Greetings from southeast Arizona—land of furtive, illegal immigrants, brazen drug smugglers, grotty taco shops, sad, sun-beaten towns, swarming U.S. Border Guards, stealthy free-campers, and sky-island mountain ranges where the winter hiking is superb.
Thanks for continuing to check our blog despite our inability to post on schedule. We’ll continue trying to blog weekly. Sometimes, however, like the past two weeks, we simply won’t show up. It’s likely we’re in the backcountry, gaining experience that, eventually, we’ll blog about so you can benefit from it.
For now, we’ll resume offering suggestions on winter camping and hiking in Arizona’s lower, right-hand corner.
Since leaving Catalina State Park, just north of Tucson, we’ve yet to find a campground where we could settle in for a week or more. As we described in our previous post, Catalina is close to numerous trailheads as well as a wealth of urban amenities. It lofted our expectations too high.
For nearly a week after departing Catalina State Park, we free-camped. In good conscience we cannot tell you precisely where. We don’t want to anger permanent residents and land-management officials by initiating a steady stream of free-campers to any one location. We mention this only to encourage you to sniff out your own free campsites.
If you’re patient, savvy and discrete, you can find places surprisingly close to Tucson where you can sleep—free of charge—in your van, trailer or camper, and where you can comfortably remain all day without anyone taking notice of you—as long as it appears you’re simply parking. In other words, don’t deploy your folding table and chairs, fling your frisbee, fire up the barbecue, and act like you’re entitled to camp there.
The free campsites we found were quiet and beautiful. At both, we worked for a couple consecutive days on our book projects—jamming away on our computers, which are powered by the solar panel atop our trailer. And at both sites we were surrounded by saguaro cacti and enjoyed an expansive desert view.
Since our last free camp, we’ve stayed at three campgrounds:
We winced when we arrived in Benson. Actually we left immediately, drove to nearby Kartchner Caverns State Park, balked at the $25-per-night fee, shivered due to the higher elevation, then winced again upon re-entering Benson thinking “We can stand this for a couple nights.”
Hundreds of northerners beach themselves and their behemoth RVs in this depressing town every winter. Benson is crowded with “RV resorts.” The one we chose was small, cheap, cheerful. Others are sprawling and—to our astonishment—nearly full.
Why all these seniors choose Benson, we have no idea. Perhaps because it’s as sunny as other Arizona towns yet less expensive? Or is it the recently renovated Safeway that stocks Villa Dolce Gelato and hormone-and-antibiotic-free bison meat?
We stayed in Benson only because it’s central to some of the trails on our must-hike list. Yet our fellow Bensonites were obviously not hikers. And Benson itself is utterly nondescript. It was originally settled because of its proximity to several mines. The town is still staggering (forward?) because it’s beside a major railway and highway, and because all those seniors now moor themselves and their land yachts there.
From what we’ve observed, most RVing seniors who decamp to Arizona for the winter are absolutely satisfied if they have (1) reliable TV reception to keep them sedated during the chilly nights, and (2) lots of other RVing seniors to yak with while lounging during the perpetually sunny, toasty days. You could yak your life away in Benson. Many people are doing precisely that.
Hunkered into the east side of the Dragoon Mountains, the Forest Service campground at Cochise Stronghold is perfect. It’s small, embraced by the topography, beneath a canopy of trees, far from the lights and sounds of civilization. We wanted to stay several nights. But there’s only one trail there, and we recommend only a 6-mi (9.7-km) round-trip hike. As a basecamp for hiking elsewhere in the region, Cochise Stronghold is awkwardly located. Ambitious hikers will probably camp only one or two nights there, then regretfully leave.
Chiricahua National Monument is astounding, for its bizarre natural features and for how accommodating it is to visitors—motorists, yes, but hikers even more so—thanks to the masterful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Bonita Canyon campground, built by the CCC, is similar to Cochise Stronghold campground but slightly larger and a bit more comfortable (heated toilet blocks with flush toilets, for example, instead of unheated pit toilets). Entering the forested Chiricahuas after driving across the barren desert seems a miracle. Avid hikers will, if they slow their pace, enjoy three days of hiking in the Chiricahuas, so we suggest camping three or four nights at Bonita Canyon. The atmosphere at Bonita is so soothing that even non-hikers agree it’s a camping haven. As a base for hiking elsewhere in the region, however, Bonita Canyon is much like Cochise Stronghold: inconvenient.
Where Not to Hike
Being opinionated hikers, we occasionally warn our fellow hikers away from certain trails. Here in southeast Arizona, however, the U.S. Border Patrol has warned us away from certain trails, including some we’d been keen to hike. The reason? Though illegal immigration declined along with the U.S. economy, the percentage of illegals smuggling drugs has increased. Drug runners are desperate, therefore dangerous. Many are armed. Meeting an armed, Mexican, drug runner in backcountry Arizona is, to our minds, a more threatening prospect than crossing paths with a grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies.
While returning to Benson from one of our hikes, we stopped at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Sierra Vista. Several border guards were eating there. When they left, I followed them out and asked if they’d mind a few questions about hiking trails. They were glad to help but began by querying me.
“Do you carry a gun when you hike?” one of them asked. “No,” I said. “You probably should,” he responded. Our conversation was off to an alarming start.
Here are the trails they said we should avoid—even on a dayhike—because they’re frequented by Mexicans illegally entering the U.S. on foot:
The canyon actually crosses the border, not far from Nogales, which makes it a virtual highway for illegal immigration.
“One of our agents was shot and killed there,” one of the border guards said.
Another natural funnel for Mexicans seeking illegal entry to the U.S.
Judging by the map, it’s an invitingly gradual hike along a mountain crest. According to the Border Patrol, it’s equally inviting to illegal immigrants.
Miller Peak Wilderness Area
The border guards told us not to backpack there. They thought dayhiking was reasonably safe but said we should be out and gone by evening.
“I’ve been in those mountains at night,” said one of the guards, “and you can hear illegals all around you. The forest just comes alive after dark. They hole up during the day and move on after sunset.”
I wanted to ask why they thought we could safely dayhike there, but I’d already detained them too long. Besides, the Miller Peak area is where Kath and I had hiked all day prior to meeting the border guards that evening.
No doubt there are several other hiking trails in southern Arizona that are unsafe. Ask before you hike. Our experience is that the Border Patrol is the only source of accurate information. We visited a Forest Service office where we were told, “Oh, you should be fine hiking in Joes Canyon. I haven’t heard of any problems down there.” Then we met the border guards who adamantly said “Stay away.”
Southern Arizona is swarming with border guards, so you’ll likely encounter one in circumstances where you can ask for information.
Where to Hike
In addition to the southern Arizona trails we previously blogged about, here are several more we enthusiastically recommend. The Border Patrol told us we could hike them without concern, and our experience corroborates that.
West Unit of Saguaro National Park
8-mi (12.9-km) round trip
1837-ft (560-m) ascent
A mildly engaging approach to a summit that affords a startling view of Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains, Picacho Peak, Avra Valley, the Central Arizona Project Canal, the Tucson Mountains, Kitt Peak, Mt. Wrightson, and much more.
Tanque Verde Ridge
East Unit of Saguaro National Park
14-mi (22.5-km) round trip
2900-ft (884-m) ascent
Though the trail climbs over Tanque Verde Peak and continues into the Saguaro Wilderness, we suggest turning around shortly before Juniper Basin, which is at 7 mi (11.3 km). You’ll follow an airy ridgecrest the entire way. Views are constant—of sprawling Tucson and sprawling Mt. Lemmon.
Cochise Stronghold, Dragoon Mountains
6-mi (9.7-km) round trip
1100-ft (914-m) ascent
Enter a hidden world of salmon-tinted granite stones leaning in to one another: huddling, whispering, consulting, strategizing. This is the stronghold from which Cochise and his warriors battled the invading U.S. Army for a dozen years.
Ramsey Canyon / Huachuca Crest
Huachuca Mountains, Miller Peak Wilderness,
14-mi (22.5-km) circuit
3000-ft (914-m) ascent
Exotic birds, thus birders as well, annually flock to Ramsey Canyon. But few birders wander far up-canyon beyond the visitor center. On this ambitious circuit you’ll go all the way to and along the crest of the Huachucas, where the westward view is vast.
Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua Mountains, Chiricahua Wilderness
round trips, one-way hikes and circuits of varying lengths
elevations ranging from 6870 ft (2094 m) at Massai Point to 5400-ft (1646-m) at the Visitor Center
Truth is stranger than fiction. And the stone-hard reality of the Chiricahuas is stranger yet. Here you’ll see naturally-created statuary in an infinite variety of complex shapes. Equally fantastic is the trail network leading you into and among the rocks. The Civilian Conservation Corps built it in 1934. It still serves today. The engineering is brilliant. The craftsmanship superb. We marveled as much at the trail work as we did at the natural formations.
Rincon Mountains, East Unit of Saguaro National Park
16.4-mi (26.4-km) round trip
4242-ft (1293-m) ascent
The trail climbs through a chaos of gorgeous, granite boulders: cream and rose. It pierces a forest of God-like ponderosa pines, alligator junipers, and Douglas firs. Then it gradually ascends a mountain so high (8482 ft / 2585 m) and isolated (rising abruptly from the desert) it grants a commanding view of every major mountain range in southeast Arizona. The night after we summited, I dreamt—for the first time in my life—of piloting an airplane.