Fort Bowie National Historic Site
Hike to Fort Bowie
Text and Photos by A.R. Royo
Fort Bowie National Historic Site in southeastern Arizona is one of the few national monuments that can only be accessed by a 30-minute drive over gravel roads, followed by an hour's hike. This adventure, however, is not nearly as daunting as it may seem, and is much more enjoyable than one might imagine.
We knew we were at the pullout along Apache Pass Road when we came upon half a dozen cars parked along the left. On the opposite side, we saw picnic tables, composting toilets and a sign indicating we were at the trailhead to Fort Bowie National Historic Site. I extracted my walking stick that doubles as a monopod, my camera, water and hat, and we proceeded on down the trail.
The sign indicated it was a 1.5-mile hike to the Fort itself, but there are numerous possible side trips along the way which can make it as much as a 5-mile round trip. For us, the hike into the Fort was the best part of the experience. We embarked upon a beautiful, easygoing trail that crossed a wash several times and gradually climbed higher.
Once on the trail, we experienced an overwhelming sense of the lonely isolation soldiers must have felt while stationed here. Numerous markers along the way identify various species of flora, historical incidents, and the distance every 1/4 mile, so you always know exactly how far you've come and how far you have to go.
The trail winds past the remains of a Butterfield Stage Coach Station, the Post Cemetery, an Apache Wickiup, the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency, Apache Springs, the original Fort and, finally, the more elaborate Fort Bowie and the Ranger Station/Visitor Center.
A 1/2-mile side trip to the original fort revealed a few stone foundations and a good view of the main Fort perched on the hill with the American flag flying above it. But it wasn't until we came to Apache Spring that we really understood the significance of the entire area, recognizing this vital water supply as the key to all subsequent historical events here.
Arriving at the end of the trail, up a slight incline, we emerged at the ranger station, which contained park brochures, books, maps, historical memorabilia, a reconstruction of the second Fort Bowie and a bust of the war chief Cochise himself.
Outside, the ruins of the fort's adobe structures lay spread across a large area of Apache Pass like the decaying ribs of some long slain giant. Each of the various buildings is identified by plaques indicating its original use: Officer's Mess, Laundry, Ordinance Building, Stables, Enlisted Men's Barracks, etc. If you want to discover all of the intricacies of military life at the time when Fort Bowie was active, plan to stay at least two to three hours. The picnic tables near the Visitor Center provide a delightful spot to take lunch.
Our return hike along the high trail afforded wonderful views of the Fort Bowie and Apache Pass. It is a somewhat longer hike than the trip out, and does not contain as many historical markers to keep you informed. But it does afford the opportunity to reflect on the historical implication of this pass and the Apache resistance that was eventually crushed here at Fort Bowie, finally bringing an end to the Indian Wars in the United States.
Apache Pass, with a summit elevation of 5,115 feet, winds between the Dos Cabezas Mountains on the north and the Chiricahua Mountains, the traditional home of the Apache, on the south. Deep within the pass lies the key to its importance -- Apache Spring -- where first Indians, then Spaniards, then Anglo-Americans came seeking its life-sustaining water in this transition zone between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.
In 1854, this pass and the surrounding area became part of the United States with the Gadsden Purchase, when 29 million acres of present-day New Mexico and Arizona were purchased from Mexico.
A military road was built through the pass in 1856 connecting Fort Thorn, New Mexico with Fort Yuma, California. In 1857, the Butterfield Overland Mail built a stage station -- one of 141 such stations -- a few hundred yards from Apache Spring, bringing the first Anglos to live in Apache Pass. The Butterfield transported mail and passengers 2,800 miles from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California.
Often called the "Oxbow Route" because of its shape, a letter cost 10 cents, and a seat on the coach, along with 40 pounds of baggage cost $150. It took 23 to 25 days to make the journey.
In 1861, the Bascom Affair occurred, during which Cochise, after being falsely accused of kidnapping a local rancher's child, escaped from imprisonment at the hands of an inexperienced, young U.S. Army officer. Lt. Bascom's detention and execution of Cochise's relatives, and Cochise's quick revenge, ignited the Apache Wars, which raged in southeastern Arizona for the next 25 years.
In 1862, Fort Bowie was constructed in Apache Pass to head off Confederate incursions into New Mexico. Soldiers here withstood Apache raids, and a second Fort Bowie, at a better-situated location, was built in 1868, with all of the buildings constructed of adobe. From here, the U.S. Army waged its war against Cochise, Geronimo and the Chiricahua, until General Nelson A. Miles finally subdued Geronimo in 1886. Having served its brief historic purpose, Fort Bowie was abandoned in 1894; it became a national monument in 1964.
Where to stay: Willcox, AZ
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