Explore Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands

Larger-than-life hidden treasures and some of the world’s greatest destinations for biodiversity, Sky Islands—which, to be clear, are mountains—dot Southern Arizona’s landscape, erupting up up up from valley floors toward the Sonoran Desert sky. But what makes this type of mountain so special for the region, its environment, and explorers? Read on.

What Are Sky Islands?

Sky Islands are a classification of the mountain—an unofficial nickname given to 55 mountain ranges across Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico, and Northern Mexico that rise so high, so quickly, that multiple habitats can be found from base to peak.

Climbing Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved[

As you climb up Sky Islands, you may go from an arid, saguaro-studded desert to a brisk, pine-filled forest in as little as an hour’s drive (in the case of Mount Lemmon, in Tucson). This makes these habitats especially attractive for wildlife, birds, and memorable hiking and biking. Sky Islands are also ecologically separated from other mountain ranges by distance and lowlands of a different environment.

The terminology is better known locally than anywhere else even though the parameters for what qualifies as a Sky Island can be applied to mountain ranges around the world. Knowing the term and its definition is less important than knowing how best to have an adventure on them.

Hiking Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ways to experience the Sky Islands

Listen to the audio tour available on the Mount Lemmon Science Tour app produced by the University of Arizona College of Science as you climb up Mount Lemmon in Tucson.

Hike a portion of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trek that goes from Arizona’s border with Mexico—up, through, and over several Sky Islands—to the state’s border with Utah.

Go birding in Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista, a site popular for seeing the elusive elegant trogon and more than a dozen species of hummingbirds.

Get involved with the Sky Island Alliance which hosts events aimed at protecting the diversity of Southern Arizona’s Sky Islands.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities near Tucson

The Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountain ranges make up Tucson’s Sky Islands hugging the city’s northern and eastern edges. Perhaps one of the best ways to explore a Sky Island—and one that requires the least amount of physical exertion—is by listening to the Mt. Lemmon Science Tour app which times fun facts and interesting tidbits with the one-hour drive from the mountain’s base to its peak. The flora and fauna surrounding the drive become a lot more interesting and you’ll learn some history about the area, too.

Saguaro National Park East below the Rincons makes up the dramatically different environment separation that Sky Islands require. More than saguaros can be found here as you bike, hike, or drive through the enormous national park.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sky Island activities in Cochise County

The southeastern Arizona Sky Islands partly made up of the Mule, Chiricahua, and Huachuca mountains are crisscrossed with trails that beckon hikers and mountain bikers. Vertical monoliths challenge rock climbers.

And cool, damp canyons like Ramsey Canyon create some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Here, vintners grow grapes for award-winning wine alongside spicy chiltepin peppers and sweet pistachios. Jaguar, white-nosed coati, and javelina wander under forest canopies while elegant trogons and hummingbirds zip across blue skies. In the fall, butterflies abound.

Montezuma Pass © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor adventure

Montezuma Pass in the Huachucas just south of Sierra Vista marks the start of the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-mile hiking path that stretches from the Arizona/Mexico border to Utah. Dozens of other trails join the AZT for challenging hikes or woodsy walks and jaw-dropping views of Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico. Mountain bikers take to the trails for single-track rides; maps are available at Sierra Vista bike shops.

Head east to Cochise Stronghold near Willcox. The Stronghold is strewn with massive boulders amid a maze-like terrain. Mountain bikers, hikers, and rock climbers head to these rugged canyons and craggy hoodoos for classic climbs and outstanding trails.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go a little further east to Chiricahua National Monument where towering rhyolite pinnacles and balancing spires stand alongside the 17 miles of trails. (If you have time, make a side trip down Turkey Track Trail for a gander at Johnny Ringo’s grave, the Old West outlaw and gunfighter made famous by Hollywood writers.)

After hiking around Chiricahua National Monument, head east for 25 miles via a dirt road toward the Yosemite of Arizona: Cave Creek Canyon. Accessed through the town of Portal, the canyon is described as a birder’s paradise for five months of the year. And, the rest of the time, it’s just paradise. Spend some time communing with nature. When you’re ready to rest and eat, head to the Portal Cafe, Country Store & Lodge, or if you prefer to camp, the Stewart Campground or Sunny Flat Campground are the closest to the canyon.

Mount Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding and wildlife

In Douglas, San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge which shares its conservation efforts with compañeros across the border provides a year-round habitat for an amazing diversity of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and offers world-class bird and wildlife watching.

The Refuge is part of a migration superhighway through Cochise County following the northward-flowing San Pedro River. With near-tropical climates in the Sky Islands, Cochise County welcomes an incredible variety of birds that make season-long stops in the Huachucas and along the riparian area. The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve just minutes from downtown Sierra Vista is one of the country’s top birding spots.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic sites and small towns

In centuries past, the Sky Islands provided hidey holes for outlaws and Apaches, vantage points for the U.S. Army, and cool retreats for city folk seeking to beat the heat of the valley floor. Geronimo, General Pershing, Johnny Ringo, and the Earp brothers roamed the area leaving indelible legends in the wind. In later years, the Sky Islands starred in feature films alongside Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Nicolas Cage.

Wayne is known to have frequented the communities among the Sky Islands including Patagonia and Bisbee, a reimagined former mining town. Both towns’ charming main thoroughfares while small are dotted with local restaurants and bars for a nibble and libation and some decent local lore.

In addition to mining, southeastern Arizona is also known for ranching. Many of the mines are gone but the ranches remain run by the descendants of the original families.

Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The John Slaughter Ranch (about a 20-mile drive on the Geronimo Trail outside Douglas), no longer a working ranch, gives visitors a glimpse into the life John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff. He bought the property in 1884 and spent the remainder of his life developing it into a thriving southwestern cattle ranch despite the harassment from Geronimo and his band as they crossed into Mexico.

The lower loop of the Sky Islands cuddles Douglas, a border and former copper-mining town with a rich history. Home to the first international airport in the U.S., this community is anchored by the stately Gadsden Hotel built in 1907 for visiting mining company executives and fronted with a massive stained glass window—the only southwestern scene Tiffany ever created.

Legend says that the infamous Mexican bandit Pancho Villa rode his horse up the sweeping marble staircase in the early 1900s. Two decades later, a speakeasy opened in the basement and nine decades later the same speakeasy will open again. And yes, it’s said to be haunted.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: The Old West

To help you plan your family-friendly road trip through Arizona, I’ve put together this list of awesome road trip stops. Keep reading to learn about my favorite spots and campgrounds along the route.

With its vast landscapes and colorful topography, the American Southwest is one of the best regions in the country to take an old-fashioned road trip—in fact, that’s the only way to see most of it. Arizona, specifically, is home to the only Natural Wonder of the World in the U. S., numerous national parks, picturesque state parks, and 21 American Indian tribes. So, what better way to spend spring break this year than packing up the kids for four family-friendly road trips through Arizona?

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the possibilities for an Arizona road trip are endless, I’ve organized these family-friendly road trips into four paths. Each of these road trip routes includes a selection of my favorite stops. I’ve traveled along each of these paths—most more than once. There is truly something for every member of the family to be enjoyed in each of these road trips.

Earlier articles highlighted Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon, Sedona and the Verde Valley, and Phoenix and Tucson. Today is a short drive to our final destination in the state’s southeastern part.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring Arizona’s Old West

This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday. Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for you to enjoy.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Settlers were first attracted to Arizona’s deserts in the 1800s by the lure of mining and pioneers on the wagon trail soon followed as settlers sought a new life as cattle ranchers, treasure hunters and more. In more recent history, Arizona’s authentic Old West is the backdrop for many Western movies.

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Railroad heritage

Your Old West adventure begins in Benson. Amid picturesque river-valley views, agreeable weather, and the Home of Kartchner Caverns State Park, the City of Benson is ideally situated along Interstate-10 as the Gateway to Southeastern Arizona. Founded in 1880 prior to Arizona’s mining boom, Benson developed as a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad came into Benson and continued to serve the area until 1997 when the line was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.

Related Article: Your Cochise Adventure

Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City of Benson’s culture is ingrained with the Old West and its traditional Railroad heritage. The Benson Visitor Center—Train Depot, located at 249 East Fourth Street in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, is a beautiful replica railroad depot using many of the same architectural features as the original depot that was built over a century ago. Learn all about the city’s rich railroad heritage and the many area attractions.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Town Too Tough To Die

Tombstone, the site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, is justifiably the most famous of Arizona’s Old Western towns. Starring in dozens of films, Tombstone is very well preserved and visitor-friendly, and most of the attractions here are authentic. Daily reenactments of the shootout are staged at the O.K. Corral. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough To Die.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop in at the Bird Cage Theater, chock-full of Western artifacts and home to the longest-running poker game in Arizona history. The Crystal Palace Saloon (which has been around since 1879) offers an authentic saloon and dance hall experience plus a tasty lunch menu.

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone is also the home of Arizona’s oldest continuously published newspaper, the delightfully named Tombstone Epitaph with a small museum behind the Crystal Palace Saloon. Read the original 1881 reports of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and learn how the Epitaph’s editor, John Clum, captured the Apache warrior Geronimo.

Related Article: Arizona’s Coolest Small Towns Are Filled with Cowboys, Wine, and Mysticism

Boothill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finish your visit to Tombstone at Boothill Graveyard. Tombstone’s first city cemetery, Boothill was established in 1879 as the final resting place of law-abiding citizens as well as thieves, murderers, and rustlers alike.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Queen of the Copper Camps

From Tombstone drive south 25 minutes to the delightful and beautifully preserved mining boomtown of Bisbee. Temperatures are cooler in the scenic Mule Mountains where it even snows in the winter.

One of Bisbee’s most magnificent architectural achievements is the countless concrete stairs that cling to the steep canyon sides. You can find these stairs all over town. While you’re at it, explore the heritage and culture along Subway Street and enjoy some shopping as you take a self-guided tour.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bisbee Tour Company offers multiple golf cart tour options to enjoy the town from an entirely different perspective. If you’re interested in the Bisbee’s eerie past, an evening walking tour with Old Bisbee Ghost Tour will show you the town and introduce you to some ghostly members of society.

Queen Mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and the Bisbee Restoration Museum chronicle the city’s copper-mining past as the “Queen of the Copper Camps.” During almost a century of mining, 8 billion pounds of copper, 102 million ounces of silver, and 2.8 million ounces of gold—along with millions of pounds of zinc, lead, and manganese—were pulled out of the ground here.

Queen Mine, Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not claustrophobic, take the underground tour of the vast Queen Mine. Here you’ll learn how generations of miners bored tunnels, laid dynamite, blew open veins of ore, and trundled it back out.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First International Airport of the Americas

Next take in the ambiance of Douglas—home to the first international airport—as you enjoy the Border Air Museum and Art Car Museum. The museum includes photos, newspaper articles, original airplane photos, the official letter of President of United States Roosevelt declaring the airport “The First International Airport of the Americas,” a Trojan airplane that was built in Douglas, American Airlines memorabilia, and more.

Related Article: Most Beautiful Towns in the Southwest

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gadsden Hotel opened for business in November 1907. The hotel soon became a meeting place for cattlemen, ranchers, miners, and businessmen. This grand hotel was named after the historically significant Gadsden Purchase; a purchase of 30,000 square miles from Mexico made in 1853 for 10 million dollars, negotiated by James Gadsden who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. The land purchase was to ensure territorial rights for a practical southern railroad route to the pacific coast.

We can now only imagine how Arizona was before it was a state and at a time when Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa rode roughshod over the West.

Butterfield RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Places to stay along this route

With so much to explore, you may want to book a campground or RV park along the route. Here are some recommendations for places to rest your weary heads:

  • Quail Ridge RV Resort, Huachuca City
  • Tombstone Territories RV Resort, Huachuca City
  • Butterfield RV Resort and Observatory, Benson
  • Cochise Terrace RV Resort, Benson
  • Tombstone RV Park and Campground, Tombstone
Cochise Terrace RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

One of Arizona’s advantages is a nearly year-round panorama staged with excellent weather. Visitors can see Arizona by car pretty much any time of the year, so the most difficult thing about planning a family road trip is determining the best path to match everyone’s interests. Regardless of which itinerary is chosen, a family road trip through this fascinating state will take in some of our country’s most interesting history and impressive natural wonders.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Your Cochise Adventure

Roam Cochise

With the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Four Corners area, and many other geographical wonders in the northern part of the state, southeastern Arizona, steeped in both natural history and human history, is often overlooked. But it is not to be missed!

Benson Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This was the home of Cochise. This was the land of Geronimo. This was the land of copper mines, silver mines, gold mines, Army forts, Indian Wars, cowboys, cattle rustlers, gamblers, the Earp brothers and the Clantons and Doc Holiday. Southeastern Arizona was the quintessential Wild West. This place oozes with tales and legends and beauty. And it is all still here for you to enjoy.

Benson Train Depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your Cochise adventure begins in Benson. Amid picturesque river-valley views, agreeable weather, and the Home of Kartchner Caverns State Park, the City of Benson is ideally situated along Interstate-10 as the Gateway to Cochise County. Founded in 1880 prior to Arizona’s mining boom, Benson developed as a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route. Soon thereafter, the Southern Pacific Railroad came into Benson and continued to serve the area until 1997 when the line was purchased by Union Pacific Railroad.

Benson Train Depot and murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The City of Benson’s culture is ingrained with the Old West and its traditional Railroad heritage. The Benson Visitor Center—Train Depot, located at 249 East Fourth Street in the heart of Benson’s historic downtown, is a beautiful replica railroad depot using many of the same architectural features as the original depot that was built over a century ago. Learn all about the city’s rich railroad heritage and the many area attractions.

Related Article: Now is the Time to Explore Southern Arizona’s Gorgeous State Parks

Benson Murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head out from the Visitor’s Center to the Mural Walking Tour, a fun look at 42 hand-painted—showcasing everything from Buffalo Soldiers to Hopi kachinas and cattle drives to the Butterfield Overland Stage.

Benson Murals © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then you’ll head to Sierra Vista for a Bicycle Tour of the Cochise Vista Trail. Hop in the saddle—the bicycle saddle—and explore southeastern Arizona. Whether your bike has skinny tires or knobby ones or you ride astride a single-speed cruiser or a speedy racer, Sierra Vista is the place to start your bicycle adventure.

Winding road near Sierra Vista © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road cyclists looking for long, winding roads with low traffic can’t beat the stretches of asphalt in and around Sierra Vista. Whatever direction you ride, you’ll find a constantly changing landscape and expansive mountain views along the way.

Acorn woodpecker at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers can find miles of single-track trails in the Huachuca Mountains along multi-use paths or signed bike lanes. One of the most popular jumping-on points is along Ramsey Canyon Road at Brown Canyon Ranch. The Brown Canyon Trail gains about 1,900 feet in elevation and connects Brown Canyon Road making a nice loop ride; be sure to take the well-traveled jog to avoid the Miller Peak Wilderness Area. Popular with experienced riders, Brown Canyon gets a little gnarly with the elevation gain and rocky terrain but the reward is breathtaking views and smooth, flatter trails in open areas.

Hummingbird at Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sierra Vista, one of the top birdwatching places on earth, is nicknamed the Hummingbird Capital of the United States. Annually, 15 species of hummingbirds and more than 300 other bird species visit nearby canyons, forests, and riverbanks.

Related Article: Southeast Arizona Birding Hotspot: Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of Bisbee’s most magnificent architectural achievements is the countless concrete stairs that cling to the steep canyon sides. You can find these stairs all over town. While you’re at it, explore the heritage and culture along Subway Street and enjoy some shopping as you take a self-guided tour.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bisbee Tour Company offers multiple golf cart tour options to enjoy the town from an entirely different perspective. If you’re interested in Bisbee’s eerie past, an evening walking tour with Old Bisbee Ghost Tour will show you the town and introduce you to some ghostly members of society.

Queen Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour the Queen Mine, one of the most productive copper mines of the 20th century. Don the mining lanterns, hats, and slickers of the miners, ride the mine train deep into the mine and search for remaining veins of copper, gold, turquoise, silver, lead, and zinc.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next, you’ll take in the ambiance of Douglas—home to the first international airport—as you enjoy the Border Air Museum and Art Car Museum. The museum includes photos, newspaper articles, original airplane photos, the official letter of President of United States Roosevelt declaring the airport “The First International Airport of the Americas,” a Trojan airplane that was built in Douglas, American Airlines memorabilia, and more.

Tombstone Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Gadsden Hotel opened for business in November 1907. The hotel soon became a meeting place for cattlemen, ranchers, miners, and businessmen. This grand hotel was named after the historically significant Gadsden Purchase; a purchase of 30,000 square miles from Mexico made in 1853 for 10 million dollars, negotiated by James Gadsden who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. The land purchase was to ensure territorial rights for a practical southern railroad route to the pacific coast. We can now only imagine how Arizona was before it was a state and at a time when Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa rode roughshod over the West.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any tour of this area would not be the same or complete without including the legendary town of Tombstone. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and much of the original buildings are still intact. There is something for every member of the family in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough To Die.

Related Article: Mountain Island in a Desert Sea: Exploring Southern Arizona Sky Islands

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first glance, it might appear that gift, book, and curio shops are the main attractions but if you take the time to stroll down the boardwalks, you will find yourself drawn into the past. Besides the OK Corral and the reenactments that take place in the outdoor amphitheater, there are both public and private museums, antique stores, the original Tombstone Epitaph newspaper print shop, and Boot Hill.

Boothill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can pan for gold, horseback ride down trails once traveled by Doc and Wyatt, take a stagecoach ride, tour the silver mines, stay at historic bed and breakfasts or an RV park, and attend the infamous Bird Cage Theater where Tombstone’s haunting and colorful past will take you back to its heyday.

Butterfield RV Park in Benson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To truly appreciate all that Tombstone has to offer, park the car or RV and plan to spend at least a day taking a walk back into history.

Read Next: 5 Surprising Facts about Arizona you didn’t know (But Now You Do)

Worth Pondering…

To my mind, these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937