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U.S. Forest Service

Southwestern Region Viewing Area


The Cochise Stronghold Campground. The Cochise Stronghold Campground is nestled under a grove of evergreen oaks. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

The granite boulders in the Dragoon Mountains. The granite boulders in the Dragoon Mountains make great habitats for desert ferns. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Fairy sword ferns in the dry phase. These fairy sword ferns “dry phase” are growing with Schott’s century plant (Agave schottii). It is common to see desert ferns and succulent plants growing together. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Fairy sword ferns in the wet phase. This is the same species of fern as the photo above; the fronds have unrolled in the fern’s “wet phase”. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Spiny cliffbrake. Spiny cliffbrake is one of the most common xerophytic brake ferns. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Cochise Stronghold, A Desert Ferns Foray

Forest: Coronado National Forest

District: Douglas Ranger District

Description: Yes, ferns do grow in deserts! At least the xerophytic ferns that are often called “resurrection plants”. These ferns have fronds that curl up and appear dead during prolonged dry weather, but then expand under moist conditions. Visit the Southern Arizona Desert Plants website for a photo guide to desert ferns and their characteristics. Fairy sword (Cheilanthes lindheimeri) is one desert fern that grows abundantly among the granite boulders near the Cochise Stronghold Campground in southeastern Arizona. Spiny cliffbrake (Pellaea truncata) is also common. Try hiking along the Cochise Trail (#279) to see what other ferns you can find.

Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains is a good place to learn about southeastern Arizona’s desert plants. The campground itself rests under a canopy of evergreen oaks. The self-guided Stronghold Nature Trail introduces many of the area’s common plants. A history trail tells about the area’s colorful past when the Apache leader Cochise used these mountains for refuge from his enemies.

The Dragoon Mountains are a low range that barely rises above the surrounding desert floor. Nevertheless, the granite boulders are spectacular and well worth visiting for the scenery alone. This mountain range is remote from cities or even any large towns, so visitation is light. Late fall, winter, and early spring are the best times to visit. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees are common even in spring and fall. Cochise Stronghold Campground is closed in June, July, and August due to the often-extreme heat.

Safety First: Heat and low humidity are real hazards for people unfamiliar with desert climates. A person can loose up to 5 quarts of fluid a day and it is easy to become seriously dehydrated without realizing it, so drink plenty of fluids even if you do not feel very thirsty. Always carry extra water in your car. When going on a hike, even if a short one, take a day pack with water, snack foods, protective clothing, flashlight, first aid kit, compass, and map. To avoid sun injury, wear light loose clothing, use sunscreen on exposed areas, wear a hat, and have sunglasses.

Directions: From Tucson, take I-10 east through Benson to Exit 318 (Dragoon Road). Take Dragoon Road east to its junction with U.S. Highway 191. Proceed south on U.S. 191 to the community of Sunsites, Arizona. Look for Ironwood Road and a sign directing you to Cochise Stronghold Campground. Proceed east on Ironwood Road, which turns into Forest Road 84 at the forest boundary. The road ends at the campground. The driving distance from Tucson is about 90 miles.

Contact: Coronado National Forest, Douglas Ranger District, 1192 West Saddleview Road, Douglas, Arizona 85607. Phone: (520) 364-3468

Closest Town: Sunsites, Arizona.