Saguaro National Park

Saguaro (pronounced suh-war-o) National Park is a landscape unlike any other we’ve seen. A literal cactus forest divided into two units – the Rincon Mountain District (east) and the Tucson Mountain District (west) – and it is approximately 30 miles between the two. We visited the east unit on a day when a cold front was blowing in and it was very windy. On the next day when we visited the west unit, we woke up to snow which thankfully disappeared quickly as the day warmed up. Both units were great, but if we had to choose only one, we would probably choose the west unit.

View of the Rincon Mountains from the east unit.

We are excited to share this park with you and hope you enjoy learning about it through our words and lenses.

Where is it?

Saguaro National Park is located in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona. The east unit is located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, Arizona. The west unit is located at 2700 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona.

Along Cactus Forest Drive (scenic drive) at the east unit.

The park features:

  • Visitor centers at each unit with exhibits, park films, and cactus gardens
  • Bookstores at each unit’s visitor center
  • Hiking trails at each unit
  • Bicycling trails at each unit
  • Horseback riding allowed on trails at the east unit
  • Backcountry camping with permit
  • Picnic areas at each unit
  • Scenic drives at each unit
  • Ranger-led programs
  • Entry fee covers both units

Access the park’s website here.

The two saguaros in the center look like they’re high fiving each other. This view is from the Bajada Loop Drive (scenic drive) at the west unit.

The Sonoran Desert

File:Sonoran Desert map.svg - Wikimedia Commons
Map credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons.

Spanning 120,000 square miles, the Sonoran Desert covers parts of Arizona and California as well as parts of Mexico. Neighbors include the Chihuahuan Desert to the East, the Mojave Desert to the north, and the Great Basin Desert to the northwest, with each desert possessing different distinguishing factors and its own diverse ecosystems.  

The Sonoran Desert’s subtropical climate is characterized by its mild winters and hot summers. It is the hottest desert in North America. Rainfall varies from 3-16 inches per year, though some higher elevation areas receive more rain along with snow in the winter. The desert’s monsoon season usually runs from July through September.

Saguaros only grow in the Sonoran Desert.

This desert is home to over 2,000 species of plants. Organ pipe cactus is another species that only grows in the Sonoran Desert and can be found at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the southwest corner of Arizona.

Desert Cacti

While the saguaros are the stars of the show at Saguaro National Park, we enjoyed learning about some of the other cactus varieties that make their home in the Sonoran Desert.

Teddy bear cholla

Our newest cactus discovery was the teddy bear cholla (pronounced choy-uh). We have a lot a cholla around where we live, but not this species. Even though the teddy bear cholla looks soft and cuddly, it is not!

Fishhook barrel cactus

If we had visited the park in September rather than in March, we probably would have seen the fishhook barrel cactus in bloom. The interesting thing about this cactus is that it leans toward its greatest source of light. By doing this, the larger plants can topple over and uproot themselves.

Chain fruit cholla

We never knew that there were so many species of cholla. We also saw staghorn cholla and pencil cholla. The one above is called a chain fruit cholla because it produces grapelike clusters of edible fruit. It is sometimes known as the jumping cholla due to its short, jointed stems that can easily drop from the plant and attach to people or animals that may be passing by.

Desert Trees

Palo verde tree

Palo Verde means green stick in Spanish. Identifiable by their green bark, these interesting trees are found throughout the Sonoran Desert. Three things that make this tree so unique:

  • It only has leaves/blooms during the spring, dropping them as temperatures climb in order to prevent water loss.
  • It lives on virtually no water for prolonged periods of time.
  • It survives by photosynthesis through its bark.
Creosote bush

We were first introduced to creosote bushes at Big Bend National Park, and it’s likely that we only paid attention to them then because they smell so good – especially after a rain. Nevertheless, the unique thing about creosote bushes in the Sonoran Desert is that they, along with palo verde trees, mesquite trees, and other cacti species, are nurse plants for the saguaro. That means that baby saguaros grow underneath these nurse plants using their shade and nutrients to help the saguaro mature. As the saguaro grows, it takes all of the nurse plant’s nutrients and water which eventually kills the nurse.

The Saguaro

Perfect saguaro?

While we walked trails and drove through Saguaro National Park, we spent a lot of time looking for a perfect saguaro. The fact is, there are few that epitomize what we thought a saguaro should look like. First of all, many of them have holes where desert dwelling birds have built homes. (But with no trees, what’s a bird to do?) Secondly, some saguaros have been affected by cold weather or old age, and they’re just not pretty anymore – at least they didn’t look pretty to us. Fortunately, we found a few perfect ones to share. Here are some interesting facts about saguaros:

  • Without knowing when it was planted there is no way to tell the age of a saguaro.
  • Saguaros grow about one inch in its first 5 – 10 years.
  • A saguaro may reach 6 feet tall by the time it is 35 – 60 years old and will flower for the first time around 55 years old.
  • At 50 – 75 years old the saguaro will start to grow arms and may reach a height of 8 – 20 feet tall.
  • While they are considered mature at 125 years old, saguaros can live between 150 – 200 years, and some may live up to 250 years.
  • Pleats on the body of the saguaro allow them to expand to retain water, and the number of pleats matches number of wooden ribs on the inside of the plant.
  • A fully grown saguaro can weigh up to 4 tons.
  • Saguaros bloom for only 24 hours then the blossoms grow into fruit which is edible.
  • Saguaro blossoms are the state flower of Arizona.
Snow tipped saguaros – west unit.

Crested Saguaros

Rare crested saguaro

Crested, or cristate, saguaros are rare, and while some biologists believe that the crests are caused by genetic or hormonal reasons, others think there is a physical cause, such as a lightning strike or cold snap, for the fan-like formations. The fact is that nobody really knows for sure what causes the mutations. When we found out about them, we added them to our mission to find a perfect one, but the one pictured was the only one we found in either unit. According to a ranger, only 25 crested saguaros have been found among the 2 million saguaros living in the park. The Crested Saguaro Society has catalogued about 3,300 of these unusual cacti throughout the Sonoran Desert region. Information about their finds is kept in a secret database so that vandals and poachers cannot locate the unique specimens.

It’s Not All About Cactus

Arizona and its surrounding states have been home to indigenous people for thousands of years. Clues to their existence have been left behind in cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites, implements, pottery, and rock art. Rock art can be painted (pictographs) or carved into the rock (petroglyphs). Saguaro National Park has a fine collection of about 200 petroglyphs at a site called Signal Hill.

Some of Signal Hill’s petroglyphs

Hohokam (pronounced hoho-kahm) people, who lived in the area between 450 AD and 1450 AD created Saguaro National Park’s petroglyphs. How do we know this? Some of the same designs are seen in their pottery. Nobody really knows what the symbols mean, though there are speculations.

According to park information, some researchers believe that the petroglyphs are religious symbols. Others believe they may commemorate an event, mark a solstice, or even tell a story. We like to think that the ancient people were recording what they saw – similar to today’s photographs. Regardless of what they mean, it is fun to view them and try to make our own interpretations.

We are going to close the post with a few more shots from around the park.

East unit trail view of pretty saguaros and other plants.
West unit view from Signal Hill.
Even though it was technically still winter, we saw wildflowers. Desert marigold, perhaps? Unfortunately, we missed a desert super bloom by about two weeks.

Thank you so much for exploring Saguaro National Park with us! If you love national parks or need more road trip ideas, check out these other great parks:

Grand Canyon National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park


Happy, safe travels, 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.



Casa Grande Ruins

Casa Grande might have been a family home, or it could have been a trade center. Perhaps it was a religious complex or an astrological observatory. The truth is that nobody knows, but a trip to this intriguing national park site will leave visitors with an admiration for the ingenuity of the Ancient Sonoran Desert People as well as a lot to wonder about.

Where is it?

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is located at 1100 W. Ruins Drive in  Coolidge, Arizona, which is about a 1-hour drive from either Phoenix or Tucson. The park features:

  • Visitor center
  • Museum
  • Introductory film
  • Self-guided tours of the site
  • Periodic guided tours – check with the park for dates and times
  • Covered picnic tables
  • Free admission

Access the park’s website here.

Casa Grande

Why is Casa Grande Significant?

Occupied from 450 AD to 1450 AD, Casa Grande is part of what was once a community of Hohokam (pronounced: hoho-kahm) people near the Gila River in south-central Arizona. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of several similar communities in the area, though none have a structure like Casa Grande. Considered one of the largest prehistoric structures in North America, Casa Grande was built sometime between 1300 AD and 1350 AD. The site’s first recorded history comes from the journals of Jesuit priest Father Eusebio Kino, who arrived in 1694 and gave the Great House its name. Although, by that time the site had been abandoned for almost 250 years.

The people who lived in the Casa Grande community were farmers who grew gourds, corn, beans, tobacco, and cotton. Interestingly, an elaborate system of irrigation canals provided water for the crops and the people. The park also features a mound that is believed to have been a sports arena or some type of ball field used for the same type of games that are known to have been played by the Aztec people of Mexico. These unique sports fields have also been found in other area villages. Since the people who lived at Casa Grande left no evidence of a written language, little is known about them or where they went when they left the site.

Wooden beams and iron bars were used to stabilize the walls of the structure when the first repair efforts began in the 1890s.

The Great House

Casa Grande is built of caliche (kuh-leechee) which is a hard clay like substance made up of mud, sand and calcium carbonate and is found underneath the topsoil in dry areas such as the Sonoran Desert. Dry caliche can be as hard as concrete which is probably why the structure has survived for so many centuries.

Perhaps the Ancient Sonoran Desert People dug up the caliche while digging their irrigation canals, and then carried it to the construction site in baskets. 

Detail of the caliche.

The Community

Other remains of the Casa Grande village.

Archaeological evidence suggests that in addition to farming, Casa Grande’s people also made pottery, implements, and arrowheads. Archaeologists also know that the Hohokam people were traders. Known trade items include small copper bells, parrots, and crop seed that came from Mexico. Shells from California, which were used to make jewelry, have also been found. As cotton farmers, the residents of the Casa Grande community were also weavers. Woven cotton items likely would have been a prime commodity for trade.

Undated historical photo showing the village.

The park’s visitor center has a wonderful museum with exhibits showing some of the pottery and implements found at Casa Grande. Between 1860 and 1880, the village was on a stagecoach route originating from a railway station about 20 miles away. Unfortunately, stage passengers who stopped at the site not only vandalized the structures, but they also collected souvenirs and scratched graffiti into the walls. We can only imagine how many priceless artifacts were pilfered before the government stepped in to protect the site.

TheFlorence stage at the south side of the Casa Grande between 1888-1899. (CG-5030)
National Park Service photo of a stagecoach at Casa Grande circa 1888-1889.

Establishment of a Park

Archaeologists and anthropologists who visited Casa Grande in the late 1800s urged the government to repair and protect the site’s structures. Their convincing worked, and in 1889, congress voted to protect the site from further vandalism and erosion and began some repairs such as the rods and beams we mentioned previously.

West wall of the Casa Grande c.1880
West wall of Casa Grande, 1880. National Forest Service photo.

Three years later, President Benjamin Harrison set aside one square mile of land surrounding the Great House as the first federally protected prehistoric and cultural preserve in the U.S. and called it Casa Grande Reservation.

West wall of Casa Grande, 2023.

President Woodrow Wilson designated Casa Grande Ruins as a national monument in 1918. An electrical powerplant, the visitor center, paved park road, and paved parking lot, as well as a new steel shelter for the Great House were all completed in 1932.

Casa Grande’s 1932 steel shelter is still in great condition today.

We were fortunate to have been able to join a ranger talk during our visit to the park. One of the most fascinating parts of the presentation was the history of the steel shelter. Designed by renowned architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., the structure can withstand hurricane force winds and allows airflow around the structure while not obstructing visibility of the ruins. Its four slanted legs are actually drainpipes that allow water from the roof drain into underground pipes and away from the Great House. Now, that’s ingenious!

We will close the post with one more historic photo of the Great House, courtesy of the National Forest Service.

The east side of the Casa Grande c.1900
Casa Grande circa 1900.

Thank you for taking the time to visit Casa Grande Ruins National Monument with us!

While you’re here, you might want to check out these other great national monuments:

Fort Union National Monument

Devils Tower Road Trip: Things to Do

Craters of the Moon National Monument

Safe travels, 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.



San Xavier del Bac Mission

We have visited a lot of beautiful missions as well as ruins of missions, but none of them compared to San Xavier del Bac (pronounced: san ha-vee-air dell bock). Known as the White Dove of the Desert, San Xavier is located on the Tohono O’odham (pronounced ah-dum, similar to autumn) San Xavier Indian Reservation. Today San Xavier maintains its original purpose as a parish church and school and is a National Historic Landmark.

San Xavier del Bac

Where is it?

The mission is located at 1950 San Xavier Road, Tucson, Arizona in the village of Wa:k, which is part of the Tohono O’odham Reservation. The site features:

  • Mission church
  • Gift shop
  • Museum (currently closed)
  • Guided and self-guided tours
  • Grotto Hill – adjacent to the church
  • Free admission

Click here for a short essay about San Xavier’s history.

Grotto Hill, which is not part of the mission, sits adjacent to the church and features a replica of the grotto at Lourdes.

San Xavier del Bac Mission

Jesuit priest Father Eusebio Kino, who was the founder of twenty-four missions in the southwestern US, Mexico, and Baja California, founded San Xavier in 1692. In 1783, the Franciscan mission priest Fr. Juan Bautista Velderrain obtained a loan from a Sonoran rancher to build the church we see today. Spanish architect Ignacio Gaona utilized O’odham workers for the actual labor. Construction materials include fired brick, lime mortar, and masonry vaults for the roof. The church was completed in 1797 and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US.

This is an undated photo of San Xavier del Bac. Note the residences that surround the church. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Throughout the years, San Xavier has undergone many repairs and restorations beginning with an earthquake in 1887 that collapsed one of the mortuary chapel walls and damaged the church. Additional restorations have been done periodically when the mission has had the funds to do them, and conservation efforts continue today. Even so, we don’t think the building has changed much according to the old photos.

Circa 1887 – probably after the earthquake damaged the mortuary chapel and church. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Trivia: Wa:k means Bac in the O’odham language. Bac means where the water comes from beneath the sand.

The Church

San Xavier del Bac altar

Unfortunately, the stunning sanctuary was undergoing repairs during our visit and was full of scaffolding, so we only got a few good pictures. There were also worshipers in the church at the time, and we didn’t want to disturb them. Nevertheless, we were drawn to the elaborate altar with its colorful details and beautifully carved santos portraying Catholic saints. Scalloped shell motifs can be seen inside and outside the church and were used to honor the pilgrimages of Santiago, also known as Saint James the Greater, the patron saint of Spain.

The Last Supper mural on the wall of the sanctuary. The walls of the sanctuary feature many frescoes.
Apse frescoes and windows.

The Mortuary Chapel

Mortuary Chapel

We have seen mortuary chapels at other missions. They are used similarly to a funeral home where people go to mourn the dead before burial. San Xavier’s mortuary chapel is a place for people to light candles. A lighted candle is a prayer offering, a symbol of one’s devotion to Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints.

A glimpse inside the mortuary chapel.
From the courtyard between the church and the mortuary chapel.

The Facade

San Xavier’s facade is certainly attention grabbing because it welcomes visitors directly into the church. Although, if we had not followed along with a volunteer tour guide, we wouldn’t have noticed the interesting details. Details of the facade include depictions of the crops that the O’odham people grew, such as squash, grapes, watermelons, wheat, beans and corn. These plants are easily seen in the top section. Also in the top section are male and female lions. Note that they do not look like African lions, but they look like the puma or mountain lions that the O’odham people would have been familiar with. Interestingly, the lions are said to represent the king and queen of Spain because Arizona was still part of Spain when San Xavier was built. Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the top portion are the curlicues on either side of the facade.

Top and middle sections of the facade

Look closely at the tops of the curlicues. On the left-hand side is a mouse and on the right-hand side is a cat. The belief is that if the cat ever catches the mouse, it will be the end of the world. A large scallop shell sits prominently between the statues of two saints, while two additional saints are featured on the bottom section. Some of the original paint can still be seen on the saints and on some of the embellishments.

Detail of Santa Barbara. Note the original paint colors on her clothes and the embellishments.

We found the Baroque details, especially the curtains, quite interesting because those wouldn’t have been seen anywhere in the area at that time. Of course, architect Ignacio Gaona would have seen these adornments throughout Spain or other parts of Europe and most likely brought the ideas to San Xavier.

Unfinished Business

Even after two centuries and several renovations, portions of San Xavier are still unfinished. For example, the east tower doesn’t have a dome to match the west tower. The east tower has gone through recent structural repairs, however, causing its new paint to appear stark against the rest of the building.

There are several theories about the unfinished church that give pause for thought. One theory, and probably the most likely, is that the church ran out of money. Another a popular belief is that construction was halted after a worker fell to his death from the east tower. Further theories suggest that an unfinished building wouldn’t be taxed. Perhaps no one will ever know why the church has remained unfinished for so long, but we believe it is perfect just the way it is.

Sanctuary ceiling – unfinished details.


The historic photo below shows the Tumacacori santos in San Xavier’s baptistry.

Tumacacori santos

When the residents of Tumacacori left in 1848, they took the santos from their church to their new home at San Xavier. Today the santos are back home in the museum at Tumacacori National Historical Park. One of Tumacacori’s santos, however, does remain at San Xavier and is sometimes mistaken by visitors as a mummy. Originally the saint was a carved depiction of the crucified Christ, though now encased in glass, the reclining figure has been redesignated as Saint Frances Xavier who was the first Jesuit missionary. The statue remains in the west transept of the church.

We are closing the post with one last shot of the church’s west tower.

Thank you for joining us on our trip to San Xavier del Bac!

Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out these other amazing destinations:

San Antonio Missions

Catoctin Mountain Park and National Shrine Grotto  

Antietam National Battlefield


Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

Altar photo credit: Geremia, Wikimedia Commons. Apse photo credit: Nicholas Hartmann, Wikimedia Commons. 

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.



Tumacacori National Historical Park

Where is Tumacacori National Historical Park?

Tumacacori (pronounced tooma-cockery) is located in Tumacacori, Arizona. The park site is approximately 50 miles south of Tucson and 20 miles north of the Mexican border town of Nogales on Interstate 19.

Tumacacori’s visitor center has our vote for one of the prettiest visitor centers we’ve seen, and it is a designated National Historic Landmark.

The park features:

  • Visitor center with gift shop and bookstore
  • Park film
  • Guided tours – check with the park for times
  • Self-guided tours
  • Ruins of two additional mission sites – available for 4-hour guided tours only
  • Hiking
  • Picnic tables
  • Special events and demonstrations – check with the park for times and dates
  • Museum
  • Admission fees apply for entry

Access the park’s website here.

Visitor center courtyard and garden, constructed in 1939.

Why is Tumacacori significant?

As with all of the southwestern US missions, Tumacacori’s lands were once the home of Native American people. Southern Arizona was the homeland of the O’odham (pronounced ah-dum, similar to autumn) who were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Padre Eusebio Kimo, a Jesuit priest, founded the first area mission in 1691 along the Santa Cruz River south of the current park site. He named the new mission San Cayatano de Tumacacori. Shortly thereafter, Padre Kimo founded a second mission, San Angeles de Guevavi, about 15 miles upriver from the first Tumacacori. Another Jesuit priest founded the area’s third mission, San Cayatano de Calabazas. Tumacacori National Historical Park protects the ruins of the three missions and is located on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

San Jose de Tumacacori Church

In 1751, more than 100 people, including two priests, were killed when O’odham rebels staged a rebellion. The fear of additional raids caused many of the mission’s residents to leave. Therefore, in order to make a better home for the mission’s residents, Padre Kimo’s first Arizona mission was relocated to what is now the park site and renamed San Jose de Tumacacori.

Mission San Jose de Tumacacori church

Mission San Jose Tumacacori’s second church was never fully completed, although it was dedicated in 1822 and used until Tumacacori was abandoned in 1848.

Ruins include the footings of the original Jesuit church and part of the convento (the priests’ living quarters).

In 1767, the Spanish governor ordered all Jesuit priests out of his domains and into exile. He then sent Franciscan priests to replace them. Therefore, it was under the direction of Franciscan priest Fray Gutierrez that construction began on Tumacacori’s three-story church in 1800. 

A view of the nave from the front doors.

Still partially covered in their original lime plaster, the thick adobe walls continue to stand strong. A baptistry was to the right of the front doors, and above it on the second story was the choir preparation room. The choir loft was once above the front doors, and the sacristy (priest’s office) was to the right of the sanctuary. Worshipers stood or knelt during mass as there were no pews in the church.

The sanctuary.

Shadows of picture frames and other embellishments that once adorned the church are still visible. Some original paint and stenciling can still be seen as well.

East view showing the church’s white dome and the white barrel-vaulted ceiling of the sacristy.

The Bell Tower

Scalloped niches were used to hold statues of saints.

Tumacacori church’s three-story bell tower begins at ground level with the baptistry, the second level choir preparation room, and the third level arched tower. Originally each arch held a bell, and the bells were rung several times a day for various reasons. Nobody knows what happened to the original bells, but they were likely taken by vandals and melted down for other uses. Constructed of fired bricks, the tower was to have originally been covered in white plaster, but that was never done. It is uncertain whether the tower was to have had a white dome to match the church. Interestingly, the adobe walls of the baptistry and choir preparation room are nine feet thick in order to hold the weight of the bell tower.

San Jose de Tumacacori Cemetery

Most missions had a church cemetery, and Tumacacori was no different. White walls surrounded the little cemetery which is located behind the church. Nooks that would have held the 14 Stations of the Cross are still visible in the thick wall. There are some graves in the Tumacacori cemetery, although none of them are original to the functioning mission. Sadly, the cemetery’s original graves were desecrated by vandals and grave robbers after the mission was abandoned. Then adding insult to injury, the cemetery was used for a time as a cattle corral.

Mortuary chapel

The round building above sits in the middle of the cemetery and is the unfinished mortuary chapel, which when completed was to have had a white domed roof. Mortuary chapels were used to hold vigils for the dead before they were buried.

This view shows the mortuary chapel with the church in the background.

Years later, people in the surrounding community began burying their dead in the cemetery. The last burial, an infant, took place in 1916.

The Museum

Set up in time-line style, the outstanding museum covers the history of the area beginning in prehistoric times and continues through the abandonment of Tumacacori. The museum features, artifacts, dioramas, exhibits, and art, all depicting life around and at Tumacacori.

This display shows how the O’odham people lived before the Spanish missionaries arrived.

The priests that administered the area missions kept immaculate records of marriages, births, deaths, baptisms, and other pertinent information about the people who lived there. Today the park has a free online database of the records for anyone who wants to search them by family name. Learn more about the database, Mission 2000, here.

Handwritten records were kept by the priests.
A depiction of farming at the mission.

Residents of Tumacacori grew squash, corn, beans and other crops. Orchards were also planted, and crops were irrigated using a water diversion system called an acequia. The six wooden santos (saints) that once stood in Tumacacori’s church now reside behind glass in the park’s museum. We apologize for the glare.

Melhok Ki

Melhok ki

This melhok ki, which means ocotillo house in the O’odham language, is an example of a traditional O’odham dwelling. Melhok ki walls and roofs were constructed using the cane-like branches of the ocotillo. Sometimes mesquite branches and other woody plants found in the desert were used as well. Then once the framework was complete, the structure would be covered in mud inside and out. Some of the mission residents would have lived in traditional homes like this one while others lived in more modern adobe dwellings near the church.

Goodbye Tumacacori

This artist’s depiction shows what Tumacacori might have looked like with the completed church.

With the hardships of the Mexican-American war, increasing Apache raids, and harsh weather conditions, the last residents took their santos and left Tumacacori in 1848. Their destination was another mission that was located about 25 miles to the northwest. Sadly, the church and other buildings of Tumacacori fell victim to vandals and into disrepair. Then after 60 years of deterioration, President Theodore Roosevelt protected the site by establishing Tumacacori National Monument in 1908. When the site was redesignated as a National Historical Park in 1990, the Calabazas and Guevavi ruins came under the park’s care.


Thank you for joining us at Tumacacori!

You might also enjoy these other national park sites:

Pecos National Historical Park

New Castle, Delaware and First State National Historical Park

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

Safe travels, 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.



Bisbee, Arizona

Middle of nowhere?

While driving to Bisbee, we found ourselves out in the middle of nowhere again. Well, a middle of nowhere that afforded us a view of the most spectacular rainbow cloud and a cute javelina that was nosing around on the side of the road – definitely our kind of place! We were also surrounded by mountains, some just distant silhouettes as the sun began to sink behind them. Then, as the chill of dusk settled over us, we found ourselves in Bisbee, queen of the copper camps.

As if the surrounding mineral rich, copper-colored hills weren’t enough, indications that Bisbee was an old mining town were all around us. The skeletal remains of a concentrator that once processed millions of tons of ore kept a lonely vigil along the side of the road. A headframe (a mine elevator, of sorts) across the road stood watch over a once bustling mine. We couldn’t wait to dig into Bisbee, but sightseeing would have to wait until the next day.

Where is Bisbee?

Bisbee is 12 miles north of the border with Mexico, off of Highway 80 in the southeastern corner of Arizona. The closest large city is Tucson which is 97 miles northwest.

Arizona Map - Cities and Roads - GIS Geography
Arizona map courtesy of GIS Geography.

Click here for an interesting short history of Bisbee.

The Inn at Castle Rock

Our hotel, The Inn at Castle Rock, was our first stop when we arrived in Bisbee. We knew very little about the hotel but booked it because they had one room available for a reasonable price and their ratings were decent.

The Inn at Castle Rock, Bisbee

Upon check in, the desk clerk gave us a quick tour and then showed us to our room called “Crying Shame”. While the inn wasn’t our usual type of accommodation, it had some great qualities such as a wonderful owner and staff, a free help-yourself-to-whatever’s-there breakfast, and it was clean. Built in 1877, it turns out that the inn has quite a history. They even claim to have a ghost or two lurking around but, disappointingly, we didn’t encounter any. Read a short history and see a few old photos of The Inn at Castle Rock here.

Our funky “Paris” themed room was nothing fancy, but it was comfortable and clean.
The historic spring fed well in the inn’s lobby – once the main water source for the original town of Bisbee.

At night, the inn shines the Bat Signal on Castle Rock which is across the street. Did we mention that the inn is kind of funky? We’ve stayed in historic hotels before, but this one has to be the most offbeat. For anyone looking for a totally out of the ordinary place to stay, we would recommend it.

Holy holograms Batman it’s the Bat Signal on Castle Rock!

With our luggage dropped off in the room, we were ready to eat, so it was off to downtown Bisbee to seek sustenance.

A Quiet Evening in Bisbee

Downtown Bisbee, 8:30 pm. Not much happening here.

We arrived at the restaurant that had been recommended by the inn, and that’s where it was happening, at least on that evening. The restaurant, Bisbee’s Table, which is located in the old mercantile building and shares its space with a bookstore and a bodega, must be a popular place for travelers and locals alike.

We had a short wait before the hostess led us to our table. Once we were served our tasty food, we could see why the place was so busy. Then it was back to the inn for some sleep so we could be up and at ’em early for a morning of sightseeing.

Outside Bisbee’s Table

After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of oatmeal, bagels, and bananas, we were ready to do some exploring. Our first stop was the Lavender Pit.

The Big Hole

Bisbee’s “big hole” consists of three open pit mines that were once owned and operated by the Phelps Dodge Corporation. They are the Lavender Mine, the Sacramento Hill Mine, and the Holbrook Mine. Another Phelps Dodge operation was the Queen Mine which sits adjacent to the Lavender Pit and at one time was the highest producing copper mine in Arizona. The historic Queen Mine, Bisbee’s main tourist attraction, can be toured today by those who don’t mind venturing underground into a mine shaft. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to take the tour, so maybe another trip to Bisbee will end up on our agenda at some point.

Lavender Pit

The city of Bisbee has created a nice scenic overlook area at the Lavender Pit. We spent about 45 minutes there, taking pictures and viewing the “big hole”. Mining began at the Lavender Pit in 1950 and continued until the mine was closed in 1974. The pit is 4,000 feet wide, 5,000 feet long, 850 feet deep and covers 300 acres. It produced over 600,000 tons of copper during its 24 years in operation.

Headframe on the edge of the Lavender Pit. Headframes are elevators that lowered men and equipment into mine shafts.

Other byproducts of the Lavender Pit included Bisbee Blue turquoise, azurite, and malachite. We would love to get our hands on some of these…um, gems.

This display in the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum shows the different minerals found in the local mines. Azurite is the azure blue, the dark green is the malachite, and the turquoise is…well, turquoise.

And speaking of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, that was our next stop.

Bisbee’s Smithsonian Affiliate Museum

Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum sits right in the middle of town and is a “shouldn’t miss” for any visitor. Covering the history of Bisbee and its mining heritage, the museum appropriately occupies the building that once housed the Phelps Dodge Corporation’s general offices. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1983. While we photographed a lot of the museum’s displays, it was the historic photos that grabbed our attention the most.

Bisbee’s Brewery Gulch, early 1900s.

The scenes above and below reflect a very different Bisbee than what we see today. Of course, mining was the top priority in Bisbee, so civic responsibilities and city beautification wasn’t really on anybody’s mind until the early 1900s.

Bisbee on the rise

While mine workers came to Bisbee from all over the world beginning in the early 1880s, men with families began arriving in the early 1900s. The city was incorporated in 1902, and it was then that the town began taking on a modern city feel. Public sanitation, clean water, and fire protection were highly important to the newly incorporated city, so work to implement those necessary services began. During that time, suburbs also began springing up. One suburb, Warren, which is now part of Bisbee, has one of the oldest baseball parks in the US. Another suburb was Lowell. In 1908, Bisbee even began operation of its first cable cars that ran to Warren and back. As a city on the rise, the population had grown to 25,000 by 1910. In 1917, the first open pit mine was established in an effort to supply the high demands for copper during WWI. However, by 1974, the Phelps Dodge Corporation had ceased production of the pit mines. Underground operations were closed in 1975 causing many of Bisbee’s residents to leave to find work elsewhere. Today Bisbee is the home of about 4,000 residents.

A glimpse of Bisbee today.

Lowell, Arizona

Lowell, Arizona, a suburb of Bisbee, was a small mining town in its own right before the Phelps Dodge Corporation began the Lavender Pit mining operation. Though once excavations of the huge open pit mine began, Lowell was, quite frankly, in the way. Phelps Dodge gave Lowell’s residents the option of selling their homes to the company for market value or having them moved to other locations. Today, all that remains of Lowell is Erie Street, which sits adjacent to the Lavender Pit, and is a quarter mile long time capsule.

The buildings and the vehicles allow visitors to step back in time.
Does this bring back memories for anyone? It did for us, though we barely remembered this kind of service station.
Some of Lowell’s old buildings house current businesses, like Old Lady Pickers antique store.

We spent an hour walking both sides of the street in Lowell. It’s a definite not-to-miss attraction when visiting Bisbee.

Supporting the Arts in Bisbee

Okay, this might be a thing everywhere else, but it was the first time we had ever seen one. It is called a C.I.G. Art Miniatures Museum, and basically it’s a refurbished cigarette machine that now dispenses miniature artworks. Examples of the type of art you might get are displayed, though what you receive is a total surprise. Each one costs $20.00 USD and fits in a cigarette box type of container. Most of the proceeds of the sales go to the artists with a portion going to the Bisbee Arts Commission.

We call this little painting “Grasshopper on a Stick”.

If everyone else has already seen these vending machines, we may just be behind the times. Or maybe we just need to get out more. (Yes, please!) Anyway, we thought it made a cute souvenir and it was a small contribution to support a good cause.

We hope you enjoyed this visit to Bisbee. Thanks so much for joining us!

Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out these great destinations:

Safe travels, 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!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.



Fort Bowie National Historic Site

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 skeletal remains of some of Fort Bowie’s crumbling buildings.

The park features:

  • Visitor center with exhibits, bookstore and gift shop
  • Hiking
  • 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.

Fort Bowie’s visitor center

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.

Fort Bowie in 1894

Fort Bowie

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…

Cavalry barracks ruins, built in 1870.

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!

Pretty scenery from the top of the hill.
A view of Fort Bowie from above.

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.

From right to left: Officers Quarters, Tailor Shop, and a glimpse of the Cavalry Barracks on the far left, as they looked in 1884. Note the fancy streetlight.

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!

Middle far right: Mess Hall. Center top: Two-story Commanding Officer’s Quarters. The infantry barracks were located behind the mess hall and are not pictured.

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!

These crumbling rocks are  the remains of the once elegant Commanding Officer’s Quarters.

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 | Library of Congress
Library of Congress image of Geronimo in 1886.

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.

Geronimo (third from right with hands on hips) and his people as prisoners at Fort Bowie.

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.





Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua (pronounced cheer-a-cow-uh) National Monument has been on our road trip radar for quite some time. Fortunately, our wish to visit finally came true during our “Vacation in Ruins” road trip, and the park was everything we expected plus a whole lot more. Even upon entering the park, we never anticipated a lush forest or gently flowing creeks. Nor did we expect a dose of history to go with the gorgeous setting. While nothing can compare to seeing Chiricahua in person, we hope you enjoy the visit through our eyes.

Where is it?

Chiricahua National Monument is located in the Chiricahua Mountains, approximately 30 miles south of Willcox, Arizona which is the closest city with accommodations, food, and gasoline. However, if you choose to visit Fort Bowie National Historic Site first, like we did, Google maps with take you down the road shown below to reach Chiricahua. Google maps will also tell you that the drive takes 29 minutes, but it took us almost an hour. Nevertheless, it was worth the drive, though we now have a dashboard squeak that we didn’t have before this road.

Road to Chiricahua from Fort Bowie.

Luckily, after about 30 minutes of driving on dirt, we finally made it to Highway 181 which led us to the turn off to the park. We truly felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. The scenery was worth the trouble though. Note to travelers: Have a full tank of gas before venturing out to Chiricahua.

Highway 181 – lonely road, ranchland, and snowcapped peaks. We were in our element.

Chiricahua National Monument features:

  • Visitor center with exhibits, bookstore, and gift shop.
  • Hiking trails for all levels of hikers with some designated for horseback riding.
  • Faraway Ranch Historic District with ranger guided tours of the ranch house/museum.
  • Bonita Canyon scenic drive.
  • Picnic areas.
  • Campground for RV and tent camping – open year-round and requires a fee. Reservations are highly recommended.
  • Free hiker shuttle service to higher elevation trailheads during the winter and spring months.
  • No admission fees.

Access the park’s website here.

Little waterfall, Chiricahua National Monument.

Getting There

Before we left Fort Bowie to drive to Chiricahua, we heard other travelers talking to the rangers about the scenic drive being closed due to snow. Our hearts sank because missing Chiricahua was going to be a huge disappointment. The ranger told us later that we should go on to Chiricahua, after all it was a warm day with hardly a cloud in the sky. So, we took off thinking that under the sunny conditions the road would be clear by the time we arrived.

Chiricahua’s visitor center with rangers stationed outside under a much-needed heater.

Upon arrival, we found a parking place in the crowded parking lot and made our way to the visitor center. There we were met outside by one of the nicest park rangers we’ve ever encountered. She told us that the scenic Bonita Canyon Drive wasn’t closed due to snow, but it was closed due to a large fallen boulder. Then the ranger suggested some hiking trails to keep us occupied until the road was cleared. “Which could be any time,” she said with a confident smile. So, we drove to a trailhead for our first hike – a leisurely stroll, really – to see the Faraway Ranch Historic District.

We also encountered this pretty Mexican Jay near the visitor center. Apparently, they have been fed so often by park visitors, they now beg. Large signs attempt to discourage visitors from feeding them, but we suppose that rules only apply to some people.

Faraway Ranch

Windmill at Faraway Ranch, Chiricahua National Monument.

Faraway Ranch was established alongside Bonita Creek in 1886 and became the home of Swedish immigrants Neil and Emma Erickson and their children. The house that began as a one room cabin evolved over the years into a large, modern home by the 1920s.

From the park’s wayside information board. The house perhaps after an 1898 expansion.

Interestingly, Emma bought the 160-acre ranch a year before she and Neil married in 1887. The newlyweds soon realized that making a living by farming was difficult, so Neil took a carpentry job 85 miles away in Bisbee, Arizona. Meanwhile Emma struggled to make a go of the farm. Soon the couple was raising three children, daughters Lillian and Hildegard and son Ben. Neil eventually returned to the ranch, and then in 1903 he became the first ranger of the Chiricahua Forest Reserve.

Faraway Ranch house today

The house underwent several renovations over the years, including the addition of electricity, heating, and indoor bathrooms by daughter Lillian’s husband, Ed Riggs. By the time Lillian had married Ed in 1923, the Erickson’s homestead had become a guest ranch. Chiricahua, called the Wonderland of Rocks by the Erickson family, became a national monument in 1924. Faraway Ranch was operated as a guest ranch until the early 1970s. In 1979, the ranch and all of its contents were sold to the National Park Service to be protected as part of Chiricahua National Monument.

View from the Bonita Creek trail on approach to Faraway Ranch. The shot includes the old barn, corrals, the windmill, and a hint of the wonderland of rocks.

The Ericksons, however, weren’t the first white family to call Bonita Canyon home. Click here to read the short story about Ja Hu Stafford, a 46-year-old man and his 12-year-old wife, Pauline, who settled in Bonita Canyon in 1880.

Lower Rhyolite Trail

Our second hike at Chiricahua was on the Lower Rhyolite Trail. We didn’t go far though, because we were anxious for Bonita Canyon Drive to open and wanted to stick close to the visitor center. However, the parts of the trail that we did experience were perfect and peaceful.

Lower Rhyolite Trail

Rhyolite Creek runs next to the trail.

We encountered a Native American woman who sat on the edge of the creek and chanted while beating a drum. It turned out that she wasn’t the only one doing the same thing. The Chiricahua Mountains were once home to, and named for, the Chiricahua Apache people.

We only wish we knew what her beautiful chants meant.

Scenic Bonita Canyon Drive

After waiting a few hours for Bonita Canyon Drive to open, we finally got access. Unfortunately, it was late in the afternoon by the time the park officials let us through, and even then, the last part of the road was closed. Still, what we got to see was well worth the wait. Some of our shots are below.

First glimpse. Now we know why the Erickson family called this the Wonderland of Rocks!

Chiricahua truly is a wonderland of rocks with its sculpted hoodoos, gigantic pillars, and precariously balanced rocks. We certainly understood why a large fallen boulder could close the road for the better part of a day.

Rocks covered in lichens that glowed neon green in the late afternoon sun.

As the road climbed in elevation, we saw more snow, but we saw these jaw-dropping balanced rocks too! It’s impossible to see these along the road and not wonder what would happen if one happened to tumble. At least that was the case for us.

The undeniable wonder of Chiricahua.

Sentinels of the mountain.

Wrinkly pillars loom high above the treetops.

Since we were unable to access the scenic overlooks, we found the photo below to show a panoramic view of this amazing park. Perhaps another trip is in order so we can actually hike among the hoodoos and pillars.

Chiricahua National Monument. Photo courtesy of R. Gray/Unsplash.

Furry Friends

If the breathtaking scenery along Bonita Canyon Drive wasn’t enough, we were so excited to encounter some of the park’s furry residents.

Chiricahua cutie!

This is a coati, also known as a coatimundi, and they are native to South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Southwestern US. Coatis are relatives of racoons, but unlike their nocturnal cousins, coatis prefer daytime activity and sleeping at night.

These three were obviously too busy foraging for food to stop and pose for a photo.

Black bears, mountain lions, deer, javelinas, foxes, and 20 bat species as well as many other mammals call Chiricahua home. The park’s diverse ecosystems also enable a wide variety of birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians to thrive, even in the sometimes-harsh elements.

Thank you so much for coming along with us to Chiricahua National Monument! We’re closing the post with one more view of the Wonderland of Rocks.

Love national parks? Take a look at these amazing sites:

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
Colorado National Monument 
Scotts Bluff National Monument

Travel safe, 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!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.

























Fort Craig, New Mexico

Where is Fort Craig?

Fort Craig sits near the Rio Grande River about 35 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees this historic site, so it is not a national park. Click here for the BLM website.

Southern New Mexico’s desert terrain.

The site features:

  • Visitor center
  • Restrooms
  • Sheltered picnic tables
  • Self-guided tour on accessible pathways
  • Free admission

Why is Fort Craig significant?

Fort Craig was built on the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which means Royal Road of the Interior Land. Following the Rio Grande River, the National Historic Trail runs roughly 400 miles from El Paso, Texas to Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. However, the original trail began in Mexico City and ended at San Juan Pueblo north of Santa Fe. Explorers, missionaries, traders, and settlers utilized the trail from 1598 to 1882.

A map depicting a trail from Santa Fe south into Mexico.
The map below shows El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro meandering its way along the Rio Grande River through New Mexico.

When the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty was signed in 1848, ending the Mexican-American War, Mexico surrendered what are now the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, and Utah. The US paid $15 million for 525,000 square miles of land, which also included parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. Shortly after the end of the war, settlers began arriving in the new frontier via the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Fort Craig was established in 1854 to protect travelers from attacks by disgruntled Apache, Commanche, and Navajo people who resented the intrusion. By the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Fort Craig was home to infantrymen, calvary, and Buffalo Soldiers. Just one year later, those men would clash with the Confederate Army in the Battle of Valverde.

This National Park Service image shows the desolate Jornada del Muerto.

Jornada del Muerto

Fort Craig replaced Fort Conrad which was located about nine miles to the north. Both forts were not only necessary for the protection of travelers on the Camino Real, but they also served as resting places and water stops for those who had managed to cross the Jornada del Muerto section of the Camino Real. Jornada del Muerto means Dead Man’s Journey and is a ninety-mile-long stretch of mainly waterless, barren desert. Still, with very little water, its desert wastelands, and sometimes rough volcanic terrain, the Jornada del Muerto remains largely uninhabited today.

Located roughly 10 miles south of Fort Craig, Jornada del Muerto Volcano is an eroding shield volcano that last erupted 760,000 years ago. Photo courtesy of Cody Boehne.

Fort Craig

Fort Craig was a self-contained community with a hospital, living quarters for officers and enlisted men, and large store houses. With such large store houses, Fort Craig, was able to supply other nearby forts. Children who lived at the fort attended school, and enlisted men’s wives worked doing laundry. There was also a sutler’s store which was a general mercantile usually owned by a civilian, a blacksmith shop, corrals, and carpenter’s shop. However, with the end of the Civil War and Indian Campaigns as well as travelers using train travel rather than the Camino Real, Fort Craig was abandoned in 1885.

The Ruins

Two of Fort Craig’s three large store houses.

This storehouse image shows the rock back wall and adobe side walls.

Store houses, which were dug six feet underground, had soil reinforced above-ground adobe walls and wooden roofs. The interior walls and roofs were covered with jaspe, which was a locally made type of plaster.

These crumbling rock walls are all that remains of the fort’s sallyport (entrance) and guardhouse. For a time, the guardhouse also served as a prison.