Exploring the diverse landscapes within the United States is something that many of us enjoy. But, have you heard about this gem of a National Park in southeast Arizona? The Coronado National Memorial is 4,750 acres of woodland, nature, wildlife, hiking, and more panoramic views than you can imagine. This National Park memorializes explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s Spanish expedition as the first expedition by Europeans into the U.S. And as one of the lesser-known and less visited National Parks within the United States, why not come and explore this magnificent beauty.
The history of the Coronado National Memorial has similarities to current day politics. In 1939, this area was supposed to be an International Memorial to celebrate one of the most significant land expeditions in the world and to serve as a way to advance the relationship between the United States and Mexico. The hope was that Mexico would designate an adjoining area as a memorial to the explorations of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. Unfortunately, the monument on the Mexico side never materialized. Thus, the Coronado National Memorial was designated as a national memorial in 1952.
The Coronado National Memorial can be found at the southern end of the Huachuca (wha-CHOO-ka) Mountains in the southeast section of Arizona, slightly south of Sierra Vista. You can reach the park by taking Arizona Highway 92 south for 16 miles from Sierra Vista or 20 miles west of Bisbee. Turn onto S. Coronado Memorial Dr. The road turns into East Montezuma Canyon Road as you enter the park. One of the unexpected things for this National Park is that the entry is free. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no camping overnight available at this park. All updated hours and information can be found here.
As most visitor centers go, this one does a great job of introducing you to the area and why this is part of the national park system. Just remember you are in the mountains, bring water and stay hydrated. The visitors center is already at 5,230 feet above sea level. Inside the center, there is a fabulous section going through the Coronado Expedition and even provides an area for kids to try on armor and gear that the Spanish might have worn during the expedition. And of course, there is a portion of the visitors center where you can purchase gifts and get your National Park passport stamp. Have any of you tried Cactus candy or Prickly Pear Licorice?
Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado organized the first expedition north to the United States from Mexico. He commanded over 1,400 men along with 5,500 animals (cattle, sheep, and horses) and went on a two-year 5,500-mile round-trip search for the City of Gold (Cibola). Although he wasn’t successful in finding Cibola, he did come back with the knowledge gathered from Zuni, Hopi, Apache, and Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grand River. This was the first time anything was written about the Native Americans and how they were able to live and survive in the high deserts, rugged mountains, and endless grasslands. And the return was the influx of Spanish influence and culture on the Southwestern portion of the United States and Northern Mexico.
From the visitors center, you can take the East Montezuma Canyon Road up the mountain to a parking lot. The views driving up are lovely. The scenic drive up only takes 15 minutes, but be forewarned that the road is narrow, so take your time. Vehicles longer than 24 feet are prohibited. The narrow road is paved for a mile past the visitors center then is unpaved with steep grades and tight switchbacks to the Montezuma Pass Overlook.
There are some areas to pull over to allow other vehicles to pass, but it is tight, especially if there are two large pickup trucks. A couple of people had to get out of one of the trucks to make sure that they and we had enough room to get past each other. I don’t even want to know how close we were to the edge.
The views driving up to the Montezuma Canyon Road are impressive. But the scenic views at the Montezuma Pass Overlook beat the pictures on the drive up. At 6,575 feet, you can see large portions of the San Pedro River Valley and even portions of the Mexico border. Once you park your vehicle, there are multiple trails you can choose to hike within the park, and there are restroom facilities nearby.
The Coronado Peak Trail is a 0.8-mile round trip hike from the Montezuma Pass Overlook. What seems like a short hike (30 minutes) be prepared for the elevation increase. In a matter of a half-mile, you will rapidly go up in 250 feet in elevation. Along the trail, you will find interactive signs educating you about the Coronado Expedition, the native people they traded with, the wildlife, and plant life in the area. Also, look out for signs of animals.
On my hike, we saw fresh deer tracks on the path. But, you might encounter other wildlife along the trails such as the gray fox, white-tailed deer, coyote, and even the more elusive bobcat, black bear, and mountain lion. I was so curious about the burnt trees I saw that were still there from the 2011 Monument Fire. I was also fascinated by the Alligator Juniper tree. It is so cool to see a tree that has an alligator skin-like bark.
At the summit of Coronado Peak (6,864 feet), you will be treated to 360 degrees of panoramic views of the San Pedro Valley to the east, San Rafael Valley to the west, and the U.S. and Mexico border to the south. This spot is the perfect place to appreciate “sky islands,” which are mountains set above arid valleys. When hiking to the peak, remember to wear sunscreen and a hat. The only shade available is a small awning with a bench. There is a little surprise by the awning for visitors who reach the peak. There is a military rations box that has a reflection journal inside where you can record your thoughts on the views laid before you.
San Pedro Valley
Other Places to Visit in the Area
When coming to the southeast Arizona area, there are several places to visit and see. The closest cities to the Coronado National Memorial are Sierra Vista, Bisbee, and Tombstone. This area has so much history for you to explore, so why don’t you come and stay awhile. Learn about the Buffalo Soldiers that were in operation in Arizona after the Civil War. Take a tour of a mine or a ghost tour in Bisbee. See a cowboy gun-fight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
If you want to stay in the area, look at the offerings at Booking.com for these cities.
If you are looking to expand your bucket list completion of U.S. National Parks, don’t forget to add the Coronado National Memorial to it. This is a great place to appreciate the Arizona landscape and all of its plants and wildlife. And if you are a hiker, this is the perfect place to hike. Although I would avoid the afternoons in the summer. Way too hot! For a lesser-known and less-frequented national park, Coronado National Memorial is a perfect place for you to enjoy nature and social distance. If you do go, go ahead and share your photos in the comments. I would love to see what you capture.
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