Monday, May 25, 2020

Coronado National Monument & Montezuma Pass

Today's post is a short one, in distance if not photos.

After a peaceful night of boondocking in the Coronado National Forest there at the end of the blue arrow, I headed on up to Montezuma Pass, at the red arrow. Along the way I stopped at the Coronado National Monument Visitor Center, the green arrow.

But I couldn't get a very early start because the Coronado NF Sierra Vista District Office, like all NF district offices, keeps banker's hours, not camper's hours. And don't even think about stopping in on a weekend when the normal working-stiff has the time to be out recreating on our national lands, because when I say banker's hours that's Monday through Friday only, with all government holidays off too. . .

One thing I can say about the Sierra Vista District Office is that it is located in a sensible spot. Just a few miles south of Sierra Vista on SR-92 which places it immediately adjacent to the NF lands it covers.

This is not always the case.

For instance, the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains fall into the Douglas district and that office is actually in Douglas. Which might sound reasonable until you look at a map.

Douglas is right on the US/Mexico border, a full 60 miles south of the Dragoon Mountains, while the vast majority of visitors are going to be coming from the north where Wilcox is sitting right there on the major artery of I-10 only 30 miles from the Dragoons.

But once again, nobody asked me. . .

Anyway, I wanted to stop in at the district office to get some firsthand info on the road over and beyond Montezuma Pass and pick up a trail map.

It just so happens that the Huachuca Mountains have avid hiker Leonard Taylor tramping around in them. Along the way Leonard has written a 120 page hiking guide with detailed descriptions of all the official and a few unofficial trails up there, and he has also published a traditional map of the trails.

I bought the map. (About $6)

By the way, though I managed to get a front-counter person that started her new job literally minutes before I walked in the door, (groan. . .) after I bewildered her with a few questions she called someone out from the back who said that if I came over Middlemarch Pass I would have no problem with Montezuma Pass.

Oh, and a second by-the-way. If you are in anything larger than a small class-C, or pulling a trailer of any sort, after pulling into the district office parking-lot and making a sharp right because straight ahead is gated off, DO NOT make the left that takes you to the front of the building where the main door is. That is a dead-end with no room to turn anything of any size.

Even without making that left, there's not much room to get turned around and if you are pulling a toad you may want to stay out of here altogether.

Some site planning eh?

Of course if you are in a large rig maybe the National Forests aren't for you anyway.

OK, map in hand and a good chunk of the morning already gone, it was time to head even further south, though not too much further because the international border is lurking nearby.

The Coronado National Monument Visitor Center may not look very imposing from the outside, in fact it's pretty hard to see at all from the road, but it's still worth checking out.

Inside is a small museum with a lot of information and - well - an information desk with more info.

In addition to the pocket-brochure for the monument I also picked up a guide to the 5 hiking trails within the monument and another brochure (not shown) that last-year's intern put together describing, with pictures, 63 of the more common plants and trees to be found around here.

But by the time I finished lollygagging around at the district office and spent the better part of an hour here at the visitor center's small museum which has a heavy emphasis on Coronado's expedition through the area in the mid 1500's, the morning was pretty much shot and I had a long ways to go through uncharted territory, so I didn't go plant-hunting or hike any of the monument's trails.

That will have to wait for next time.

Right now my goal is to drive up the canyon another mile to the end of pavement, then another 2 miles from there to Montezuma Pass.

From the visitor center it's about a 1300' climb to the pass and 1200' of that is in that last two miles.

OK, I've left the pavement behind and things are still looking pretty good. Wide, well graded and drained gravel road, so no white-knuckles yet!

 Now the road has narrowed to one lane and - let me look - yep, that's a hell of a first step off to the left there. Still no white-knuckles yet, but I've got a firm grip on the wheel!

If you look at the ridge-line just above the end of the visible road and slightly right you just might be able to see a small white dot. That's not a flaw in the photo, that's some sort of antenna and it's up there at the pass.

Just a little over 2 miles to the south of here there is a much more feasible route through these mountains that requires only 300' of climbing. And you could go completely around the mountains with virtually no climbing at all by looping around the very southern end of them about 3.5 miles south of here, but since the Mexican border is only 1 mile south, both of those options are a a no-go in this era of nationalistic paranoia.

Just when it looks like the mountains are going to box me in, I catch a glimpse of road up there above me. And waaay up there in the very top-left, is a tiny sliver of sky.

Oh man!  Not sure I should have looked out the side window! We're white knuckling it now! Not so much because of the cliff, which is more slope than cliff along here, but simply because of the scope of the drop.

The road is also steep, but we're rolling along in first gear at an easy 2000 RPM (10 MPH) with the coolant temp holding at a steady 225 degrees

and there's the pass up there.

That antenna to the right is truck-mounted but the truck is all jacked up on blocks to level it out, putting the front tires about 3' in the air, so I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon. In addition to the antenna, the truck, which is a Homeland Security vehicle, has an equipment shack mounted on it and a border agent is sitting in yet another truck right next to it.

Such is life on the border nowadays.

Whew! Made it! (That Homeland Security truck is behind me and I was careful not to photograph it. You can look all you want, but those guys have no sense of humor when you pull out the camera. . .)

Oh wait.

            What do I mean 'Made it?'

This is the view looking west from the pass and that's the San Rafael Valley down there, 1200' feet down there.

And you see that mountain out there under the arrow? That's Lone Mountain and about a third-again beyond it, all on gravel Forest Service roads, is today's real destination.

 So I'm not done yet. . .

By the way, Montezuma pass is higher than Middlemarch pass, but the road is better maintained, which leaves Middlemarch as the more challenging of the passes I've gone over on this trip. Oh, and after Montezuma and Middlemarch, Apache pass is looking more like a bump in the road now. . .


  1. Very good writeup about that Pass ... I've taken many different vehicles with or without the hounds across the pass all the way to Parker Canyon Lake. I like the drive over the pass and much nicer than climbing Carr Canyon just north of it.

    1. Once you get that first attempt at a pass or road behind you it gets easier, except maybe for Carr Canyon that is. . .