Southern Arizona can do little to escape its cliché-ridden image as a landscape of cow skulls, tumbleweeds, dried-up riverbeds, and mother lodes—but it doesn’t need to. Abandoned mining towns, sleepy Western hamlets, rugged rock formations, and deep pine forests beckon visitors for birding, hiking, and horseback riding, as well as more tame adventures like wine-tasting, stargazing, and moseying down historic main streets. This diverse range of activities, along with the feel of stepping back in time, affords a rich and satisfying tour.
In 1540, 80 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Spanish conquistador Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led one of Spain’s largest expeditions from Mexico along the fertile San Pedro River valley, where the little towns of Benson and St. David are found today. They’d come north to seek the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, where Native American pueblos were rumored to have doors of polished turquoise and streets of solid gold. The wealth of the region, however, lay in its rich veins of copper and silver, not tapped until more than 300 years after the Spanish marched on in disappointment. Once word of this cache spread, these parts of the West quickly became much wilder: fortune seekers who rushed in came face-to-face with the Chiricahua Apaches, led by Cochise and Geronimo, while Indian warriors battled encroaching settlers and the U.S. Cavalry was sent to protect them.
The western side of the state wasn’t untouched by the search for mineral booty and the rage to plunder. Interest in going for the gold in California gave rise to the town of Yuma. The Colorado River had to be crossed to get to the West Coast, and Fort Yuma was established in part to protect the Anglo ferry business at a good fording point from Indian competitors. The Yuma Tribe lost that battle, but another group of Native Americans, the Tohono O’odham, fared better in this part of the state. Known for a long time as the Papago, or "bean eaters," they were deeded a large portion of their ancestral homeland by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and you’ll traverse their vast reservation if you travel to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Kitt Peak Observatory.