13th – 23rd February – Leaving behind California’s Joshua Tree National Park, we head east on Interstate 10, crossing the Colorado River and returning once again into Arizona’s vast Sonoran desert landscape amongst the Saguaro cactus, symbol of the American Southwest.
Once through Phoenix, we camp at Apache Junction and meet Dave from Chicago, taking a break and heading south on his big Harley. A great guy who loves a challenge, achieving the IRON BUTT title after having ridden from Ysidro in California to Jacksonville in Florida in 45 hours. He has also done ‘The 4 Corners’ ride beginning at Maine down to Key West in Florida, across to San Diego in California and finishing in Blaine in Washington. He managed to complete this amazing journey in 15 days!
Arizona’s wild and spectacular landscapes have made it one of our favourite states and so it’s a ‘must’ to explore one of its oldest and most ancient highways, the historic Apache Trail. Named after the Apache Indians who once used this route, the trail links Apache Junction with Theodore Roosevelt Lake winding steeply through the rugged scenery of the Superstition Mountains, with its twisting ravines and deep reservoir lakes. Along the Apache Trail, we make stops at the once booming gold mine town of Goldfield, the old-west style settlement of Tortilla Flat with its story of the Lost Dutchman Mine and Canyon and Apache Lakes formed by the damming of the Salt River.
The Apache Trail, snaking its way through the Superstition Mountains.
Stopping for a chat at a viewing point.
A much cherished Harley at Tortilla Flat.
At the little town of Superior we stop at the Visitor Centre located in an old railway carriage. The lady here is very dedicated and well informed and tells us the haunting story of nearby Apache Leap Mountain and the legend of the Apache Tears. She has a basket of ‘Apache Tear Drops ‘ and lets me pick out a couple….small black obsidian stones that appear opaque but when held up to the light, reveal the translucent tears of grief-stricken Apache Women, mourning many of their men who chose to leap to their death rom a high bluff, rather than to die at the hands of white men, who had taken them by surprise and attacked them for raiding cattle from Arizona settlements. The story continues that the Apache Women gathered at the base of the cliff and as their teardrops fell and hit the ground, they froze forming small black stones. It is said, that whoever owns an Apache Tear Drop will never cry again, for the Apache Women have shed their tears in place of yours. The stones are also said to bring good luck to those possessing them.
Continuing through Globe which owes its existence to the Wild West mining camps that sprang up out of the desert following the discovery of silver and copper. The Gila County Courthouse is worth a visit here. Built from locally quarried stone, this building houses the Cobre Valley Centre for the Arts. The paintings, sculptures and pottery displayed here is certainly impressive, as is the current exhibition of beautifully hung quilting, their colours and shapes that very often tell a story, portraying great skill and patience.
From Globe we head southeast on Highway 70 to Thatcher, passing through cactus strewn landscapes, rolling yellow grasslands and cattle ranches, clearing mountain passes and plunging canyons with snow still on Mount Graham at just over 3000 metres, long been considered sacred by all of the region’s Native peoples.
And so we continue to the State line with New Mexico and camping at Silver City will provide a good base for exploring the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument located deep in the rugged, mountainous terrain of the Gila National Forest and the Gila River Wilderness area of southwest New Mexico. These cave dwellings offer a glimpse of the homes and lives of the Mogollon people who inhabited the area in the late 1200’s, a remote wilderness where only the sound of the river and birds would have been heard. By 1300 however, they had suddenly abandoned their homes and moved on. Today, the caves can be reached by a 1 mile loop trail through a narrow canyon, followed by an easy climb.
Gila National Forest and River Wilderness Area.
!5 miles east of Silver City is the vast Santa Rita Copper Mine, one of the oldest and largest open pit mines in North America. Named after the small community of Santa Rita, once located here, the mine is often referred to as the ‘Chino Mine.’ Today, this mine is well over a mile across and over 1000 feet deep and mining occurs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The viewing point provides an awesome sight but there is also a tour that takes place on the second Tuesday of every month.
Leaving Silver City, Highway 152 takes us on the scenic route towards Las Cruces, passing once again through the mountains, canyons and forests of the Gila Wilderness Area. The mountains fade to the horizon in every direction as we reach the Emory Pass at 8228 feet, named after Army Officer William Hemsby Emory, who made a crossing with the army in 1846. We meet an elderly cyclist who we overtook on the winding, uphill road as he now tucks into his energy bar before the easier descent. It’s an almost 3 hour round trip he tells us, from his home in Silver City….what a great guy, his legs must be made of iron and his lungs enormous! A biker arrives on his Royal Enfield originally bought from India. Loving the great outdoors, he tells us that it is the perfect bike for climbing slowly up through this fantastic scenery.
Views from the Emory Pass
We descend into Kingston where rolling, yellow grasslands take over, a few homesteads and cattle down amongst the ribbon of water winding its way through the cottonwood trees. Hillsboro is only a little bigger but there’s a small, wooden homestead advertising coffee, candy and rocks. We open the door to an Aladdin’s Cave of gemstones, rocks and polished stones, a little grocery store tucked at the back with the welcome coffee machine. A very interesting couple own this place, the guy telling us fascinating stories of locating old mines and entering the shafts, often going down about 600 feet.
The Caballo Mountains rise up in front of us as we continue south toward Las Cruces. A number of crosses in this sprawling town at the foot of the Organ Mountains, mark the graves of members of a caravan ambushed by Apaches, giving the town its name.
We cross the Rio Grande and it’s a shock to see an almost dry river bed. The Caballo Dam and many irrigation channels supplying water to the farming in the Mesilla Valley, are apparently responsible for draining the river. The traditional Farmers and Craft Market held in Las Cruces, brings fresh produce grown in the surrounding valley to its stalls. Pecans are a speciality, plus alfalfa, chilli peppers, onions, corn and cotton.
About 20 miles east of Las Cruces is the White Sands Missile Range with its museum and outdoor Missile Park. It is open to the public following a short registration and security check and makes an interesting visit. Since 1945 the missile range has conducted more than 42,000 missile and rocket firings, examining new weapon systems for the army, navy and air force, as well as conducting purely scientific research. In March 1982 Columbia landed here.
It has now turned bitterly cold camping at Las Cruces, our blue skies have disappeared under stormy grey clouds and we have a freezing wind. We check the weather and discover that ‘Quantum’, a winter storm is heading east toward the middle and north of Texas, our next state. The north of New Mexico is also having ice storms with some roads closed which is disappointing as we would liked to have visited Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Even the town of Alamogordo in New Mexico where we are heading next, is having snow flurries. But fingers crossed that the weather will hold out, as we have really been looking forward to visiting The White Sands National Monument, where waves of white gypsum sand create an ever changing vista.