Coronado National Forest, Douglas
By Noah Austin
When it comes to Southeastern Arizona mountain ranges, the Chiricahuas are the main attraction. And they’re best known for the rhyolite hoodoos of Chiricahua National Monument in the northern part of the range. But farther south, on an 80-mile loop drive with Rucker Canyon as its highlight, you’ll find equally stunning scenery, plus a tiny wildlife refuge and some of the region’s lesser-known mountains.
Start the drive in Douglas, a border town that’s home to the historic Gadsden Hotel and the desert-themed stained-glass mural in its lobby. From the north side of town, near the Cochise County Fairgrounds, head north on Leslie Canyon Road, which passes through a landscape of yuccas and agaves. To the east are the oddly shaped Perilla Mountains, and to the west are the Mule Mountains of the Bisbee area. Up ahead are the Swisshelm Mountains, named for 1800s prospector John Swisshelm. After 10 miles, the paved road turns to well-graded dirt, and you’ll pass Bald Knob, an appropriately named granite butte, on the right.
Four miles past Bald Knob, go right at the “Y” intersection to stay on Leslie Canyon Road. The road then curves to the northeast and climbs into the Swisshelms. As you crest a hill at Mile 16, you’ll enjoy an excellent view, to the northeast, of a verdant grassland cradled by rolling hills. Fortunately for you, it’s a preview of where you’re headed.
First, though, you’ll pass through Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge, composed of about 2,800 acres along Leslie Creek. Established in 1988 to protect native Yaqui chubs and Yaqui topminnows, the refuge also preserves a forest of velvet ash, black walnut and cottonwood trees. More than 300 bird species have been spotted here, and prickly pears and agaves cling to the steep canyon walls along the road.
Past the refuge, the road turns north, then east, before it enters Rucker Canyon, named for an Army lieutenant who drowned in its creek in the 1870s while attempting a water rescue. The view here — tall, windblown grasses surrounded by peaks and hills — is as unspoiled and beautiful as any you’ll find in Arizona. You’ll then enter the Coronado National Forest, where the road becomes Rucker Canyon Road (Forest Road 74). If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can see Rucker Creek via Forest Road 74E, which branches from the main route at Mile 36 and features several campgrounds. Otherwise, continue past that intersection to explore the ruins of Camp Rucker, on the left, via interpretive signs and marked trails.
From here, the road gets a little rougher as you enter Tex Canyon and begin your descent out of the mountains. Swede Peak, an imposing granite butte, is on the left, and Limestone Mountain is on the right. Once the road curves to the southeast, you’ll see the San Bernardino Valley and the Peloncillo Mountains, which roughly follow the New Mexico state line. After a pleasant drive past some more lush grasslands, you’ll reach State Route 80 and a return to pavement at Mile 52.
The last stretch of the loop winds between the Pedregosa and Perilla mountains. It’s one more chance to enjoy the lesser-known scenery of Southeastern Arizona on your way back to Douglas — where you can get another look at the stained glass, and maybe a frosty beverage, at the Gadsden Hotel.
Photograph: Rolling hills cradle a windblown grassland along the Rucker Canyon Loop. | Jeff Kida
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 80-mile loop
Directions: From Douglas, go north on Leslie Canyon Road, which later becomes Rucker Canyon Road (Forest Road 74), for 52 miles to State Route 80. Turn right (southwest) onto SR 80 and continue 28 miles back to Douglas.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but the road is passable in a standard sedan in good weather.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Information: Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge, www.fws.gov/refuge/leslie_canyon; Douglas Ranger District, 520-388-8436 or www.fs.usda.gov/coronado