us to the Dragoons. Eager to escape the demands of life for a few days, we found ourselves on an adventure that exceeded our expectations.
This area’s rugged beauty and historical depths are fascinating reminders of the story of the American Southwest.
Your access point to this adventure is Middlemarch Road. A wide, gravel, washboarded route that traverses several sandy washes that probably flow like the devil when it rains.
Continuing northeast on Middlemarch Road takes you through Middlemarch Pass over into the north side of the Dragoons.
Built by the U.S. Army to serve as a route between Fort Huachuca and Fort Bowie², today, Middlemarch Pass is great for hiking, bird watching, biking, and off-highway vehicle driving.
Using the pass, we explored both sides of the Dragoon Mountains. Over two days, we visited Council Rocks, a place indigenous groups used for meetings and ceremonies. And Cochise Stronghold, where Cochise and his people once took refuge.
Both places possess natural beauty and rich history that make the Dragoons a must-visit.
When you turn left onto Forest Road 687, you’ll ramble over a cattle guard and notice it’s much narrower than Middlemarch Road.
Here, the grazing cattle outnumber humans by a lot. They wear clanking bells and look at you like you just asked them for a ride to the airport.
Located around seven miles down the forest service road, the path to Council Rocks is difficult to find. There are no signs, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional or if the desert ate them years ago. Even with coordinates from Gaia Maps, we passed the turn on accident the first time we drove by.
The camping areas near the base of the Dragoons are a well-traveled, much-used place, but Council Rocks seems more remote.
While it’s a short hike, if you’re at all out of shape, the trail to Council Rocks will call you on it. But what you’ll find at the top of the climb is nothing short of amazing.
A series of bus-sized boulders creates an almost cathedral-like space with several rooms. Inside, you can enjoy precious relics of the past, such as grinding stones and pictographs.
The small interpretive sign outside states archaeologists believe the pictographs were laid down by the Mogollon people 1,000 years ago and later embellished by the Apache.
It’s said Cochise and his people could get a 2-day notice about advancing U.S. Army troops from the rock formations of the Dragoon Mountains.
As you stand on them and peer across vast swaths of desert and probably as far as modern-day Mexico, you see how that could be possible.
Whether you’re drawn to the ancient artistry of the pictographs or the serene atmosphere, Council Rocks is a place that invites you to sit, reflect, and feel closer to the history and beauty that make it so captivating.
Cochise Stronghold lies at the end of Ironwood Road on the north side of the Dragoons.
Today, it’s home to Half Moon Ranch, a small campground, and a network of hiking trails. In the late 19th century, however, it protected Cochise and his people from their enemies.
The stronghold is a labyrinth of rock formations and hidden caves, and it’s easy to understand why it was an effective hideout.
When you’re wandering through Cochise Stronghold, it’s not just the towering rock formations that’ll hold your attention. With trees like oak, juniper, and manzanita, the area is also a botanical playground. The flora adds a unique texture and color to the landscape.
We heard hummingbirds zipping by, saw hawks soaring overhead, and witnessed more mule deer than humans.
There are several trails to explore near the campground. Interpretive signs provide historical context, helping you understand the area’s significance during the Apache Wars.
Cochise Stronghold serves as a natural sanctuary and living museum, offering you a chance to experience the stunning landscape and complicated history of what we now know as Arizona.
Cochise’s final resting place is said to be somewhere in the stronghold, although the exact location has been lost to time. Getting the chance to learn about him and the Apache Wars filled me with sadness and awe.
The Circle K gas station in Tombstone has snacks, drinks, and firewood. The Walmart in Benson is about 30 minutes away if you need more than the basics.
I recommend airing down your tires for a more comfortable ride down Middlemarch Road. We saw someone in a 5th wheel trying to find a place to camp, but be advised Forest Road 687 is narrow, rough, and offers few places to turn around in a large rig.
Camping is free for up to 14 days, but there are no restrooms or water facilities, so plan ahead. If you visit Council Rocks, please respect the artifacts.
Visiting the Dragoon Mountains is a deep dive into the natural and cultural landscape of the American Southwest. If you want to escape the tourist crowds and immerse yourself in one of Arizona’s lesser-known destinations, this is the place.
Council Rocks coordinates: 31.907856, -110.038964 (take the first dirt road to the right after GPS says you made it)
: Dragoon Mountains, The Arizona Native Plant Society
: The Route to Council Rocks, Arizona Highways
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