Roam the Sky Islands of Cochise County, Arizona
Traveler, writer, editor
Cochise Southern County
Start / End
Chiricahua National Monument, Coronado National Memorial
275 miles (443 km)
The Sky Island region of southeastern Arizona is a special place. Punctuated by intermittent mountains rising thousands of feet up out of the desert “sea,” each Sky Island is awash in unexpected biodiversity. It’s here that the five unique communities of Cochise County call home—each with a personality as independent and interesting as their surrounding geography. Spend a week exploring what each has to offer. Take in the sights from the mile-high Chiricahua National Monument, and tour limestone caverns beneath the ground at Kartchner Caverns. Go wine tasting in Willcox, and sip craft beer in Bisbee. We include it all, from outdoor activities to delicious treats to bring you the best of Cochise County.
Thanks to the diverse landscape of this part of the American Southwest, it is a great place to visit year-round. Escape midsummer heat by traveling to Cochise County’s higher elevations, or stay on the desert floor with birding and wine tasting in the winter. No matter when you visit, it is always a good idea to pack layers and extra water. Depending on your plans, you may also want to consider bringing a 4WD vehicle along for the ride, as many of Cochise County’s best adventures involve dirt roads. Last but not least, don’t forget your camera!
41 MINUTES – 42 MILES / 67.5 KM
On your first day, fly into Tucson (TUS). Picking up an on-site rental car is a breeze, and before you know it you’ll be on the road! Journey to the community of Benson, a small town with a lot to do. Start with Kartchner Caverns State Park, widely recognized as one of the world’s most visually stunning caverns. Their history is as fascinating as the Rotunda-Throne Room itself, the grand finale on your guided tour. Afterwards, re-adjust your eyes to the sunshine and go for a self-guided mural walk in downtown Benson. You’ll spot vivid artwork of wild horses, chugging trains, and so much more—there is even a huge rendition of Kartchner Caverns on one building!
Afterwards, you might be more than ready for a snack! Satisfy your craving at Wild Dogs, where you can find gourmet hot dogs of all kinds. (There are lots of other places to eat, too.) That night, get some rest for the week ahead at one of Benson’s many lodging options.
35 MINUTES – 37 MILES / 59.5 KM
Get started early on day two. You’ll be traveling all the way to one of the most loved features of the Sky Islands—Chiricahua National Monument! On the way there, stop at Amerind Museum, a living research center with a tremendous collection of artwork and jewelry from cultures all over the Americas. After you’ve browsed the exhibits, enjoy a picnic beneath the mesquite trees or at their newly opened pond area.
Then, journey onwards to Chiricahua National Monument. Described as a “Wonderland of Rocks,” this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon exploring. Drive the seven-mile scenic route or opt for a hike. Keep an eye out for wildlife that call this area home, from curious black bears to charismatic turkeys.
That afternoon, return to Willcox to enjoy sampling the region’s award-winning wines. Try the family-owned and operated Bodega Pierce, where their easy-going atmosphere pairs well with a sunset over the Chiricahuas in the distance. That evening, kick back at the Arizona Sunset Inn; a remodeled motel with a boutique vibe.
1 HOUR 15 MINUTES – 71.7 MILES / 115.3 KM
The following morning, continue southwards to the community of Douglas. This agricultural hub is rooted in cowboy culture, but today serves as a great jumping off point for outdoor adventure. Fill up on gas in town and carry on to San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, located thirty minutes to the east. This is one of those Cochise County destinations that you may have all to yourself! Enjoy the solitude as you meander through this wetland region looking for wildlife such as road runners and the elusive and endemic coatimundi. Depending on the time of year, the creek may be running beneath the cottonwoods at the end of the trail. You may also want to explore the historic John Slaughter Ranch nearby.
Later that afternoon, step back in time at the historic Gadsden Hotel. The elegant marble staircase and stained glass windows offer a beautiful contrast after spending all day outdoors. Enjoy a plate of sizzling fajitas at the restaurant downstairs before relaxing for the remainder of the day.
31 MINUTES – 27.4 MILES / 44 KM
On day four, climb into the hills of Bisbee, Arizona. Once a large copper mining town, today Bisbee is a colorful destination with a growing arts and culture district. You can spend your time as you like. Hike the heritage stairs, a series of pathways that connect Bisbee’s jigsaw network of homes and businesses, or opt for a tour at the historic Queen Mine. Old Bisbee Brewing Company is a great place to wile away an hour or more overlooking the historic Brewery Gulch area, and the Bisbee Table is a delicious spot for dinner. Once the sun goes down, we highly recommend taking a ghost tour with one of Bisbee’s most charismatic locals.
That evening, check into one of Bisbee’s many hotels and inns. Letson Loft Hotel is a terrific, non-haunted option for those who prefer to keep their ghost tour and sleeping arrangements separate!
30 MINUTES – 24.2 MILES / 39 KM
On your final day, choose your own experience based out of Sierra Vista. Just out of town, Ramsey Canyon Preserve and Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary offer exceptional bird watching. Or, you may choose to go mountain biking (pick up a bike and trail recommendation from Sun & Spokes in town). You may also be tempted to journey to Parker Canyon Lake, a high altitude oasis perfect for hot summer days. Fishing is a favorite pastime here, as well as swimming and paddling. (Just be sure not to try to go through the military base to get there, like this author did.) Sierra Vista is also within a short driving distance to Coronado National Memorial, located on the Mexican border and featuring sweeping views of the surrounding Sky Islands.
No matter which adventure you pick in Sierra Vista, take advantage of excellent eats before and after. Bobke’s for Lunch is a German cafe that serves delicious pastries (try the Nutella danish) and sandwiches, and Indochine cooks up spicy and savory dishes. You won’t go hungry on your last day in Cochise County! All too soon, travel back to Tucson in time to catch your flight home.