Hiking the Border: Coronado National Memorial

Borderland Hiking in Southeastern Arizona

Tucked far away from the noise of the world, adjacent to very little and convenient to almost nothing (an enviable amount of nothing and very little), the Coronado National Memorial sits along the border with Mexico in southeastern Arizona, just over 200 miles from Phoenix.

The site was designated the Coronado International Memorial on August 18, 1941, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Cibola. Coronado’s expedition was one of the first major European explorations of what would become the United States.

 Spectacular views of the San Pedro river valley once you make it up the twisting and turning road that runs from the visitor
Spectacular views of the San Pedro river valley once you make it up the twisting and turning road that runs from the visitor center to the top of the pass.

The original vision included an adjoining park on the Mexican side of the border, like the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park between the United States and Canada, but the sister park never materialized. So in 1952, Congress and President Harry Truman reestablished Coronado as a National Memorial.

Sitting at around 4,000 feet, it presents a unique desert landscape. Higher than Tucson’s saguaro cactus desert but lower than the mountains of Prescott, Coronado is somewhere in the middle.

 A view from Montezuma Pass of late season snow on the Huachuca Mountains.
A view from Montezuma Pass of late season snow on the Huachuca Mountains.

Pine forest and occasional snow can be found in higher elevations of the Huachuca Mountains, which run from Sierra Vista, through the Monument, to just across the Mexican border. A little lower and you are in the yucca and thorn desert. Even lower, and you are in an unforgettably beautiful and endless sea of grass.

 The trail winds down below the pass offering huge views of the surrounding desert.
The trail winds down below the pass offering huge views of the surrounding desert.

The best hike of the Memorial is Joe's Canyon Trail, from the top of Montezuma Pass (6,575 ft) down to the visitor center. The trail is easily accessed either from the visitor center or by driving to the top of the pass via the twisting, but two wheel drive friendly, West Montezuma Canyon road.

Look south and you can see 75 miles or more into Sonora, Mexico, with its mountain ranges and vast desert grass plain. Look east and the Mule Mountains of Bisbee tower over the San Pedro river valley.

Part of the year, there is a convenient free shuttle van to the top Montezuma pass each morning. Ride up with the shuttle, you can find your own way back down or local docents will walk with you and give you a full narrated tour.

Take a short side trip on the Yaqui ridge trail and see the monument where the Arizona National Scenic Trail begins its 800 mile path to the Utah border. The U.S.-Mexico border fence is just a 5 strand barbed wire fence here, and offers amazing views of the nearly 9,000 foot Cerro San José just southeast in Mexico.

 Cerro San José looms in the distance and Mexico begins on the other side of the fence.
Cerro San José looms in the distance and Mexico begins on the other side of the fence.
 The official starting point of the 800 mile  Arizona National Scenic Trail
The official starting point of the 800 mile Arizona National Scenic Trail

For the even more adventurous, the short Coronado Cave trail, which begins near the visitor center, will take you to a 600 foot long, 20 foot high limestone cave that runs from 6 to 70 feet wide. Don’t forget your flashlights!

 The visitor center offers a small museum, gift shop and advice on where to pick up trails.
The visitor center offers a small museum, gift shop and advice on where to pick up trails.

The surrounding 1.78 million acre Coronado National Forest, broken in to 5 districts and stretching from New Mexico to Arizona, offers camping and many other opportunities to hike the diverse ‘Sky Islands’ of the border.

Coronado National Memorial (with 5.5 million fewer visitors than Grand Canyon!) offers peace, quiet, spelunking, hiking and fantastic views, all for free, and makes a perfect side trip the next time you are in Arizona.

 Border Patrol agents driving patrol on the fence line at edge of the Coronado National Memorial.
Border Patrol agents driving patrol on the fence line at edge of the Coronado National Memorial.

A word on border hiking safety:

While no area of the U.S.-Mexican border is completely free of the challenges of immigration and smuggling activity, Cochise County is far quieter than many other sectors. Between the lack of a large city in close proximity to the border, and the large and visible presence of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, this area feels miles away from the “border chaos” news reports you might read.

While I can’t promise you will never see someone heading north (I have yet to encounter anyone) the odds are that you won’t. Common sense is always your best bet.

Contact the BLM, Forest Service, Border Patrol, local hiking clubs (the best place to start!) or area city tourism departments for tips on an area you are thinking about heading out to.

If you go:

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