Welcome to the Sonoran Desert and Cochise County

Desert (dez’ ert) A Dry, barren region, often covered with sand, and with little or no vegetation.

The folks at Webster’s Dictionary obviously have never been to the Sonora Desert. If they had, they would realize that deserts can be regions with great variety and abundance of plant and animal life…any thing but barren.

More than two-thirds of the total Sonoran Desert is located in Mexico extending into about one-third of southern Arizona and the extreme southeastern corner of California. The Sonoran Desert is a fairly young desert but it is the most complex of the North American deserts both biologically and geologically. Surface features include sedimentary, metamorphic and volcanic rocks that vary greatly in age. It is a subtropical desert with a unique bi-seasonal pattern of rainfall.

You will be visiting the San Pedro Valley section of the Sonoran Desert, located in Cochise County in the southeastern corner of Arizona. The elevation ranges from 4,200 feet on the valley “floor”, to over 10,000 feet on the mountaintops. At these elevations, the average summer temperature is 88 degrees in the valley and 78 degrees in the mountains making this area one of the most temperate regions in North America. Cochise County is a vast landscape of bold color and piercing beauty. This unique grassland is supported by the San Pedro River, which enters Arizona from Sonora, Mexico and flows north to join the Gila River.

Unique and quite surprising are the “Sky Islands” in the area… mountains that rise abruptly from the desert highlands and harbor a tremendous variety of plant and animal life. The cottonwood and willow trees along the river, the year round creeks and the heavily wooded canyons of the Huachuca Mountain “sky islands” provide a constant supply of food and water to support a unique habitat for the 335 species of birds, 82 species of mammals and 47 species of amphibians and reptiles that live in the San Pedro River Valley.

Archaeological finds indicate that there were civilizations along the San Pedro River as far back as 13,000 years ago. Clovis Man inhabited the area until the end of the last Ice Age - about 10,000 BC. The Anasazi people, forerunners of the Pueblo Indians, lived here before the birth of Christ. The Hohokam and the Agrarian Indians reached their peak here about 1400 AD. In 1540, only 48 years after Columbus discovered the New World and decades before English speaking explorers landed on the east coast of North America, Don Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his men entered what is now Cochise County looking for the “Seven Cities of Cibola”. Legend had it that Cibola’s streets were paved with gold. Coronado found no gold…what he did find were the native Solado Indians who were not pleased with his presence nor his attitude. The last of the Solados were driven from the area by the fierce Apaches about 1700 AD.

Next into the region were missionaries of the Catholic Church such as Father Esubio Kino and Fray Marcos De Niza whose primary purpose was to convert the natives to Christianity and thus make the area safe for colonization and settlement. Large “Grant Ranches” were established but the natives did not like the colonization of their lands and didn’t want to be converted to a new religion. By 1775 the Apaches had driven the Spaniards out and reined supreme for more than 50 years.

In the early 19th century, Mexico revolted and secured it’s independence from Spain, Texas broke from Mexico and the United States and Mexico went to war. The treaty of Guadeloupe - Hidalgo ended the Mexican war and brought California into the United States. What is now Cochise County was part of the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 in which $10,000,000 was paid to Mexico for 45,535 square miles of land to be used for a railroad right-of-way.

American settlers immediately moved into the territory and bloody clashes began with the Apaches. In the mid 1800’s, the U.S. Army was sent here to protect the settlers and set up camp in the area that would become Fort Huachuca. Battles between the Apaches and the army were give and take and the soldiers were later withdrawn due to the Civil War in the east. The Apaches thought they had won the battle with the settlers and the soldiers. When the war ended, the Calvary returned in much greater strength. After the death of the great Apache Chief Cochise (for which the county is named), the Apache warriors rode under Geronimo. In the late 1880’s Geronimo finally surrendered to the army in Skeleton Canyon.

Once the railroad was completed, commerce began to flourish due to the many mines and mineral claims in the area. Tough mining camps like Charleston, Gleeson, Dos Cabezas, Pearce, Paradise, Bisbee and the infamous Tombstone wrote a violent and bloody chapter to the last decades of the 19th century. The famous “Gunfight at the OK Corral” could be the most chronicled 30-second incident in history.

By the end of the century, many of the mines had played out. The fabulous silver mines of Tombstone had been flooded out by underground water and only Bisbee, “Queen of the Mining Camps” flourished with one of the world’s largest deposits of copper ore. At the dawn of the 20th century, Bisbee was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco and remained a major copper producer until the mid 1970’s.

Law and order was first provided by the soldiers of Fort Huachuca and then by civilian lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, “Texas” John Slaughter and the Arizona Rangers. Farming and ranching lured new settlers to this sparsely populated area of the state.

Today, Cochise County has a diverse and well-rounded economy. Fort Huachuca is now Intelligence and Communications headquarters for the Army. The Sulfur Springs Valley and Wilcox are a rich agricultural area. Douglas is a port of entry into Mexico. Bisbee is the county seat and along with Tombstone, rely on their historic past to attract many tourists.

Benson is the terminal for a scenic railroad and the gateway to Kartchner Caverns. Sierra Vista is the population and geographic center of the county and is the fastest growing city in Arizona. Some of the most beautiful natural attractions in the southwest lure thousands of visitors each year to Ramsey Canyon, Coronado Memorial, Cochise’s Stronghold and the Chiricahua National Memorial.

Still… echoes of the past remain upon our land and within the cultural heritage. The ruins of Fort Bowie, Skeleton Canyon-the rugged mountain home of the Chiricahua Apaches, the dramatic re-enactment of the bloody violence in Tombstone with it’s somber graveyard and mute execution scaffold, Fort Huachuca and the Buffalo Soldiers, the gun fights and the battle sites…all these and more make up the colorful and exciting history of Cochise County.

Ramsey Canyon is one of the most pristine spots in southern Arizona. At an elevation of 5,500 feet, it has a year round creek, is heavily wooded and has a moist, cool, shady environment. High, bronzed-rock cliffs form a background where you might see a golden eagle or a soaring hawk. Combined elements of the Rocky and Sierra Madre Mountains give Ramsey Canyon a tremendous variety of plant and wildlife. The canyon is home to more than 300 species of plants, 170 species of birds including 14 species of hummingbirds, four species of rattlesnakes, numerous reptiles, countless insects and butterflies. Visitors often get a glimpse of one of the many mammals that live in the canyon, such as deer, javalina, coatimundi, mountain lion, bobcat, ring-tailed cat, fox, small black bear and raccoon. If you enjoy hiking, the trails are wonderful.

Bisbee is the picturesque county seat of Cochise County. The community was founded in 1880. The Old West mining camp proved to be one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper, not to mention the silver, lead, zinc and turquoise that came from these rich Mule Mountains. By the early 1900’s, Bisbee, with a population of 20,000, was the most cultured city in the Southwest. Despite its culture, the rough edges of the mining camps could be found in the notorious Brewery Gulch, with its saloons and shady ladies. In 1908 a fire ravaged most of Bisbee's commercial district. Reconstruction began immediately and by 1910 it had been rebuilt and remains completely intact today. The mine began to play out and was mostly shut down by 1975.

Bisbee has evolved into a vibrant tourist attraction as travelers from all over the world discover its unique charm…an uncommon blend of artistry, creativity, romance and adventure… all wrapped in the splendor of the Old West. Nestled in the mile high Mule Mountains you will find well preserved turn-of-the-century Victorian structures full of Old West history and copper mining lore. Former saloons are now quaint shops, antique stores, art galleries and restaurants. Because Bisbee is so well preserved historically, it has drawn many film companies for a host of settings. There is a self guided Walking Tour, which details each historic structure and includes the infamous Brewery Gulch. Other activities include the Queen Mine Tour, where you can take an ore train, and ride down into the old copper mine. Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, the only rural Smithsonian affiliate in the nation, is a must for history buffs. The historic Muheim House, is an example of 19th century architecture and elegance. Also, you can’t miss The Lavender Pit Open Mine.

Tombstone is nicknamed “the town too tough to die”. The West’s wildest mining town owes it beginning to Ed Schieffelin, who prospected the nearby hills in 1877. Friends told him all he would find would be his own tombstone. But instead he found silver - lots of it - and the rush was on! Miners soon built a shantytown close to the mines. Then came an eventful year…1881. The population reached 10,000. The Earp and Clanton feud ended in the famous gunfight near the OK Corral. A disastrous fire burned down much of the town, but it was immediately rebuilt. Schieffelin Hall was erected to provide legitimate theater. More than $37,000,000 worth of silver had been taken from the mines when water began to seep into the shafts. Soon the water was up to the 600-foot level and the mines could no longer be worked.

Tombstone did survive its rough and tumble beginnings and is now one of those communities known throughout the world. The names of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, The Clanton Brothers, Johnny Ringo, Big Nose Kate and Curly Bill still echo in the history books. Walking down Allen Street is like stepping through time. Today you can discover what made this “town too tough to die”. Hundreds of original buildings still line the town’s streets. The Bird Cage Theater earned its name from the compartments suspended from the ceiling above the dance hall and casino where ladies of the evening offered their services. And of course, don’t miss Boot Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of “the good, the bad and the innocent”.

Watch events unfold as you enjoy a Re-enactment of the shoot-out at OK Corral. The Tombstone Courthouse, built in 1882, now houses an extensive museum. Exhibits depict not only the famous shoot-out between the Earps and the Clantons, but also the mining and ranching life. There is an authentic 1880’s courtroom, jail and wooden gallows.

Kartchner Caverns began with a drop of water 330 million years ago. A wide variety of decorations called “speleothems” began forming, drop by drop. Water seeping from the surface dissolves minerals on its trip through the limestone and once it reaches the cave, the trapped carbon dioxide escapes from the water. No longer able to hold the dissolved calcite, the drop deposits it’s tiny mineral load. Over time, these minerals have created the beautiful speleothems and variety of colors found in the cave. The caves were discovered in 1974 and just opened to the public last year. Kartchner Caverns is a “living” cave; the formations are still growing.

Kartchner Caverns it home to the longest soda straw formation in the U.S. (second longest in the world) 21feet 2inches, a massive column 58 feet tall, the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, the first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields and the first cave occurrence of “bird nest” needle quartz formations. Other unusual formations include shields, totems, helictites and rim stone dams.

Prehistoric life found in the cavern includes skeletons of an 80,000 year old Shasta ground sloth, a 34,000 year old horse and a 11,000 year old bear as well as snails, a clam, a toad, lizards, rabbits, snakes a coyote, a ringtail and many species of rodents.

During the summer months the caves “Big Room” is home to a large population of myotis bats. By mid September they will begin their migration back to Mexico for their winter hibernation.

Walking tours through the caverns are limited so reservations are recommended. (520) 586-2283.

Fort Huachuca Museum was established in 1960 to tell the story of the U.S. Army on the southwestern frontier. From the time of the opening of the American Southwest by the Army of the West in 1846 and the clashes with the Apaches, to the exploits of the African-American regiments that fought in Mexico and trained infantrymen for World War II combat, the Huachuca Mountains have been at the center of a panorama of military history. The museum – housed in a building constructed in 1886 - and its annex are devoted to the time period from the late 1800’s on. Once one enters the front door of the museum, it’s like going back in time.

The U.S. Army Intelligence Museum, established in 1995, is a repository for items of history that help put the military intelligence story in perspective and show the evolution of “intelligence art” within the U.S. Army.

We hope this provides you with a sense of Ramsey Canyon and its colorful surroundings. Each location is minutes to less than an hour away from Ramsey Canyon Inn.

Whether you find the time to explore some of these destinations, or simply spend your time at the inn, we hope you enjoy your experience here in the Sonoran Desert and Cochise County.

Shirlene DeSantis