Cowboys & Indians in Southern Arizona
Where to find the Wild West in southern Arizona:
Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Geronimo, and Cochise. The names are familiar, the stuff of Hollywood movies. Yet, these people were real and one thing they all had in common was that they called southern Arizona home. Several days spent exploring between Tucson and the southeast corner of the state will put you in touch with the ghosts of cowboys and Indians, miners and ranchers, soldiers and prostitutes. Fact and fiction sometimes get jumbled up together in this wild west landscape, but there's no denying that southern Arizona is where the west was once.
To prime yourself for your wild west tour, start with a visit to Old Tucson Studios, where Hollywood history overshadows the region's real history. At this amusement park/movie studio set on the western outskirts of Tucson, you can walk the streets where countless movies, TV westerns, and commercials have been shot over the years, the same streets that John Wayne once strode in such movies as Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo. The stage shows can be fun and there's lots for the whole family to do. For a brief glimpse of some real history, stop by Fort Lowell Park, which is northeast of downtown Tucson. Here you'll find a small museum and the ruins of a cavalry outpost.
Now, saddle up the rental car and head east into the heart of the wild, wild west. Up the San Pedro River valley, you'll find the legendary Tombstone, the town too tough to die. Today, the town made famous by a brief shootout at the OK Corral is one of the west's most famous historic sites and though the town has all the trappings of a tacky tourist trap, it also has its authentic aspects. Yes the OK Corral is still here (and there are regularly staged shootouts to entertain visitors), but you'll also find the Boot Hill Graveyard, the Bird Cage Theatre, the Tombstone Courthouse (complete with gallows), and several fully operational saloons. Also, be sure to visit G.F. Spangenburg, a gun shop that sells the sort of side arms that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday once carried.
Though its silver mines flooded in 1887, Tombstone was one of the luckier mining boomtowns of the San Pedro Valley. Up and down this wide valley are the remains of towns that didn't make it. One of the best ways to learn about some of these ghost towns is aboard the San Pedro & Southwestern Railroad, which operates excursion trains south from Benson. Benson also happens to be the closest town to Kartchner Caverns State Park, which opened in 1999 and preserves some of the most astounding caverns in the country. For information, see the "Cowboys and Caverns, Ghosts Towns and Sky Islands" itinerary.
Southwest of Tombstone and just outside the modern retirement community of Sierra Vista, at the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca, you can learn about a lesser known chapter of western history. This fort at the base of the Huachuca Mountains was the home of a troop of African American soldiers known as the Buffalo Soldiers. One of the fort's historic buildings houses exhibits on the Buffalo Soldiers and the many army posts that once dotted the southwest.
From Fort Huachuca, head southeast to the town of Bisbee, home of the Lavendar Pit Mine and the Copper Queen Hotel. This town made (and lost) its fortunes on copper and at one time was the largest town between El Paso and San Francisco. Today, Bisbee has been revived as an art community and is a popular weekend getaway for Tucsonans. Plenty of mining history is on display here in town, and a stroll up Brewery Gulch, which once boasted 50 saloons and brothels, will provide some idea of how wild this town once was.
Continuing onward toward the southeast corner of the state will soon bring you to the town of Douglas, a border town best known as the home of the Gadsden Hotel. Cattle money once flowed freely in this town and no expense was spared on this grand hotel. Though much faded today, the Gadsden still boasts a marble staircase and a Tiffany stained-glass window. About 15 miles outside of Douglas, you can visit the Slaughter Ranch and its museum. The huge ranch was founded in 1884 by former Texas Ranger John Slaughter, who later went on to become sheriff of surrounding Cochise County.
Heading north from Douglas takes you into a land once ruled by the Apaches. It was here, between the Dragoon Mountains and the Chiricahuas, that Cochise and Geronimo led the last battle against white settlement of their lands. To protect settlers from Apache raids, the army stationed troops at Fort Bowie, in the northern foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains. Today, the fort can be reached only by hiking a 1.5-mile-long trail, which helps to preserve the lonely character of this remote military outpost.
In the nearby town of Willcox, you can learn a bit more about the region's history at the small Museum of the Southwest. Also here in Willcox, you'll find the Rex Allen Museum, which is dedicated to one of Hollywood's famous singing cowboys. However, the most fascinating museum in the region lies not far to the west just off I-10 in breathtaking Texas Canyon. The Amerind Foundation Museum is a treasure trove of Native American artifacts and represents one of the most extensive private collections of archaeological artifacts from around the southwest. From here, it is an easy drive of about an hour back to Tucson on I-10.
From Tucson, head east on I-10 to Benson, and then drive south to Tombstone on Hwy. 80. From Tombstone, take Hwy. 82 west to Hwy. 90 and then drive south to reach Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca. From Sierra Vista, take Hwy. 90 southeast to Bisbee and Douglas. From Douglas, go north on Hwy. 191, east on Hwy. 181 and northwest on Hwy. 186 to reach Fort Bowie Historic Site. From Fort Bowie, either go north to I-10 and west to Willcox or continue to Willcox on Hwy. 186. From Willcox, drive west on I-10 to return to Tucson.