Just off I-10, Willcox (pop. 3,825) is a convenient base for visiting the scenic and historic sights of the area. The town got its start in 1880 as a construction camp for the Southern Pacific Railroad, then became a supply and shipping point for local ranchers. Agriculture continues to be the town's most important industry with ostriches, apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, pecans, and pistachios now supplementing the mainstays of cattle, cotton, and small grains. Many orchards let customers pick their own fruit during the July-Oct. season; the chamber of commerce has a list with directions. Most lie 15-20 miles north on Fort Grant Road. The chamber also has a walking-tour leaflet of the historic downtown and information on local birding opportunities.
Willcox has three exits off I-10 that lead to the downtown museums and historic buildings. The middle one, Exit 340, is close to the Willcox Visitors Center and the newer motels. To reach downtown from here, turn south on Rex Allen Drive, right on Haskell Avenue, then left on Maley Street. Haskell Avenue/Business I-10, where you'll find the older motels, connects Exit 336 on the west side of town with Exit 344 on the east; turn south at the light on Maley Street for the museums.
Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum
Rex Allen (1920-99) grew up singing and playing the guitar on a homestead near Willcox. His musical skills led him to the recording industry, then into movies. Arizona Cowboy, released in 1950, was the first of his 19 films. He also starred in the TV series Frontier Doctor and provided the narration for some Disney productions.
Inside the museum (150 N. Railroad Ave., 520/384-4583 or 877/234-4111, www.rexallenmuseum.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, $2/individual, $3/couple, or $5/family), you'll see photos and movie posters of Rex Allen, guitars, saddles, sequined cowboy suits, and a buggy used in Frontier Doctor. Music by Rex Allen or his son, Rex Allen, Jr., plays in the background. You can sit and watch videos of Rex Allen battling the bad guys in action-packed westerns. The Willcox Cowboy Hall of Fame in the back honors local ranchers and displays photos of life on the range. A gift shop sells music, movie videos, and souvenirs. The park across the street has some tables, a statue of Rex Allen and memorials to him and his movie star horse, Koko.
The early 1890s adobe museum building housed a saloon from 1897 until Prohibition in 1919, when a grocery store took over. You'll see other historic structures nearby, such as the 1881 adobe Willcox Commercial store, the oldest one in Arizona still in use in its original location. Geronimo used to shop for his sugar here! The 1935 art deco Willcox Rex Allen Theater hosted early performances by Rex Allen and Roy Rogers; today it screens first-run movies on weekends.
Chiricahua Regional Museum & Research Center
Drop in to learn about Cochise and his Chiricahua Apache tribe, early mining and ranching, and the history of the town (127 E. Maley St., between Railroad Ave. and Haskell Ave., 520/384-3971; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat., $2 adult, $3 couple, $4 family). Staff also work at tracing genealogy of local pioneers.
Southern Pacific Depot
Built in 1880 when the railroad first arrived, the busy depot became the town's business and social center for ranchers, miners and traders. It expanded in 1882 and 1915 and has now been beautifully restored. Step into the lobby to see railroad artifacts and exhibits about pioneer life. A video by Rex Allen, Sr. tells how the building was saved. Open Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., free admission. It's just west of Maley Street on Railroad Avenue--Willcox's main street in the old days.
Wings Over Willcox celebrates the birds with tours and lectures on the third weekend in January. Rex Allen Days honors Arizona's "Mr. Cowboy" on the first Fri.-Sun. of October with a rodeo, parade, Western music, street dance, cowboy poetry, Rex Allen movies, and a carnival.
Keillor Park has picnic tables, a playground, outdoor pool, and tennis courts; from I-10 Exit 340, take Rex Allen Drive south one block toward downtown, then turn right one block on Bisbee Avenue. Twin Lakes Golf Course (1000 S. Rex Allen Jr. Rd., 520/384-2720) has a nine-hole course south of downtown off Maley Street/AZ 186.
Under $50: For the independents, head down the old highway/Business I-10. From north to south are the Desert Breeze Motel (556 N. Haskell Ave., 520/384-4636, $25 s, $29 d) with kitchenettes, Motel 8 (331 N. Haskell Ave., 520/384-3270, $32 s, $40 d) with a pool, Arizona Sunset Motel (340 S. Haskell Ave., 520/384-4177, $30 s, $35 d incl. tax) with kitchenettes, Sands Motel (400 S. Haskell Ave., 520/384-3501, $20 s, $30 d), Royal Western Lodge (590 S. Haskell Ave., 520/384-2266, $34 d), and Desert Inn of Willcox (704 S. Haskell Ave., 520/384-3577, $34 s, $40 d incl. tax) with a pool.
Motel 6 (921 N. Bisbee Ave., 520/384-2201 or 800/466-8356, $30 s, $36 d) has a pool just south of I-10 Exit 340.
$50-100: Just south of I-10 Exit 340 you'll find Best Western Plaza Inn (1100 W. Rex Allen Dr., 520/384-3556 or 800/262-2645, $70 d with breakfast, restaurant, and a pool) and Days Inn (724 N. Bisbee Ave., 520/384-4222 or 800/329-7466, $47 s, $54 d with a pool). Just to the north of I-10 Exit 340 is the Super 8 Motel (1500 W. Fort Grand Rd., 520/384-0888 or 800/800-8000, $46 s, $50 d) featuring an indoor pool and spa.
Magic Circle RV Park (just north of I-10 Exit 340, then left, 520/384-3212,, $18 tent, $25 RV w/hookups incl. tax) welcomes both RVs and tenters with a pool and showers. Grande Vista Mobile/RV Park (711 N. Prescott, 520/384-4002, $12 tents, $17.55 RV w/hookups) is south of I-10 Exit 340. Lifestyle RV Resort (622 N. Haskell Ave., 520/384-3303, $13 tent, $20 RV w/hookups) features a restaurant (closed Sun.), indoor pool and spa, exercise room, and showers. Sagebrush Mobile/RV Park (200 W. Lewis St. off S. Haskell Ave. behind the Desert Rose Cafe, 520/384-2872, $15 RV w/hookups) is on the south edge of town. Fort Willcox RV Park (1765 S. Haskell Ave., 520/384-4986, $5.30 tent, $7.42 RV dry site, $15.85 RV w/hookups incl. tax) has showers near I-10 Exit 336 south of town.
The Desert Rose Cafe (706 S. Haskell Ave., 520/384-0514) features a long menu of sandwiches, chicken, fish, shrimp, pasta, and steak plus a wine list; open Mon.-Sat. for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; on Sun., there's breakfast and a lunch buffet, but no dinner. You'll also find some places to eat near I-10 Exit 340 and several interesting eateries along Railroad Avenue near the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum. Safeway is just south of Exit 340, then right a block on Bisbee Avenue. The IGA supermarket is a block farther south on Rex Allen Drive.
Information and Services
The Willcox Chamber of Commerce (in the Cochise Visitor Center, 520/384-2272 or 800/200-2272, www.willcoxchamber.com, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.) has the scoop on sights, services, and events of the area; you can purchase regional books and gift items. Take I-10 Exit 340 (AZ 186) north, then turn right a half-mile on Circle I Road. Stouts Cider Mill near the visitor center sells products from local apple orchards daily.
The public library (207 W. Maley St. and Curtis Ave., 520/384-4271, ext. 503) and the nearby post office (200 S. Curtis Ave. and Grant St.) are downtown; both close on Sunday. Northern Cochise Community Hospital (901 W. Rex Allen Dr., 520/384-3541) is south of I-10 Exit 340.
Orville Mickens has packed this small museum (look to see if the gate is open or call 520/384-3481, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.) with historical artifacts from Fort Bowie and other areas of the Southwest; he'll also show you his big 1950 Cadillac. The museum is in Dos Cabezas, about 14 miles southeast of Willcox on AZ 186, on the way to Chiricahua National Monument.
This giant lake bed south of Willcox is visible from I-10 and covers 50-60 square miles. The playa is usually dry, but after heavy rains it becomes a shallow lake. You may see mirages on the surface in summer. As many as 10,000 sandhill cranes and smaller numbers of ducks and geese winter here from October to about late February. Private land makes access difficult, but you can visit Cochise Lake (just past Twin Lakes Golf Course) on the northeast side of the playa, the Arizona Fish & Game Reserve on the southwest side near Kansas Settlement Road, and wetlands of the Apache Station Wildlife Area on the west side just north of the power plant off US 191. The Willcox Chamber of Commerce has information and directions for these sites.
Cochise Stronghold Canyon
Set in a beautiful wooded area of towering pinnacles and great jumbles of boulders in the Dragoon Mountains, 30 miles southwest of Willcox, this canyon once provided a refuge for the Chiricahua Apache. During the 15 years that the great Apache chief Cochise and about 250 warriors hid out here, no white person was safe in the valleys below. Cochise--never defeated in battle--agreed to peace in 1872 only when the federal government promised land for his tribe. The mountains take their name from the Third U.S. Cavalry Dragoons.
Today the mountains offer picnicking, hiking trails, birding, and camping. The first-come, first-served campground in an oak grove has year-round water and costs $3 for day use or $10 for an overnight stay; it can fill on weekends in spring and autumn. A 400-foot paved loop trail here has interpretive signs about the Chiricahua Apache. A bit farther along the campground loop, the self-guided Stronghold Nature Trail crosses a footbridge and identifies some of the many plants found here; the 0.4-mile-loop also has good views of the rock features that overlook the campground. Cochise Stronghold Trail turns off the nature trail and continues up the valley past Cochise Spring and Halfmoon Tank to Stronghold Divide, six miles roundtrip. It's also possible to continue down the other side of the range to a trailhead in West Stronghold Canyon, ten miles roundtrip.
Dispersed camping is possible a couple of miles before the campground in Cochise Stronghold Canyon; turn in on Forest Roads 84A or 84B, which connect to form a loop. Equestrians must stay here if camping with their animals. You can also find places to camp on backroads in other parts of the Dragoon Mountains.
A rough but scenic 24-mile drive crosses the southern part of the range at Middlemarch Pass, connecting the ghost town of Pearce with Tombstone to the west. For Cochise Stronghold, take I-10 Exit 331, head southeast on US 191 to the north side of Sunsites, then turn west nine miles on Ironwood Road; the last four miles are unpaved.
Secluded among the boulders of Texas Canyon, the Foundation's Spanish Colonial Revival buildings include an outstanding museum (520/586-3666, www.amerind.org, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sun., also closed on major holidays, $5 adults, $4 seniors 60+, $3 ages 12-18) with archaeological and ethnographic exhibits of the native peoples of the Americas. Amateur archaeologist William Fulton started the foundation--named from a contraction of "American" and "Indian"--in 1937 to increase the world's knowledge of American Indian cultures. Especially active in research of Southwest and Mexican archaeology, the foundation has amassed an amazing artifact collection, some of which you can see here. Call or check the website for special events held in the cooler months. A museum store sells high-quality Native American artwork, crafts, and books. The Amerind's art gallery displays paintings and sculptures by Native American and other artists of the 19th and 20th centuries; it closes noon-1 p.m.
Take I-10 Dragoon Exit 318 (64 miles east of Tucson between Willcox and Benson), go southeast one mile, turn left at the sign and drive three-quarters of a mile. An inviting picnic area lies nearby.
This archetypal "tourist trap" features a whimsical museum with antique vehicles, wacky woodcarvings, and old wagons, as well as The Thing. (You can decide for yourself if it's real.) You'll have to fork out one dollar (75 cents children 6-18) to see the exhibits. Yes, there's also a huge gift shop that sells regional souvenirs. Open 6:30 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. daily, depending on the season; it's just south off I-10 Exit 322 between Willcox and Benson.
Galiuro Mountains and the Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area
Rugged and brush-covered, the Galiuro Mountains rise above the desert in two parallel ranges northwest of Willcox. The Galiuro Wilderness of the Coronado National Forest protects 76,317 acres of the range. Another 6,600 acres just to the south lies within the Bureau of Land Management’s Redfield Canyon Wilderness. The remote location and unpaved roads to this little-known range mean that you’re likely to have solitude. Because of the rough terrain, hikers stick mostly to the network of 10 trails, which total 95 miles. Note that most streams dry up during late spring and early summer. See the Forest Service and BLM offices in Safford for the latest water, trail, and road conditions. Deer Creek Trailhead, on the northeast side near the end of Forest Road 253, is sometimes accessible by car. From the south, the 4WD Jackson Cabin Road provides the best access, following a corridor through Redfield Canyon Wilderness and ending just south of the Galiuro Wilderness.
The south and west slopes have dense growths of manzanita, live oak, and other brush, with juniper, pinyon, and oak trees higher up. The higher canyons and north-facing slopes support Arizona cypress, ponderosa pine, Chihuahua pine, Mexican white pine, Douglas fir, and some white fir. Sycamore, alder, aspen, and other deciduous trees grow along stream banks. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, black bear, javelina, and mountain lion roam the hillsides and canyons.
The old Power’s cabin (built 1910), mine shafts, and ore-milling machinery lie along Rattlesnake Canyon. Power’s Garden cabin, also in Rattlesnake Canyon, may be open to hikers—check with the Forest Service.
Parts of the two wilderness areas, along with private lands to the south, make up the 49,000-acre Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area, a collaborative effort of the Bureau of Land Management, Coronado National Forest, and the Nature Conservancy. Several perennial streams here support wildlife and lush greenery, so it's a great place for birding and hiking. Elevations range from 4,100 feet at headquarters to 7,600 feet atop Bassett Peak. You’re welcome to stop in to see exhibits and visit the gift shop at the Nature Conservancy's headquarters (520/507-5229, http://nature.org/arizona, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Thurs.-Mon. year-round and possibly daily in spring, $5). You can get a feel for the land on the nearby three-quarter-mile interpretive trail loop that winds through riparian, mesquite bosque, and semi-desert grassland habitats. Ask at the headquarters for directions to longer hikes in the area. You can stay at casitas, all with kitchens, for $95-155 d depending on size; they close June-August. There are no facilities for car camping, nor RV parking. Bring all supplies, but you can get water at headquarters. Horses can stay at a corral. Pets won't be welcome in the headquarters-area trails or casitas.
The rugged and extremely scenic Jackson Cabin Road continues north from the Nature Conservancy's headquarters. You'll need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle for this adventure. There's no charge, but you must sign in at the information kiosk at the start and practice no-trace ethics; prescribed burns occasionally close the road in summer. The drive passes riparian areas, abandoned ranches, and dramatic vistas beneath the western escarpment of the Galiuros. You'll reach Jackson Cabin at road's end after 14.2 miles and 2.5 hours. You can camp along the road, except for the first 1.5 miles, or stay in the primitive cabin. West Divide Trail 289 begins near the cabin and heads down Jackson Creek to the narrow red-walled chasm of Redfield Canyon in about a mile one way. The trail turns up Redfield Canyon and reaches Power's Garden Trail 96 in 12.3 miles total one way.
To reach the Muleshoe Ranch area, you can take I-10 Wilcox Exit 340, turn south one block, turn right 0.7 mile on Bisbee Avenue, turn right 14 miles on Airport Road/Cascabel Road, then right 13.5 miles on Muleshoe Road to the headquarters. Pavement gives out soon after you leave Willcox, but the road is passable for cars when dry. It's also possible to take I-10 Benson Exit 306 and follow unpaved Pomerene, Three Links, and Muleshoe Roads. None of these roads should be attempted in wet weather.
On to Benson and Vicinity