Coronado National Forest, Douglas
The Geronimo Trail in Southern Arizona feels as remote as just about any drive in Arizona. But it wasn’t always that way. The route once was a major migration corridor for Apache Indians, as well as Spanish explorers, missionaries, Mormons and Mexican revolutionaries, just to name a few.
Today, the Geronimo Trail offers scenery, solitude and a good bit of history along the U.S.-Mexico border. The entire stretch extends nearly 80 miles from Douglas, Arizona, to Animas, New Mexico. For this trip, we turned back at a historical marker about 37 miles east of Douglas, just past the New Mexico border.
East 15th Street in Douglas becomes the Geronimo Trail at its intersection with West Airport Road. Heading east out of town, the pavement gives way to a wide gravel road after about 4 miles.
Beyond the gentle rise of the Perilla Mountains on the outskirts of Douglas, most of the drive is through broad, flat San Bernardino Valley, with the Peloncillo Mountains visible in the distance. Pronghorns inhabit the grasslands north of the trail.
About 14 miles from Douglas, you’ll find the turnoff to Slaughter Ranch, officially the San Bernardino Ranch National Historic Landmark.
Father Eusebio Kino is believed to have passed through here in 1694 during one of his expeditions. Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, who founded San Francisco, headquartered here in 1773. The ranch itself dates to an 1846 Mexican land grant. Ignacio Perez bought the original 73,240 acres for 90 pesos but was soon run off by Apaches.
“Texas” John Slaughter bought 65,000 acres of the original grant in 1884. It was mostly wetlands at the time, and the Gadsden Purchase had redrawn the U.S.-Mexico border right through the property. Slaughter later retired to the ranch after two terms as Cochise County sheriff.
The Johnson Historical Museum of the Southwest and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the homesite in the early 1980s. The museum took
131 acres and restored the historic buildings, which opened to the public in 1985. An adjacent 2,300 acres became the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.
History buffs can tour the buildings and explore the nearby ruins of a military outpost meant to protect the Slaughter family from Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution.
But you’ll want to spend some time near the spring-fed lake Slaughter built. Willows and cottonwoods surround the lake, shimmering gold in the fall. Pied-billed grebes dive into the water while vermilion flycatchers make their brilliant display in the trees above. It’s a magical place, and you can easily spend the day.
Back on the Geronimo Trail, the volcanic rock and yellow grasses flanking the road make the lushness of Slaughter Ranch feel like a mirage. But at the foothills of the Peloncillo Mountains, the landscape begins to change. The twisty road follows a creek bed lined with sycamores. As it gains elevation, oaks and junipers give way to dramatic rock formations.
The New Mexico border lies about 3 miles past the entrance to the Coronado National Forest. As the crow flies, it’s not far from where Geronimo surrendered to U.S. troops in 1886. We press on a little farther to Clanton Draw, where a historical marker memorializes the Mormon Battalion, which crossed in 1846, lowering its wagons down the 40 percent grade with ropes.
Contemplating the hardships of that journey makes the 37-mile drive back to Douglas feel like the luxury it is.
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 37 miles one way (Douglas to Clanton Draw)
Directions: From Douglas, go east on 15th Street, which turns into Geronimo Trail (Forest Road 63), for 37 miles to Clanton Draw, just past the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, but the road is passable in a 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: John Slaughter Ranch and Museum, 520-678-7935 or www.slaughterranch.com; Douglas Ranger District, 520-364-3468 or www.fs.usda.gov/coronado