This Is Arizona’s Coolest Sky Island
Southern Arizona's Cochise Stronghold has a rich history, unique flora and fauna, and tons of outdoor recreation possibilities
In ecological terms, Cochise Stronghold is what’s known as a sky island. Rising abruptly 5,000 feet from the southern Arizona desert—a 90-minute drive east of Tucson in the heart of the Dragoon Mountains—this high-altitude woodland has been eroded into ramparts of granite spires, fins, and domes. It’s a sanctuary for dozens of rare plant species like alligator juniper and fairy sword fern, as well as hundreds of bird species on their annual migrations south into Mexico.
As its name suggests, it was also an easily defended refuge for Apaches under the command of Cochise, who for several years in the 1860s fought the incursions of American settlers and, at one point, a detachment of the Confederate Army. These days, the Stronghold’s shaded campground, hiking trails, and formidable granite formations are popular with campers, hikers, and climbers. Here’s everything you need to know before you plan a trip.
The Forest Service’s Cochise Stronghold Campground lies in the heart of the formation, at the head of East Stronghold Canyon. Temperate most of the year, the campground is closed during June, July, and August because of the heat. The body of Cochise himself, who died of stomach cancer in 1874, is believed to be buried somewhere nearby among the rocks, though his grave is lost to time.
Pro tip: If the campground is full, there are several undeveloped spots (no picnic tables or bathrooms) off of nearby dirt spur roads. Another option is the unregulated campsites on the Stronghold’s west side, near the Cochise Stronghold Trail’s west trailhead, though high-clearance 4WD vehicles are recommended to access these.
Starting from the Forest Service campground, the 4.5-mile Cochise Trail traverses the narrow Dragoon Range. Winding through the jumble of spires and rock formations jutting up like stegosaurus fins and past agave plants and globe-mallow-filled meadows, the trail eventually tops out at a 5,960-foot pass, with sweeping views of rock forests below. Alternatively, less than a mile from the campground, the five-mile Middlemarch Trail branches southward into the green and wooded valley of Middlemarch Canyon.
With its pink granite domes painted in swaths of lime-green lichen, the Stronghold is home to some of the most aesthetically pleasing climbs in North America, according to Aaron Mike, a guide at Tucson-based Pangea Mountain Guides. The only catch? The rock is rugged and not for the faint of heart. “The rock is cheese-grater sharp,” says Mike, “and bolts are set farther apart than normal.” Translation: it’s best suited to more experienced climbers looking to tackle multi-pitch routes like What’s My Line, which is justifiably listed in 50 Classic Climbs of North America, and Ewephoria, a five-pitch, 5.8 ascent of Sheepshead Dome that features crack climbing, face climbing on polished granite, a pitch of chimney climbing, and a belay ledge so big that Mike has overnighted there with clients, just for the adventure of it.
Before you go, check out the definitive history of Cochise and his Chiricahua Apache people in David Roberts’s Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars.
To plan a trip to Arizona’s Cochise Stronghold or one of Arizona’s other stunning wilderness destinations, go to UnRealAZ.com.