Cochise & Geronimo at Fort Bowie

“Are you sure we’re on the right road?” asked Mr. History Tourist, as we traveled on a two-lane stretch of gravelly bumpiness in the middle-of-nowhere. It seemed that we’d gone further than the map (we’d forgotten our GPS and there was no signal for our phones) would indicate.


“Are you sure we’re on the right road?” asked Mr. History Tourist, as we turned off that two-lane road and onto a dirt no-lane road that pointed us into the hills.


“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” asked Mr. HT, as wound our way up those hills and finally parked next to a couple of other cars, in what looked to be a random spot on the side of said dirt road.

“Yes.”   Maybe ….

We were looking for Fort Bowie National Historic Park, site of the ruins of a 19th century army post that had been at the epicenter of the US war against the Apaches.  It was built at Apache Pass, an important transportation route between the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua Mountains, in southeastern Arizona.  The Chiricahuas were famous for being the stronghold of Cochise and Geromino, leaders (a generation apart) of the Chiricahua Apaches.

“Be prepared to walk the three miles round trip to the ruins and back to your car,” says the National Park Service website. So I knew that the site wouldn’t be right there.  What was there was a picnic table under a gazebo, and a description of the site, and a sign pointing down a dirt path.  We read the description, then followed the sign down the path.

“OMG!” I screeched, just about a hundred feet into our walk, as a brown critter about the size of a small lab ambled toward us.  “Is that a dog?”

No it wasn’t.  It was a coatimundi (a South/Central American member of the raccoon family). We whipped out our cameras, but she took off into the brush as soon as she saw us and we got only her back end (photo on the left). The photo on the right is courtesy of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, which is the only other place I’d ever seen a coatimundi.

The hike to the ruins turned out to be wonderland of beautiful flora and fascinating fauna.

The hike to the ruins also turned out to be the best (and most unexpected) interpretive experiences we’ve had since … let’s see … probably the Lowndes County Interpretive Center outside of Selma, Alabama.  It follows the path of Apache Pass, a road that turned out to be central to the Fort Bowie story.

In 1862, the Union’s California Regular and Volunteer Infantry and Cavalry Regiments — collectively called the California Column — left California and headed to Texas, to dissipate the Confederates’ western expansion. As they tried to cross a mountain pass in Arizona near the New Mexico border, they were attacked by Apaches (led by Cochise) in a skirmish that became known as the Battle of Apache Pass. The entire incident lasted less than 24 hours.  The Apaches, though armed, were no match for the US Army and its howitzers, and the army won that day. But it was one of many such conflicts.

The cause of much of the fighting was a spring — which became known as Apache Spring — located on the pass.  It was a precious source of water for the Apaches and, to their dismay, to the non-natives that began making their regular way through in the mid 19th century. After the Battle of Apache Pass, the US Army decided that it needed a fort in the area to protect nonApache use of the spring, and so Fort Bowie was born.  It was named after George Washington Bowie, the commander of the 5th Regiment California Volunteer Infantry, the group who started the fort.

As we passed the flowing spring, we noticed pipes and a pump running near it.  Ah ha, we thought, that’s not a natural spring. They’re running water to it.

No, said the park ranger, when we finally hit the visitor center. The family who sold the land to the park in the mid 20th century retained water rights to it, so the pipes pump the spring’s water to their adjoining property.

On our way to the fort, we passed a reconstructed Apache dwelling, the ruins of a mail coach stop, the ruins of a first, temporary fort, and the post cemetery.

The first to be buried at the cemetery were three soldiers from the California Column, killed by Apaches.  Though the cemetery once contained about 112 graves, there are now only between 23 and 33.  Five months after the fort closed in 1894, the army moved the bodies of all of the soldiers, their dependents, and unknows, to the San Francisco National Cemetery. Those who remain are civilians, left behind so that they could be close to their local families.

There were two original head boards left in 1964, when the National Park Service acquired the property.  Those headboards were used as templates to make the rest of the headboards. The inscriptions on and locations of the markers were taken from historic photographs and newspaper descriptions of the cemetery.

The grave on the left is of two-year-old Little Robe, a son of Geronimo. He was among a group of Apaches, that included eight children, who were captured in August 1885. He died, probably of dysentery, a month later.

A mile-and-a-half and an hour later — I spend a long time wandering the cemetery and other sites along the way — we finally reached the fort. The black-and-white is a photo from 1886 (credit to the National Park Service).

Fort Bowie was headquarters for the army’s fight against the Apaches until 1886, when Geronimo, a leader of the Chiricahua Apaches, and the final few Apaches who hadn’t already been captured, surrendered.  He, and his handful of followers, were sent from Fort Bowie to a prison in Florida, where many Apache prisoners resided. The sad codicil: along with Geronimo were sent, to the prison in Florida, the Apache scouts that had helped the US Army during the Apache wars.

The Visitor Center displays artifacts from and photos of the active Fort Bowie. I was amazed at the dentures (above). I had no idea that dental care was that advanced in the 1880s — they look just like Grandmom’s dentures.

When we were ready to leave, the ranger — a mine of information — told us that there was a steeper but shorter path from the Visitor Center to the car park, that went along the upper ridge of the hills.  We took it and were treated to some spectacular views of the valley below. The from-above photo of the ruins was taken from that trail.

Fort Bowie was the best history tourist experience I’ve had since moving to Arizona. I loved the hike to and from the ruins — the nature and how the interpretive signs walked us through Apache Pass history — and the informative Visitor Center. I’m sure we’ll be making it a regular stop.



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6 Responses to Cochise & Geronimo at Fort Bowie

  1. Looks a fascinating place and one I would love to visit. How does the Park Ranger get to work every day?

    • We asked her that same question. The rangers have a house directly behind the visitor center. And there’s a road that goes all the way to the site, that only “official” vehicles are allowed to use.

  2. This really sounds like a great experience on so many levels. One to put on my ever-growing list of places I want to visit some day.

    • I was so surprised at how much i enjoyed it. I expected a long trudge through the desert to a few ruins. Turned out to be much more. The nature hike part of it alone would be worth it.

  3. Kathie says:

    I had no idea you could see coatimundis in the US! Or that they were so big. Really cute, but their size makes me hope they are shy. You do have an interesting range of wildlife out there.
    Really interesting place, I hope it continues to be maintained with the proposed budget cuts.

    • Grant thought that coatimundis were strictly Central/South American too. But apparently they wander north enough to be fairly common in southern Arizona.
      I hope they’re able to stay open too. It was one of my favorite national park sites.

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