Cochise Trail in East Stronghold

The weather in Oracle has a tendency to change quickly. It seems like just as we’re getting comfortable with warm and sunny days, the type one expects from Arizona, a storm will blow over the mountains. On one such occasion in mid-January we decided to escape the predicted storm and take a weekend trip south to Cochise Stronghold.

This historic park is located in the Dragoon Mountains to the west of Sunsites, AZ. It is named after the Apache Chief, Cochise, who sheltered in the wooded valley surrounded by granite domes and sheer cliffs. Located within the Coronado National Forest, it is managed by the Douglas Ranger District.

We arrived at the designated horse trailer parking area around mid-day. After unloading, grooming, and saddling the horses, we noticed that the parking area is adjacent to a helicopter landing pad built into the nearby meadow. Things could certainly get interesting if a rescue helicopter needed to land!

We set off following the equestrian trail, which exits the back of the trailer parking and joins up with the “Cochise Indian Trail.” It should be noted that horses are not allowed to enter the campground (which is the main hiking trailhead) so this section of trail is the only option to enter the Stronghold. The trail snakes along the base of the mountain, paralleling West Ironwood Road. In approximately 1.3 miles we arrived at the junction with the hiking trail coming out of the campground. Now, hikers and horses share the same path for 3 miles up to “The Divide.”

The trail has many stream crossings as we begin to climb (one good thing about the recent rain). The horses seem to enjoy stopping for a drink and a nibble of grass.

Eventually, we come to a huge slab of rock in the middle of the trail. I take Mackenzie up a path that seems to skirt the rock but stop short as the trail is overgrown. I backtrack and ask Byron to hold her as I dismount to scout ahead. I pick up the trail on top of the rock formation and determine that we will need to ask the horses to climb onto the slab, turn, and walk across the top, then descend a narrow fissure with rock “steps” on the other side.

Waiting while I check out the route

Mackenzie is game to climb and willingly follows me up and over the rock. River, on the other hand, is reluctant to make the scramble up the first steep bit.

Mackenzie doing her best mountain goat impression

As Byron is trying to convince River, Mackenzie and I descend the narrow staircase. At one point she overreaches with a hind foot and steps on the back of her front hoof boot, essentially tripping herself. Luckily, the seam between the boot and the gaiter rips, freeing her foot so that she can regain her balance before falling on top of me.

A bit of the narrow staircase section

Byron finally resorts to bribing River with a treat from his pocket and they join us on the other side. We continue up the trail leaving the forest and streams behind. We begin to see the beautiful granite rock formations that the area is known for.

We reach the top of the pass where a gate and sign mark the division between east and west. Here we turn around and head back the way we came. It is possible to ride the entire trail from one side to the other but it makes for a very long day. Most folks who do it will team up with another group, each parking at the separate trailheads and riding towards each other, swapping truck keys as they pass.

The round trip distance for this out-and-back ride was 8.2 miles. We completed it in 3 hours 26 minutes. Total elevation gain to reach the divide was 1,197 feet.

We arrive back at the trailer as the sun is slipping behind the peaks. I feed the horses a wet mash of beet pulp and alfalfa while we un-tack and ready the trailer for departure. Then, we load up and head to Lazy Horse Ranch, a privately owned horse campground and B&B in Pearce, AZ.

We rest overnight and head out to climb The Wasteland in the morning.

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