What better way is there to spend a glorious winter day in Cochise County, named after the famous Chiricahua Apache Chief, than hiking within the boundaries of where this famous leader's feet traveled? The Dragoon Mountains are often referred to as Cochise's Stronghold because of the fortress-like protection the many rocky spires and hoodoos offered the Apaches against their enemies and this location is basically in our front yard and well worth the short drive to reach our incredible destination.
Planning on spending some quality time in and amongst those boulders and hoodoos in the Dragoon Mountains we packed some snacks and brought along plenty of water and headed out Middlemarch Road toward the destination. We have a 10-mile drive along the wide and well-graded road. At about the 10 mile point we notice where the turn off to our destination in the west stronghold is indicated by an entrance on the left with the 687 forest service road marker directing our way. From here it is about a six and a half mile journey along a dirt road with views beyond compare on each side!
It can get confusing to find this specific location so I diligently took notes hoping to simplify the directions for anyone desiring to enjoy the splendor as we did. The road is dusty and sandy in some locations and rutted but traversable all along the way if your vehicle has high clearance. Looking up at the magnificent view of Sheep's Head you will notice a running windmill, oftentimes spilling over the enclosure's boundaries with its bounty, but soon enough as your drive takes you towards a different view, the rocky formation known as "Sheep's Head" changes shape and eventually is not even in sight. The views that are surrounding you on this day trip of open spaces, expansive cliff sides and abundant vegetation will most certainly bring you to a point of awe as you meander along the path towards this destination. You also may be competing with the cow traffic on this journey! Black cows and a few brown ones were partaking of the lush grassy bounty at the base of the Dragoons and thankfully were quite polite and kept off the road and out of our way! And being as there are loose cattle all along this journey it stands to reason that there will also be cattle guards along the road. Not counting the first cattle guard you pass over while turning left onto the 687 forest road you will pass over 3 cattle guards before you reach the turn-off for the famous Council Rocks area with signage marking the path as 687K and where an ample parking area awaits you for the start of this adventure. You will pass a 687J turn-off and that is exactly 1.3 miles before the turn-off for this incredible location! So there you have it! Now on to our fabulous day!
Council Rocks, as this location is known, has been visited long before the residents of 1880 Tombstone were here, and for that matter, long before Cochise and his band of Chiricahua Apaches dwelled and thrived among these boulders. After parking our vehicle we crossed through an obvious gate towards the destination. There are different pathways leading up to the specific area known as Council Rocks and we veered to the left on this trip. It really doesn't matter if you head to the left or to the right; you are going to end up at a location that just may take your breath away when you arrive as it did our! And as you meander your way through the pathways you might notice that there are specific footsteps carved or etched into the rock, obviously affording the previous travelers an easier way to reach their intended destination. As I placed my foot inside each etched step I wondered about the people that traveled here before me and what it would have taken to carve these steps and why this destination was so important to whomever did that carving so long ago. How long ago were these carved-step pathways used on a daily basis, I had to wonder. Knowing that I will most likely never have answers to my many 'wonder whys,' I set aside my questions and envelope myself with appreciation to be walking where they once traveled with such an abundance of natural beauty surrounding us!
Once we arrive at the top after traversing the mass of rock and house-sized boulders the view before us is quite astonishing. Signs of ancient life are apparent as we approach. At once it's easy to notice where the natural formations of the rocks resemble what we know of today as a home. One separated room perhaps being used as gathering room. Perhaps the other semi-enclosed area was used as a food preparation room with several well-used mortars dug deep into the rocks. And could that be used as sleeping room, perhaps, who knows. It wasn't difficult to use my imagination to picture a way of life supported and enhanced by this specific location.
Soon you notice that a pictorial history of their existence remains here when you look upon the wall and up above on the overhanging rocky ledge and see the messages from the past! Messages we may never know the meaning behind, but still visible in spite of the passing of time before our arrival this day! Rock art, pictographs of a red and orange hue, adorn the walls here and research explains that the people who created these images and called this land home are most likely the ancient Mogollon inhabitants from a thousand years ago. Spirals, zig-zags, stick figures, and star-like images over head; all leaving a message for a population from long ago, are clearly visible today even after centuries of erosion and yet we still are not certain on what those messages were meant to convey.
The historic information plaque mentions the shelter's use, also mentioning that this special and perhaps sacred location may have been where General Howard in 1872 signed a peace treaty with Chief Cochise. Although, as the sign mentions, this place may not be the exact location for such a momentous occasion that took place two years before the death of Cochise, it is certainly a place of honor amongst many in these historic and legendary Dragoon Mountains!
From here we ventured along one of many trails that lead deeper into the canyon's fortifications. Each step forward almost requires us to stop and look around as the views are so magnificent and changing with each footstep. Look up and you see the image of one thing and walk a few steps and that image can change to something else as the tall spire-like hoodoos and precariously perched boulders take on a brilliant life surrounded by the glow of the morning's sun and the green of the vegetation that grows up the mountainous cliffs! A red-tailed hawk caught our attention as she soared gracefully along the air currents through the rocky openings and alongside the cliff faces, offering us a greeting as she circled over our heads only to disappear behind one of the many hoodoos, never to be seen again on this adventure, but a gift none-the-less for me!
Several of the trails will take you deep into the Stronghold and others will venture off in other directions and we took quite a few of them. We stopped to munch on our snacks at one place where we sat upon an old weathered tree trunk that had fallen and now crosses the path. From here we notice a marker indicating that to travel any further we would be forced to crawl through a small boulder opening or retreat towards another destination in the vast landscape of trails. Choosing not to go any further in this direction we ventured back and found several more trails to follow. Apparently there are several natural springs in the Dragoons which, of course, would have sustained life for man or beast in these canyons and we stumbled upon a couple of locations where pools of water lay upon the rocky formations in the natural pits on the surface of the flat rocked landscape. Refreshment for the thirsty traveler of two or four legs would have been plenty so many years ago, before global warming, I was thinking!
From one of our vantage points along this hike we looked back and were treated to a view of the location everyone calls Council Rocks. Was this one of the places distant travelers would have been able to see the messages along the rock walls, I had to wonder, for with a zoom on the camera lens we were able to make out the pictographs in spite of the time-worn lightness of the images. I could only imagine how brightly red and orange colored the messages must have been when first drawn upon this location and how ancient travelers must have felt to finally see their sacred destination so close ahead of them and their journey's end, perhaps at last.
We followed another trail back towards Council Rocks where our vehicle awaits us, completing our journey through the canyons of the Stronghold and imagining life within the boundaries of the rocky enclosure. Today we arrived at this destination by Chevy Trailblazer. A century ago the townsfolk of Tombstone and other Cochise County towns would have "motored" their way here in the newly invented automobile to spend an enjoyable spring or summer day refreshing themselves among the pools of water and the cooler shade of the canyon. And even further back in time, this destination would have been arrived at after lengthy travels by foot from far off lands along the trading route or spiritual quest pathways. This magnificent piece of Mother Nature's beauty and bounty has been visited by many people for thousands of years and still, today, this place draws visitors from all over the world, including us!
Time has not removed the element of beauty or the sense of spiritual completion here today but it has changed how we view this destination. Today we journeyed here for an adventure within the periphery of the most beautiful piece of Mother Nature's gifts and surrounded ourselves with gratitude for the ability to do so. Yesterday, whether that yesterday was a hundred or a thousand years ago, the purpose for this journey would not have been the same as ours this day, but none-the-less just as bountiful in appreciation, I am sure, for arriving at this splendid location.
This journey is an exploration of time and yet being there is like being present in front of the many aged "grandfathers," as Native Americans often refer to the time-worn stones. So listen to their stories if you can, imagine the men, woman and children as they journeyed along these well-worn paths with a purposeful destination in mind and marvel in the awe of the brilliant landscape before you knowing that many many people have done the same thing before you for a very very long time!