Silent stones

Stories of Apache warriors and a hike among tilted boulders are part of the allure of Council Rocks, near Tucson
Sam Negri

Haunting formations of weathered stone evoke Arizona's frontier history.

"If only the rocks could talk!" says Berle Kanseah, a descendent of the Chiricahua Apaches, as he looks at a hillside where manzanita bushes rise from the crevices of adobe-colored boulders. He traveled from New Mexico to meet with other Chiricahua Apaches who have been invited to this remote spot in the Dragoon Mountains. Historians wanted to help them reconnect to their ancestral homeland―a land many had only heard about in stories.

Council Rocks, about 90 miles southeast of Tucson near Tombstone, commemorates the day 130 years ago that the fierce Apache leader known as Cochise exchanged a vow of peace for the promise of a reservation. A trip here today is the perfect excuse for an outing that will get your light truck or SUV―or any high-clearance vehicle―a little dusty and give your legs a good stretch.

The striking, house-size boulders of Council Rocks mark the area where Cochise and General Oliver Otis Howard met on October 12, 1872, and agreed to cease hostilities. As part of the agreement, the Chiricahua Apaches were given rights to a vast reservation encompassing most of the southeastern corner of Arizona, including the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains near the Mexican border. But in 1876, two years after Cochise died, the U.S. government reneged on the deal, eliminated the reservation, and moved the Chiricahua Apaches some 100 miles north to San Carlos.

Today, a short, steep trail leads from the end of the road to the Council Rocks, where the boulders are pitched against each other to form shallow caves. In low, warm afternoon light the stones take on a rusty hue. Among them you'll find pictographs, faded drawings made with red dye. Some might be the work of Apaches; others were made by Mogollon Indians, who lived in the area about 1,000 years ago.

For Kanseah, the rocks transmit a powerful story. Though he and his relatives are not smokers, each of them lights a cigarette and sits quietly, a small ceremony to honor their ancestors.

Discover Cochise's country

WHERE: From I-10 about 50 miles east of Tucson, take State 80 south for 20 miles toward Tombstone. Turn left (east) on Middlemarch Rd. (the roads are dirt from this point on) and drive 10 miles toward the Dragoon Mountains. Turn left on Forest Rd. 687 (at the sign to West Stronghold); continue 6.8 miles and turn right on Forest Rd. 687K, which ends about 1/2 mile ahead at the Council Rocks trailhead.

A GOOD READ: A vivid description of Cochise's camp and his meeting with General Howard can be found in Making Peace with Cochise: The 1872 Journal of Captain Joseph Alton Sladen, edited by Edwin R. Sweeney (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1997; $25).

CONTACT: Coronado National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado/ or (520) 670-4552.