Hike Through History at Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Fort Bowie 1886

During our stay at Kartchner Caverns State Park, we took a day to visit Fort Bowie National Historic Site near Willcox, Arizona. This National Park Unit preserves the ruins of Fort Bowie and Apache Pass, a location critical to western expansion in the mid-late 1800s and the most contested area during the Apache Wars. Today, this area that was once the scene of so much violence is a peaceful location off a little-traveled dirt road. Few people have heard of Fort Bowie, but for National Park and American History enthusiasts (like me!), it is a must-see.

History of Apache Pass

From 1849 to 1894, Apache Pass was a critical location for America’s westward expansion. The low divide which separates the Dos Cabezas Mountains from the Chiricahua Mountains contained three critical elements for travelers and their animals as they crossed the seemingly barren landscape of southern Arizona and New Mexico—wood, water, and grass. An emigrant trail first passed through beginning in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. In 1858, Congress authorized a transcontinental overland mail route which lead to the development of the Butterfield Overland Trail which crossed Apache Pass. One little problem. This was Chiricahua Apache land—home to great warriors and leaders Cochise and Geronimo. The Apache had recognized the importance of Apache Spring long before the arrival of those emigrating west. Tensions grew and from 1861 to 1886 the pass was the the site of continued conflict between the Chiricahua Apache and the US army leading to the establishment of Fort Bowie to protect travelers along the Butterfield Overland Trail and control the route.

Butterfield Overland Trail

In July 1862, a 100-man detachment of the 5th California Volunteer Infantry began construction of the first Fort Bowie. The primitive fort was completed in just two weeks and was comprised of a four foot high stone wall surrounding tents and a stone guard house. The commander was ordered “to attack the Apaches whenever he finds them near his post, to escort all trains and couriers through the pass and well out into the mesa, and to take the liberty of sending out detachments strong enough to give protection to soldiers and killing when he deems it wise to do so. The Apaches continued to raid travelers not escorted by the military and sporadic patrols pursued the Apaches with little success. In 1866, regular soldiers relieved the volunteers and in 1868, construction was finished on the second Fort Bowie.

Cavalry escorts for travelers, mail couriers, and supply trains were common throughout the 1860s. In 1872, the US government reached peace terms with the Apache and Fort Bowie enjoyed several relatively peaceful years. Activity increased in the late 1870s as more soldiers were sent to pursue Apaches fleeing the San Carlos Reservations. Operations decreased again after Geronimo’s final surrender in 1886 and the last of the garrison left Fort Bowie in 1894. By the early 20th century, most traffic flowed across the Southern Pacific Railroad to the north and Apache Pass was all but forgotten as a travel corridor. The wagon road, trails, and fort buildings eroded for nearly a century until Fort Bowie National Historic Site was established in 1972.

Hiking to Fort Bowie

Today, traveling to Fort Bowie is similar to how it was 170 years ago—nonmotorized. Visitors arrive at the National Park Unit to find themselves sitting in a gravel pull-out along a dirt road in a remote corner of Arizona. From there, one must travel to Fort Bowie on foot along a well-worn trail. The park rates the 3 mile roundtrip hike as moderate with just under 200 feet elevation gain over uneven terrain. Along the way visitors travel through a beautiful valley past multiple historical sites, Apache Spring, and first Fort Bowie ruins before finally arriving at the visitor center and second Fort Bowie ruins. The visitor center is accessible to those with mobility limitations. See below for directions to the ADA parking lot.

It took us just over three hours to visit Fort Bowie National Historic Site. All the other visitors that we saw took less time, but none of them took the side trails to the fort ruins. We stopped and read every interpretive sign, took every side trail (including the loops around each fort area), visited with the park volunteers at the visitor center, had a snack break, and hiked the optional Overlook Ridge Trail (see description below). In total, we hiked a total of 5.3 miles roundtrip. I recommend allowing yourself half a day to visit Fort Bowie at a leisurely pace. Here is a photo tour of our hike:

View from the trailhead
The Bascom Affair – In January 1861, Felix Ward was kidnapped during an Apache raid on his family’s ranch. Lt. George Bascom was charged with recovering the boy. On February 4, 1861, Bascom arrived in Apache Pass with a detachment of 54 men and encamped 200 yards from here. Cochise, a Chiricahua Apache chief, was invited to the camp for a meeting with the officer. During the meeting Bascom accused Cochise of taking Felix, a claim Cochise denied, and ordered Cochise and the other Apaches be held hostage. Cochise escaped and ran up the hillside. The other Apaches, including members of Cochise’s family, were surrounded and captured by US soldiers. Bascome moved his soldiers to the Butterfield Overland State Station and fortified the building. The morning after, Apache warriors appeared on the hillside south of the stage station and sent word that Chief Cochise wished to meet with Lt. Bascom. After 30 minutes the meeting ended abruptly and violently when a station worker was captured by Apaches. Both sides fled the meeting as shots echoed through the pass. In the following weeks, Cochise took more captives and attempted to exchange his hostages for his family and warriors. His efforts failed and Cochise killed the hostages. The US Army retaliated by killing the warriors in their custody. The battle lines were clearly drawn. More than two decades of warfare ensued.
Stage Station Ruin – in 1857, the government awarded John Butterfield a contract to carry mail by stagecoach between St. Louis and San Francisco. The 2,800 mile route was to be traversed within 25 days. For over two years the Chiricahuas permitted the mail and passenger stages safe passage through Apache Pass. The Apache Pass Stage Station was built in July 1858. Within its 6-8 foot high walls were a kitchen/dining room, sleeping room, a storage room for feed and weapons, and a mule corral with portholes in every stall. The stage stopped here for a change of mules, a moment of rest, and a meal. During the Bascom Affair, soldiers, Butterfield employees, and passengers sought refuge here. Increasing tensions caused the southern Butterfield Overland Mail route to be discontinued in March 1861.
Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency ruins – U.S. Indian Agent Thomas Jeffords governed some 900 Chiricahua Apaches here in 1875-76 under the vigilance of the U.S. Army at Fort Bowie. Cochise, Chiricahua chieftain and friend of Jeffords, died in 1874, leaving the band divided in leadership and conduct. Some Apaches lingered on the reservation, while others slipped away to plunder Mexican settlements. In June 1876, the government removed Jeffords and moved 325 Apaches northward to the San Carlos Reservation. However, many escaped and fled to distant sanctuaries to renew hostilities for another decade.
The Battle of Apache Pass (July 15-16, 1862) – An advance guard of 96 California Volunteers, marching toward the San Simon River to establish a supply depot for the California Column, followed the Butterfield Road through Apache Pass. As they approached the abandoned stage station, Cochise and his ally, Mangas Coloradas, with a combined force of 140 – 160 warriors, ambushed the rear of the column. The Californians countermarched from the station, driving the Apaches into the hills, only to find they had taken up new positions around the spring. The Californians attacked again, and finally reached the water, after dispersing the Apaches from rock fortifications commanding both flanks of Apache Spring. This battle led directly to the establishment of Fort Bowie.
An Apache Camp – this area was the homeland of the Chiricahua Apaches. An abundance of wild game, edible plants and the materials needed for making shelters, tools and weapons existed in the surrounding hills. Most importantly, Apache Spring provided a reliable water supply.
Just beyond Apache Spring, a side trail takes visitors to the first Fort Bowie
First Fort Bowie ruins
First Fort Bowie ruins
Located at the base of a hill overlooking the ruins of second Fort Bowie, the visitor center has a small gift shop as well as a nice collection of historic artifacts. Friendly staff and volunteers are there to greet visitors and answer your questions. Be sure to give your feet a break in one of the wooden rocking chairs on the covered porch or enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the picnic tables overlooking the fort ruins. Drinking water and restrooms are available here.
View of second Fort Bowie ruins from the visitor center
Two years after the 1872 peace agreement with Cochise, the great Apache chief died. Several hundred Chiricahuas were relocated on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. However, Geronimo and over a hundred of his followers escaped the roundup, to begin a ten year period of raiding and pillaging on both sides of the border. Arduous search and destroy missions into Mexico, by regular troops and specially recruited Apache scouts, finally wore down the Geronimo band.

Most people return to their car via the main trail from the visitor center, but those up for a slightly more strenuous hike are encouraged to return via the Overlook Ridge Trail that starts behind the visitor center. This trail climbs to the top of a ridge providing panoramic views of Fort Bowie and Apache Pass before descending into Siphon Canyon and rejoining the main trail.

View from Overlook Ridge Trail
View from Overlook Ridge Trail

While at the visitor center, be sure to ask about the I Hike for Health program. All the Southern Arizona National Park Units offer this fun program to encourage visitors to get out and hike. Each park has its own challenge. Those hikers meeting the challenge requirements earn a park specific pin with unique design and motto. To qualify for the Fort Bowie pin, each visitor must hike a minimum of 3 miles in the park—basically, from the parking area up to the visitor center and back. Each individual seeking the reward must have a photo or selfie of themselves on each trail hiked and present the pictures to park staff at the visitor center. The Fort Bowie Hike Through History pin was our first pin earned and we had a lot of fun collecting the complete set during our winter travels.

Passport stamp & Hike for Health pin

Logistics

The park is 116 miles east of Tucson, AZ via I-10. From Willcox, AZ along I-10, drive 23 miles east of Willcox on Interstate 10 to the the town of Bowie. Exit at the first Bowie exit and drive through the town. Follow the signs for Fort Bowie National Historic Site and turn south on Apache Pass Road. Drive 13 miles to the well-signed Fort Bowie Trailhead (the last mile of the road is unpaved). The visitor center is open 7 days a week, 8:30 am – 4:00 pm Mountain Standard Time every day of the year except Christmas Day (note: Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time). Park and trails are open every day from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free!

Our route to Fort Bowie from Kartchner Caverns

For those with mobility limitations, follow the directions above, but look for the ADA accessible icon signs from Apache Pass Road. Passenger vehicles can travel South Old Fort Bowie Road until it dead-ends in a small administrative area at Fort Bowie NHS. From the ADA parking lot, visitors follow a trail that is 500 feet in length and ascends approximately 80 feet in elevation to reach the visitor center at the edge of the second fort ruins. If unable to climb the steps, visitors can arrange to have a gate opened that allows them to drive a vehicle to the visitor center and unload wheelchair users or other folks with limited mobility. Because this method traverses fragile park resources, it is reserved as a limited option for those folks that are unable to visit the fort ruins without it. Contact the visitor center staff at 520-847-2500, ext. 25, for more information on accessing Fort Bowie NHS.

Trailhead parking

Safety

Fort Bowie is at moderately high elevation (5,000 feet), in a desert environment, close to the US-Mexico border. The park recommends following these tips to ensure that you have a fun and safe experience.

  • Altitude and elevation changes can make any length of hike more difficult.
  • There is little to no cell phone reception in the area.
  • Keep a respectful distance from all wild animals. Be alert for rattlesnakes.
  • Check the weather—summer temperatures may climb above 100 degrees. Summer storms may suddenly and briefly flood the washes. Avoid hiking when lightning is present.
  • Take plenty of water. Plan to drink at least 1 quart/hour, especially in the summer. Drinking water is available at the visitor center, but not at the trailhead.
  • Follow these guidelines for hiking near the border: know where you are at all times, follow good safety procedures, and use common sense when making decisions. Do not pick up hitch-hikers. Keep valuables, including spare change, out of sight, and lock your vehicle. Avoid traveling on well-used but unofficial “trails.” People in distress may ask for food, water, or other assistance. It is recommended that you do not make contact. Report the location of the distressed people to the visitor center, other park staff, or the Border Patrol. Report any suspicious behavior.

It is worth noting that we had zero problems during our visit to Fort Bowie and we saw nothing suspicious. We always remain alert and aware of our surroundings during our hikes, regardless of where we are. We felt very safe at Fort Bowie and highly recommend a visit there (following the park’s recommendations, of course).

The Adventure Continues

Be sure to join us for our next post as we ‘rock the rhyolite’ at nearby Chiricahua National Monument. And don’t forget to check out our Amazon RV and Adventure Gear recommendations. We only post products that we use and that meet the Evans Outdoor Adventures seal of approval. By accessing Amazon through our links and making any purchase, you get Amazon’s every day low pricing and they share a little with us. This helps us maintain this website and is much appreciated!

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2 Comments

  1. Mrs Laura Evans says:

    Very interesting! I enjoyed the the descriptions and the many pictures!

    1. Lusha says:

      Glad you enjoyed! 🙂

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