We struck out early on the day we visited Fort Bowie (pronounced boo-e) knowing we had a full day and a lot of hiking ahead of us. However, due to our newly acquired talent for completely disregarding road signs, we made a turn instead of going straight to reach the trail that leads to the fort. We ended up on a dirt road that had road graders actually blading the road in front of us! Nevertheless, we thought we were on the right road and kept going. The nice road grader guys even pulled over and let us pass. Undoubtedly, they were rolling their eyes as we went by. Anyway, after a lot of bumping, slipping, and sliding on the dirt road, we found a sign that said, “Fort Bowie” and a paved road leading up a hill.
As it turns out, we ended up at the park’s ranger station and tiny handicapped parking area. Although we didn’t realize our mistake until much later. So rather than hiking into the park, we just had to climb a small hill and then walk about 500 yards to the visitor center.
So where is it exactly?
Fort Bowie, the trailhead rather, is 13 miles south of Bowie, Arizona on Apache Pass Road. Bowie is a small town located 23 miles east of Willcox, Arizona on Interstate 10. Note to visitors: Once you’re on Apache Pass Road, there are no turns before you reach the trailhead. The last mile of the road is unpaved.
The park features:
- Visitor center with exhibits, bookstore and gift shop
- Bird and wildlife watching
- Picnic tables at the trailhead and visitor center
- Some ranger led tours – check with the park for details
- Free admission
The park’s website can be accessed here.
Why is Fort Bowie significant?
The first Fort Bowie was built in 1862, by 1,500 Union troops composed of California volunteers who had traveled over 900 miles to the site. Their intended job was to help drive Confederate forces out of New Mexico Territory which included Arizona at the time. However, before they arrived a battle ensued in 1861 which led to the actual establishment of the fort. It was called the Bascom Affair. Things got out of hand when the great chief Cochise and his band of Chiricahua Apache were falsely accused of kidnapping a local rancher’s son. Read about it here.
Then in 1862, another clash between the hostile Chiricahua and Union troops resulted in the deaths of 10 Apache and two soldiers. This battle is known as the Battle of Apache Pass. The fight was over control of Apache Spring, a water source that was vital to both sides.
In 1868, the second Fort Bowie, was constructed for use a military base of operations against hostile Chiricahua Apache. By 1872, most of the Apache bands had been captured and relocated to reservations. However, one group of Apache led by Geronimo kept escaping reservations and remained elusive for 10 years. While they continued to raid and pillage in the US and across the border in Mexico, soldiers along with specifically chosen Apache scouts actively sought to capture them. Once Geronimo surrendered in 1886, the group was brought to Fort Bowie before being exiled to Florida.
As always, our first stop was the visitor center to get suggestions on how best to see the fort. The volunteer ranger’s first answer was to climb the hill behind the visitor center to see the site from above. Um, next suggestion please…
Then the volunteer, who had to be at least 10 years older than we are, said, “Oh, it’s only a quarter mile and a three-hundred-foot [or whatever] elevation gain.” We stood there looking between each other and the volunteer. Finally, deciding if she can do it, we can do it. So off we went through the ocotillos and agaves to prove ourselves. It turned out that the short hike was well worth the effort!
After the hill climb, we spent an hour and a half walking the Ruins Trail through the fort. Though when looking at ruins it is hard to imagine what they once looked like. Fortunately, the National Park Service has placed information boards at the ruins of each building which give the history and in some instances a picture of what it once looked like.
Fancy Fort Bowie
Below are a couple of old photos from the second Fort Bowie’s heyday.
Remarkably, Fort Bowie had an ice machine that was run by a steam engine. Imagine what a treat having iced drinks would’ve been during the hot summer months. The ice also provided a way to keep food cool and was even used to make ice cream. Even more remarkable, to us anyway, was that several of Fort Bowie’s buildings, as well as living quarters had indoor flushing toilets. Such luxury for an isolated outpost during that era!
At its height, Fort Bowie also had a hospital, a school, and a tailor shop for the purpose of keeping the men’s uniforms properly fitted. According to the park’s information, the tailor was an enlisted man who was able to charge the soldiers for his services. Other necessary structures included a guard house, corrals, and a trader’s post (general mercantile, formerly known as a sutler’s store). There was even a tennis court!
Ending the Conflicts
When Geronimo escaped his last reservation in 1885, he along with about 50 other Apache followers fled to Mexico. There they raided villages and pillaged for economic rewards, including horses. They often crossed the border back into New Mexico Territory to do the same. Officials in Washington put pressure on the commander of the Department of Arizona, (a department of the US Army at the time) to bring the Chiricahua conflicts to an end. With all of the other Chiricahua Apache people having been exiled to Florida, Geronimo and his band of followers were the last hold outs.
Geronimo surrendered on September 4, 1886, near Fort Bowie and he and his band, which had dwindled, became prisoners of war. While being held at Fort Bowie, they prepared to board wagon trains for the long journey to Florida where they would live in exile along with the rest of their people. Geronimo would eventually end up at Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he lived as a prisoner of war for the last 15 years of his life. He died there in 1909 at the age of 79.
The Chiricahua conflicts ended with Geronimo’s capture in 1886, and Fort Bowie had served its purpose. On October 17, 1894, the remaining men 118 men of the 2nd Cavalry, along with nine women and two children, left Fort Bowie for their new post at Fort Logan, Colorado.
Visiting Fort Bowie
Our number one piece of advice for visitors is to take the trail from the trailhead to the visitor center. We missed some interesting parts of the park because of our dumb mistake. In addition to what we’ve covered here, the fort’s cemetery, the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency building, the site of the Battle of Apache Pass, Apache Spring, and the ruins of the Buttlerfield Overland Mail Stage Station are located on the trail.
Fort Bowie became a designated National Historic Landmark in 1960. Today Fort Bowie’s ghosts of military personnel and Native Americans alike live among the ruins of the once grand post. We can honor their memory by learning their history. After all, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. According to the National Park Service, the fort will never be rebuilt, but it will be preserved and protected.
Thank you so much for taking the time to visit Fort Bowie with us!
You may also enjoy these other great national park sites:
Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Devils Tower Road Trip: Things to Do
Travel safely, y’all!
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.
54 thoughts on “Fort Bowie National Historic Site”
I would be quite paranoid about disregarding or even missing signs in this part of the country, especially if the road graders appeared lol. The steam engine ice machine was a brilliant manufacturing achievement. And flushing toilets? I never thought they’d have that “luxury” either. Very historic region.
Thanks Bruce! We were aa bit paranoid, but we really thought we were on the right road.
An excellent review of Fort Bowie National Historic Site. The steep uphill walk was definitely worthwhile to appreciate those stunning views. Could I ask what a ‘road grader’ is please? Does it signify a steep gradient?
Thanks Marion! A road grader is a vehicle with a blade on the front that scrapes the road to even out the dirt.
Oh thanks Kellye for letting me know, I’d never heard of one before!
You’re welcome. I wouldn’t know what they’re called in the UK.
This Fort Bowie was such amazing historic site .Those views were on the Steep hill ..thanks Anita
It is full of history. Thank you, Anita!
Very isolated but interesting.
Definite isolated. Thank you for checking out the post!
This area reminds me very much of the Karoo in South Africa. You said they had a way to make ice in those days. Was it very hot for you walking? You couldn’t walk far in the karoo in summer. Thank you for sharing this so concisely.
Thank you Sandy! It wasn’t hot when we were there at the end of February, but it would be miserable in the summer.
I can imagine. Open spaces like that have a very special magic at the right time of year.
I love the photos of the visitor centre and the ruins among the tall swaying grass. The details you shared about life in Fort Bowie back in the day are fascinating: a steam engine ice machine, the flushing toilets, even a tennis court. Sounds like an outpost for hedonists 😉 The views from the hilltop are brilliant. I’m glad you got there despite missing the road signs.
Thanks, Leighton. Back in its day, Fort Bowie was really out in the middle of nowhere. And for them to have all those luxuries was so interesting to us.
A great post re Fort Bowie. I really enjoy reading about such experiences and how it was back then and you guys do it so well 😊
Thanks so much, Sean!
Oh my gosh, the scenery was indeed beautiful from the top.
Yes, it was. Southern Arizona is pretty, but I bet it is miserably hot in the summer.
Savannah-ish but without as much humidity.
A terrifically interesting post!
Thank you, Neal!
I love all the detail you go into!
This my kind of hike! A beautiful scenery, a hilltop, and lots of history to learn! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Vanessa!
I enjoyed this vicarious visit to Fort Bowie. It must have been a 5-star accommodation with ice and flushing toilets. The views were definitely worth climbing the hill. (Easy for me to say.)😊 I don’t know all the facts but suspect that the Chiricahua may have had some reason to be hostile.
Yes, the Apaches as well as others had lots of reason to be hostile. There is so much American history that is appalling, but we need to know about it. If I’d had to live on an Army post in that era, Fort Bowie would’ve been my choice. Thanks, John!
Fantastic piece of good ol’ history….and an iconic representation of Geronimo. It’s (nearly) always worth a taxing uphill climb…the reward is usually well worth the effort. There’s something good about being in agave country too; you know you’re in hot dry territory.
Thank you, guys!
This is such an interesting part of the history. Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you, Melodie!
Very atmospheric ruins, although I’m glad you also included the old photos so I could visualise what it once looked like. A sad history however. But I had to laugh at ‘our newly acquired talent for completely disregarding road signs’ 🤣🤣
Thanks Sarah. You would think that as much as we travel by car we wouldn’t make wrong turns. I’ve gotten us into some of the worst parts of cities around the country!
Even though you took a wrong turn at least you got to where you needed to go! It’s too bad that you missed some parts of the park because of it though. But it still sounds like you managed to learn a lot about Fort Bowie and see many of the ruins and important sites.
Taking a wrong turn once in a while can also lead to great surprises too. This wasn’t one of those, but it worked out. Thanks for stopping by!
What an interesting place – and post! It sounds like it was an effort to get there to see it all, but it was an effort well rewarded. The history there is fascinating and quite impressive. Ice, ice cream, flushing toilets and tennis courts! But more moving, are the stories of the conflicts there which are part of our nation’s history.
Yes, we thought Fort Bowie was a very interesting park site. Thank you for your nice comment, Betty!
I’m glad you guys climbed the hill and were rewarded with such beautiful views! You’re doing a great job covering these historic sights!
Thank you, Lyssy! We never appreciated history until we started visiting the amazing national parks.
An interesting place and history Kellye. How the country was formed. Sad about the ongoing battles with those who originally occupied the land. I loved the historical photos of an outpost that was quite grand for the time. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Thank you, Allan!
What an interesting piece of history! I knew the name Geronimo, but nothing of what made him so notable. So it was interesting to read about him and the conflict here. The best teachers of history are the ghosts of those that were there, so glad places are preserved so we can learn from them. Great post! 🙂
Thanks for taking us to this interesting site! Next time in Arizona, we’ll try and brave the dirt road and the hill and visit in person.
Thank you for reading!
So nice to see pieces of history captured like that.
What an interesting place, civil war history really is everywhere in the US and it’s so fascinating to learn more of through your posts. I hadn’t appreciated what Geronimo was known for so you’ve educated me. I’m glad you made the short hike up the hill as the views look wonderful too 🙂
Wow! Ice machines ! They are living large for that time period. Meanwhile up north they cut ice in lakes and rivers during the winter to use year round.
So much history what fun!
How lucky you were to get on the wrong road, but honestly we enjoyed the hike out there and the history that came with it. My husband has become fascinated with the history of Ft. Bowie and is doing additional reading that the ranger suggested. It has amazing scenery, along with its history.
We are also fascinated with the history of many of the sites we’ve visited. Sure is more fun to see it in person than reading about it in a history book.
I am fascinated by your dedication to finding such hidden gems in such desolate places! I’m afraid there aren’t many arid spots in Japan since it gets quite rainy here, hence my attraction to places like Fort Bowie. By the way, I had no idea it’s pronounced as “boo-e” 😂 Have I pronounced David Bowie wrong my entire life? 😱
Well, I had a hard time saying boo-ee too because David Bowie was also in my head. Aren’t we funny! Thank you for checking out our post!