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Name: Fort Bowie Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: Not rated yet
Type: Hike Difficulty: (Beginner
Time: 2 - 4 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: 4.0 miles (loop) includes some additional exploring Elevation gain/loss/change: +668 / -668 ft / +0 ft (loop) includes hike to the Overlook
Type: Loop Avg Elevation: 5000 ft
Best time to go: fall, spring, winter (peak months are March and April) Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Medium Educational Merit: High
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: Medium
Hours of Operation: 8-4:30 daily Last updated: March, 2009
Short Description: A great interpretive hike to the remains of a historic fort
Geocaches:Tons of cool geocaches around. Here's one. Fort Bowie Cache
References / Contact Information: National Park Service;
Points of interest:Fort Bowie ruins, museum, battle sites, interpretive trail along the way
Special Considerations: Trailhead is accessed by graded dirt road which is passable by passenger cars and RVs (road may be muddy or impassable during heavy monsoon rains). Admission to Fort Bowie (including the small museum) is FREE. Dogs are allowed, but must be leashed. You can choose to either hike the interpretive trail (highly recommended) or drive to the site (if you have a handicapped placard). I talked with the nice folks at the visitor center, they allow people who can't make the roundtrip hike to park there (without the placard), but the road is only single lane and the parking area only accommodates about 4 cars. If you plan on doing this option, please call to get verbal permission before heading out there.
How to get there: Fort Bowie is near Wilcox in southeastern Arizona. Driving from Tucson, it took me 2 hours to get to the trailhead. At Wilcox, take 186 southeast for about 20 miles (following the signs to Chiricahua National Monument) until you reach Apache Pass road. The left turn is marked by a sign to Fort Bowie. It’s strange that this is the first sign for the fort. The dirt road winds its way through Apache Pass as it generally follows the old Butterfield Stage road. After 8 miles, you arrive at the trailhead. There are bathrooms and two covered picnic tables here. Click here for directions.

Trail Description

Although some hikers may not consider the Fort Bowie trail a “true” hiking trail, it should not be so easily dismissed. Rich in history, beautiful scenery and seclusion, it offers more than it takes.

I’ve wanted to visit one of southern Arizona’s most important forts during the fierce Indian campaigns of the late 1800’s for a long time. And I wasn’t disappointed. About every 1/8 of a mile along the trail there are interpretive signs which tell not only the story of Fort Bowie, but the Apache, civilians, and battles that took place in the surrounding area. Anyone interested in the Indian Wars NEEDS to visit this site. It is perhaps one of the best interpretive trails I’ve ever been on.

The area around the extremely important (and hotly contested) Apache Springs is beautiful and some of the outlooks on the Return trail are outstanding. Bird watching enthusiasts are also in luck as the area is ripe with our feathered friends. With only about 25-75 visitors a day during peak periods, those wanting solitude will find it on this trail.

Unfortunately, I deleted most of my pictures from my camera before saving them to my computer. Oh, well. You'll just have to go see the fort for yourself!

General Information and History

Fort Bowie was created in 1862 to protect American settlers, the Butterfield Overland mail route and a valuable source of water at Apache Springs. Two significant battles in the area spurred the construction of the fort. The first, called the Bascom Affair in early 1861, was between a detachment of US soldiers led by Lieutenant George Bascom and Cochise. Bascom accused Cochise of kidnapping a 12-year-old boy of a local rancher. While talking with Cochise about the boy, Bascom captured him. Cochise managed to escape by slicing through Bascom’s tent with a knife. Many historians believe the escalation of hostilities and executing of prisoners by both sides in the following days ignited more than ten years of bloody war.

The second significant battle in the area was The Battle of Apache Springs in July of 1862, where a detachment of about 60 soldiers from California with two mountain howitzers battled at least one hundred Apaches under the chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas. The artillery won the day and the Battle of Apache Pass went to the Union soldiers.

After the Battle of Apache Springs, the US Government decided a fort needed to be built to protect the vital water supply. The first Fort Bowie was built on top of a small hill about 300 yards west of the current site. This “fort” wasn’t much more than some low stone walls and tents. Conditions were terrible for the troopers. The winter months can be cold, even in Arizona, and the wind was relentless. They finally got approval to dig shelters in the hillside. These were not much more than shallow caves, but they offered better protection from the elements than tents.

In 1864, the US Government gave approval for the second Fort Bowie in a saddle between Overlook Ridge and Bowie Mountain. For the first few years, the fort only had a tenuous grip on the area. Many small skirmishes were played out with loss of life on both sides. In these trying times, the fort was crude and the majority of the trooper’s efforts were directed at keeping the enemy at bay.

The Apache were masters of their environment, melting into the desert when they were pursued by the Army. One of the Army’s most significant problems was communication. If a band of Apache were spotted at some location, it would sometimes take days for a rider to inform one of the forts in the areas and by the time the troopers arrived, the Indians were gone.

Taking advantage of one of Arizona’s most consistent and prevailing features—the ever present sun—the Army made use of an effective and unique method at solving the communication problem: The Heliograph. Not much more than a mirror set on surveying equipment on top of mountain peaks. Heliograph stations communicated by reflecting sunlight (and sometimes moonlight) and were able to send messages to peaks as far as 183 miles away. Heliograph points were set up all over southwest, with Fort Bowie being a significant hub.

Improvements to the fort were slow, but they came more quickly as the Indian wars died down (mainly due to the surrender of Geronimo in 1876). As the Indian campaigns drew to a close, Fort Bowie switched from being a place where people dreaded being assigned to one of the most luxurious forts in the southwest. At its peak in 1890s, the fort boasted a huge two story commander’s house, tennis court, saloon, game room and a steam powered ice machine.

With the Indians mainly defeated and placed on reservations, the troopers had no enemies. As a result, after a long and distinguished career, the Army decided that the fort was no longer necessary and it was abandoned in 1894.

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The Trail

Signs indicate that Fort Bowie is 1.5 miles away. Which is true if you don’t take any detours (which you will probably want to do). If you do any exploring, expect to walk 4 miles or more. The trail is marked every ¼ miles to gauge your progress—a nice touch. I’ve marked the GPS coordinates at almost every one of these points. Since I can only use alphanumeric keys, I’ve labeled them 12 (for ½ mile, 114 for 1-1/4 miles, etc.).

The trail immediately dips into a wash and then you arrive at the first of many historic sites. The ruins of an old miner’s cabin (Waypoint CABIN) rest next to the trail. Only recently has the owner been discovered. At the ½ mark, you’ll see a trail leading to your left (Waypoint 12TRI—for ½ mile and trail intersection). This is the intersection of the Return trail you will take (if you want) on the way back. Keep going straight.

Very soon you’ll reach the ruins of the Butterfield Station (Waypoint STAGE) and you’ll read about the Bascom Affair. Just past the ¾ mile mark, is the fort’s cemetery (Waypoint CEM). Only the civilian and Indian remains are left (the military members interned here were moved to the National Cemetery in San Francisco in 1895. A couple of interesting items remain at the cemetery though. You’ll see the grave of Little Robe, Geronimo’s son. You’ll also see many graves marked with “killed by Apache.” Look at the ages on the graves. Most are young men. It gives you insight on just how difficult life was on the frontier back then.

After another quarter of a mile and about a mile from the trailhead (Waypoint IRUINS), the old Indian Agency ruins have recently been excavated in 1984). This was the office of Thomas Jeffords who worked as the Indian agent for Fort Bowie from 1875 to 1876. Not far after the Indian Agency ruins, you’ll find a replica of an Apache camp (Waypoint ICAMP).

The next point of interest you’ll come upon is Apache Springs (approximately at Waypoint 114). This was one of the most important sources of water for the Chiricahua Apache and the Butterfield Stage route. When I visited the area, there was little more than a trickle of water bubbling out from the spring. I’m not sure how much water ran during the late 1800’s, though I was told by the Park Ranger that it had dried up somewhat during Fort Bowie’s existence. This was why they drilled ¾ of a mile to Bear Springs (which had more outflow) to fill their reservoirs and run their ice machine. Even so, the small never-ending supply of water coming from the spring could sustain life in the harsh, arid desert.

From the spring, it’s only a short walk to the Fort Bowie ruins. At least the first camp. If you want, take the short uphill climb to the top of the hill to your right to see the rock walls of the first camp (Waypoint FIRST). After reading the sign, you get a good feeling how terrible the conditions were for the first soldiers at Fort Bowie!

Return down the hill and head for the Ranger station. Rest in the shade of the porch and visit the small museum and bookstore. I bought a $3.50 short history on Fort Bowie and found it very interesting and informative. See if you can find the small display about the military officer’s false teeth stolen by a packrat—then found 100 years later. Also of interest was the heliograph display in which troops used Arizona’s relentless sun as a way to communicate (with mirrors) from mountaintop to mountaintop very long distances (in some cases over 100 miles)! Just incredible.

After a quick rest, take the ½ mile trip around the fort ruins. Most buildings have a plaque with its name and describing its use. Well worth the trip. I especially enjoyed the fort commander’s ruins, the corrals and the large steam pump.

If you’re able to, take the Return trail back. This trail heads up to Overlook (Waypoint TOP) about 150 feet in elevation gain on a fairly steep trail which can get your heart pumping. Again, worth the climb. There are numerous interpretive signs. One was of the last and most comprehensive picture of Fort Bowie. Seeing the fort during its heyday and now from the same point was breathless. Another was of a fault running through the mountains. Sedimentary rock on one side, granite on the other. The trail then switchbacks down to Waypoint 12TRI. Take a right and walk the 1/2 mile back to the parking area.

Have fun and be safe!

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