Skeleton Canyon — Echoes of Bugle, War Cry and Gunfire

Marker on Highway 80 south of Rodeo near Apache,just north of Skeleton Canyon Road
Marker on Highway 80 south of Rodeo near Apache,just north of Skeleton Canyon Road 

Located in New Mexico’s remote boot heel region, Skeleton Canyon begins in the Peloncillo Mountains on the western edge of the Animas Valley and heads northwest by west to a point where about seven rugged miles later, it meets its south fork in nearby Arizona. Tradition has it that the canyon, called Cañon Bonita by the Mexicans, takes it name from the ambush of a Mexican pack train by Curly Bill Brocius’ gang of cutthroats in 1882. According to the story, fifteen Mexicans were killed and their bodies left to the scavengers. For years thereafter, their bones provided grisly souvenirs.

Long before Skeleton Canyon became a smuggler’s trail, it had been one of several favored trails of the Apaches in their migrations to and from Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. The Chiracahua Apaches and their related bands used it frequently as it connected the San Simon Valley (on the eastern edge of the Chiracahua Mountains) to the Animas Valley east of the Peloncillo Mountains. Both valleys teemed with game, springs provided the necessary water, and the canyon was an excellent defensive retreat should danger present itself.

Many of the stories surrounding Old Man Clanton and his sons Ike and Billy center about the canyon. Along with Guadalupe Canyon to the south, Skeleton Canyon was a caravan route connecting the outpost settlements of Sonora, Mexico to both Tubac and Tucson, Arizona. The Clantons maintained a residence of sorts near Animas, New Mexico and in addition to their other nefarious activities, they and their outlaw allies preyed upon the caravans. They also drove stolen cattle and horses through the canyon and then south to Sonora where they sold the livestock for gold or silver. On the return trip they rustled Mexican livestock and sold it in Tucson or Tombstone. Old Man Clanton was killed by Mexicans in an ambush that was set in revenge for what he had done in his many forays into Sonora. Legends of the old man’s buried gold continue to lure the adventurous into the region.

A narrow spot in the canyon
A narrow spot in the canyon 

The Apaches soon learned that when pursued by Army troops, Skeleton Canyon provided an excellent escape route. Once into the canyon from the west, the trail passes through The Devil’s Kitchen, and the canyon narrows and opens repeatedly throughout its course. It is intersected first by Pony Canyon and then by Pine Canyon, each running south to Dutchman Canyon. The bottom of Skeleton Canyon runs from 4700+ feet in the west to 4900+ feet in the east, and irregular peaks rising abruptly to more than 6000 feet surround it. This is ideal ambush territory, perfectly suited to the Apache’s tactics of ambush and hit-and-run warfare. Following a breakout from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in 1885, soldiers of Troop D, 4th Cavalry were waylaid in the canyon by Chihuahua’s band of renegades. Three troopers were killed, their wagons and supplies looted, and forty mules and horses were taken by the Apaches.

Over the years the Apaches who were moving south to camp for the season in Mexico or fleeing the reservation system or on a raid for either loot or revenge found temporary refuge in Skeleton Canyon and the nearby area. In a cruel paradox of history the canyon that had been a source of refuge and protection became the site of their final surrender. On September 3, 1886 a band of Chiracahua Apaches led by Nachite and Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles. The renegade band consisted of nineteen men and twenty-eight women and children. They were taken to Fort Bowie, and on the morning of September 8, 1886 were entrained for transportation east and a life away from their native southwest. The Indian Wars of the Southwest ended in Skeleton Canyon.

A hike into the canyon will help one to understand how small bands of Indians could effectively elude large elements of the United States Army that were in pursuit. From the surrounding peaks sentries could see pursuers for miles, long before the pursuers were even in the canyon much less aware of the presence of the Indians. The Indians could either set an ambush to delay pursuit or they could choose to break up into smaller groups and simply disappear into the adjacent canyons to regroup later at a prearranged location.

The topography of the region equalized the odds: the Army could not bring a force to bear that was appreciably larger than the force they were trying to defeat. The situation was perfect for the defender; it was simply a nightmare for the attacker.

The Devil’s Kitchen
The Devil's Kitchen 

Only when General George Crook realized that it took an Apache to catch one and employed the famous Apache Scouts to lead small mule-riding units of Army troops did the situation change. Led by the Scouts, the Army’s smaller mobile forces found that they could follow the renegades into their refuges above or below the international boundary. When Geronimo and other Apache leaders learned they were no longer safe even in the wilderness of Mexico’s Sierra Madres, they realized their days of defiance were over.

Skeleton Canyon no longer echoes with the sounds of bugle, war cry and gunfire. It is quiet now, and only the occasional camper, hiker and horseback rider disturb its rugged and strangely beautiful surroundings. The only connection to its past is an infrequent mounted United States Border Patrol unit riding their horses through the canyon looking for signs of smuggling or the passage of illegal immigrants. The old forest ranger station was abandoned in the 1920s, and its windmill now stands like a silent sentry marking only the passage of an infrequent visitor. Rain brings the water rushing through the canyon undercutting the earth banks in the wider openings and smashing into the rocks in the narrower spots, its sound echoing off the surrounding hills. At night the sky is alive with stars, and the solitude is interrupted only by the cacophonies of wailing coyotes or perhaps the sound of a hunting puma.

Should you decide to visit Skeleton Canyon a few suggestions are in order. A pair of good hiking boots is a necessity, and clothing should be chosen with the old Desert Rat’s axiom in mind: "Everythin’ in the desert is tryin’ to bite, sting or scratch yuh, and sometimes all at once!" A broad-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt are recommended, and while you may look good in shorts you may not feel that way after a day in the canyon. Sunblock lotion is a good idea as the sun in our clear desert air can be a real cooker. And of course water, water, water. Take a gallon or more per person because speaking from experience, you never know when you’re going to need it.

This is a long one-day trip from my base in Mesilla, and the trip is more rewarding if made into a two or three-day camping expedition. Take I-10 west to NM 146 and turn left (south) to Hachita. At Hachita turn right (west) on NM 9 and proceed through the Playas Valley to Animas. At the stop sign in Animas turn left on NM 338 and then shortly turn right again to continue west on NM 9. About 12-13 miles west you will go through Antelope Pass in the Peloncillo Mountains and see the Chiracahua Mountains in front of you. NM 9 ends at Rt. 80. Turn left (south) and proceed to Rodeo, about 8 miles. The Geronimo Surrenders Marker is about 12 miles south of Rodeo (this is about 175 miles from Mesilla), and just south of the marker is the Skeleton Canyon road at Apache, Arizona. Take a left and follow the road. A sign cautions that the road is not maintained and if wet from recent rain can be impassable. This is 4WD country. As the road turns to your right follow it past two ranches and continue until you are at a third ranch and the road goes into the creek bed (usually dry). You should see a Skeleton Canyon sign.

Open the gate and proceed (making sure to close the gate behind you!) and follow the primitive road to the surrender site (it is clearly marked by a Forest Service sign). The road to the left is the one you want. Find a place in the canyon to park your vehicle (off the road of course), and begin your adventure.