Leaving Mt. Graham and the Pinaleno Mountains, we headed southwest to another of our favorite stops, the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains and the small town of Portal. A short, two hour drive took us back to I-10 then south on US 80 to Rusty’s RV Ranch, one of our favorite parks. With 1/4 acre sites, friendly owners, and great views of the Chiricahuas, it’s a comfortable place to stay. We used Rusty’s as a base to explore the mountains, visit birding hotspots, and stop at the Portal store for one of their green-chili cheeseburgers. Unlike the west side of the mountains, home to the Chiricahua National Monument and a number of campgrounds, the east side is remote, quiet, and unspoiled.
In many ways, Portal is the western version of Mayberry RFD. The store is the office for the small lodge, a grocery complete with wine and ice cream, and a small café. Outside is an open patio with bird feeders, for this is “birding” territory. Sitting on the patio, you can watch folks with binoculars and cameras walking up and down the small street, pointing up into the trees, searching for an Elegant Trogon or other rare bird. The main street ends just down the road at the post office, with it’s original solid wood door and metal roof. Just up the road is Cave Creek Canyon, known for it’s population of Trogons, and a short ride into the mountains takes you to Paradise…..the town, that is. With a population of 12 year-round residents, you wouldn’t think that this was once a vibrant mining town. We always pay a visit to Jackie’s Garden, a wonderful area of feeders next to the George Walker House. Jackie graciously invites people to sit on her porch with her two boxers and watch the amazing variety of birds that come to her garden, and we enjoyed visiting with her.
This is an area rich in history. Skeleton Canyon, a few miles down the road is the site of Geronimo’s final surrender. The history of the canyon is filled with ambushes and massacres, with names you’ll recognize if you watched the movie “Tombstone”. The Clanton family, Johnny Ringo, and Curley Bill Brochius. In fact, Johnny Ringo’s body was found high in the Chricahuas with a bullet in his temple, an apparent suicide.
One of the areas we were interested in visiting was Rucker Canyon, where in 1869 the Calvary fought Cochise and his band resulting in the most ever Congressional Medals of Honor for an Indian battle. In reading about the canyon, there were references to Camp Rucker, but there was no information on exactly where the camp was. Knowing it was near Rucker canyon, I used Google Earth to search the area, and discovered what looked like ruins in an area southeast of the canyon. Off we went, first to explore the canyon and then to find the camp. The canyon turned out to be a beautiful riparian area with picnic areas and a small campground. Afterwards, we drove up and down the roads leading to the canyon and saw…..nothing. Finally, I pulled up to an unmarked gate to once again check the map – and noticed one of those hiker pass-through gates in the fence. Curious, I went through the gate and walked about a 1/4 mile into the trees…and there it was! There were no signs prohibiting entry, so we continued on into the camp. Strangely, once we entered the old camp there were mown paths and interpretive signs, hard to understand since the Forest Service keeps the location secret.
The first interpretive sign explained the history of the camp, (click on the picture to enlarge) and how Lt John Rucker and a fellow calvary officer, Lt Austin Henely, drowned while trying to cross a rain-swollen creek. The outpost, originally named Camp Supply, was changed to Camp Rucker in his honor. (Lt Rucker’s father was a Major General at the time so poor Lt Henely’s name didn’t make the cut) The next sign had a great picture of the Indian scouts and Lt Rucker. The description of how the scout’s singing and chanting annoyed the American troops was interesting. From this point we could look across the camp and see the remains of the old commissary and the still-standing bakery.
Shortly after the camp closed in 1883, it became a ranch under a series of owners. The last owner, a woman from New York, used it as a retreat. The ranch house, which contains some of the adobe bricks from the commissary, is still standing and we were able to walk through the rooms. It’s pretty much a wreck now, but must have been impressive in it’s day. The property was turned over to the Forest Service by the owner in 1970.
It was truly interesting for us to walk these grounds where over 135 years ago soldiers were stationed. So remote, dangerous, and yet beautiful. We’re not sure why the Forest Service doesn’t publicize the location, perhaps because they don’t have the funding or manpower to maintain safety and security. But the fact that it’s pretty much unspoiled was worth the search and visit – and now you know how to find it!
Stay tuned, more to come from New Mexico!